England and Italy will meet in a highly-anticipated quarterfinal battle on Sunday to determine the last semifinal qualifier in Euro 2012. England surprised many by taking seven of a possible nine points in group play to wins its group, while Italy impressed as well with five points, including a draw against Spain, to take second in Group C.
Both squads have plenty of stars that will have a large bearing on the way things play out, but in big matches it is often the case that unheralded players make the biggest impact. Each side has several supporting players that are extremely important to their success, and whichever team's role players are better will likely come out on top.
Here are three overlooked players that will have a huge say in Sunday's match and will ultimately decide who is victorious.
During England's first two matches of the tournament, midfielder Theo Walcott was a major offensive contributor. That was especially true in Three Lions' 3-2 victory over Sweden as Walcott had a goal and an assist in the dramatic win.
Striker Wayne Rooney returned from a two-game suspension in time to play against Ukraine, however, and all of the focus shifted to him. Rooney had some trouble finishing, but he did manage to score the lone goal in England's triumph.
The talk will continue to be primarily about Rooney since he is one of the best offensive players in the world, but that will also lead to increased attention from Italy. With the Italians sure to key in on Rooney, somebody else may have to step up for the Brits. Walcott is as good of a choice as any since he proved against Sweden that he can come up in big moments. If the match is tied or there is a one-goal differential late, look for Walcott to come on and make some threatening runs or perhaps even score or set up a goal.
Antonio Di Natale
Young Italian striker Mario Balotelli may get the bulk of the intention for Azzurri, but veteran forward Antonio Di Natale has actually been the more effective offensive player for Italy during Euro 2012. Di Natale scored as a reserve for Italy against Spain in the squad's opening match and in the Italians' pivotal triumph over Ireland, he had seven shots. Di Natale isn't as controversial or flashy as Balotelli so he tends to fly under the radar, but he will have a major role against England.
It remains to be seen whether Di Natale will come off the bench or start, but either way he will be counted on to be an offensive spark plug. The Italians have played a conservative brand of soccer during the tournament, while England has been more aggressive.
My guess is that Italy will try to slow the pace and make it a low-scoring affair, in which case Di Natale becomes very important. It may take only one goal to win this match and Di Natale could be the one to score it.
Defender Ashley Cole has been a fixture on England's national team for quite some time now, but defensive players are rarely given the credit they deserve. England's back line has been a bit shaky during the tournament as it allowed two goals against Sweden, surrendered a ton of shots against France and was constantly threatened by a so-so Ukrainian attack. The numbers say that England has only surrendered three goals in three matches this far, but things could have gone much worse.
One player in particular that has to step up and ensure that there aren't any lapses on Sunday is Cole. He has had some nervous moments in Euro 2012, but he is generally a solid defender that manager Roy Hodgson can count on.
Italy's defense and goaltending have been so consistent that allowing even a single goal could be damaging for England. Because of that, Cole has to be flawless or at least as close to flawless as humanly possible.
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