England vs. Italy: 5 Players to Watch in Euro 2012 Quarterfinal
England and Italy will clash Sunday in the final quarterfinal of Euro 2012, marking the first time the two European soccer giants have met in a competitive fixture since a 1997 World Cup qualifying match.
The Three Lions advanced to the quarterfinals by winning two consecutive games to top Group D. Some questioned whether England would get out of the group stages, considering this team didn't even qualify for Euro 2008 and have been in shambles for the better part of the last four years.
Wins over Sweden and Ukraine propelled England atop the group, above a French side that the Three Lions tied 1-1 to kickoff the tournament.
The Azzurri finished second in the group stages behind Spain, the reigning champions of this event and one of the favorites to win it again in 2012. Ties with Spain and Croatia held up after the Italians knocked off Ireland 2-0 to finish the group matches.
In 22 previous matches between England and Italy, the Italians hold a 9-7-6 advantage—including just one loss in the previous nine meetings.
England will look to reverse that trend Sunday in Kiev.
Here are five players to watch in the the final quarterfinal of Euro 2012:
Wayne Rooney, England
Rooney, one of the true world-class players in this tournament, returned from a two-match ban to score his 29th international goal for England against Ukraine.
The goal, which Rooney simply had to tap in with his head at the back post after a low cross snuck past the goalkeeper and two defensemen, turned out to be the game-winner in a clinching fixture for the Three Lions.
Expect England to once again put Rooney in a central attacking position behind a lone striker. He's mastered that role with Manchester United, and he looked dangerous from there in his one game at Euro 2012.
Andrea Pirlo, Italy
He's also been the Azzurri's engine during that time, and the 33-year-old hasn't showed much in terms of slowing down thus far at Euro 2012.
If the Italians are to put up goals against a typically defensive-minded English squad, Pirlo's magic is likely to be at the heart of it. He's also one of the tournament's very best from set pieces.
Steven Gerrard, England
As Pirlo makes the Italian squad go, so does Gerrard for England.
The skipper of both Liverpool FC and the Three Lions, Gerrard is a central midfielder who does a little bit of everything for both sides. At 32 years old, however, Gerrard is ready to taste some success for his country, as England has been frustratingly inconsistent during his reign with the captain's patch.
If given a dangerous set piece or an inch of space near the 18-yard box, Gerrard will make the Italians pay.
Mario Balotelli, Italy
There may be no player as unpredictable as Balotelli, a powerful, talented striker but one with a reputation for mental miscues and blowups on the pitch.
It should be interesting to see how the English defenders, including defenders from Manchester City playing for the Three Lions, contain the explosive Balotelli. There's a chance Italian coach Cesare Prandelli will keep Balotelli on the sidelines for that very reason Sunday.
However, Balotelli has the kind of skill up front that the Italians will need to unlock England's defense. Look no further than his flicked-on goal during the group stages for any evidence of that fact.
Ashley Young, England
If you want pace in your football, Young has it in bunches. He'll likely be one of the very fastest players on the pitch come Sunday.
But once a free-willing youngster with no flow to his game, Young has matured in recent years and is now a better distributor of the ball from his typical wing position.
In the first half against Ukraine, Young blazed up the far sidelines, received a well-placed high through-ball, cut back inside and delivered a perfect cross to the head of Rooney. Young's Manchester United teammate botched the easy header, but it was the kind of dangerous delivery we've begun to see from Young out wide.
The Three Lions might need his speed to break down an Italian defense that loves to pack it in and makes things difficult for players like Young and Rooney.
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