Italy vs. England: Scoring the Key Battles in Euro 2012 Quarterfinal
"England loses on penalties again" is the likely oversized headline that will dominate newspaper racks in cities all over the United Kingdom tomorrow morning. In fact, it will probably be something a bit more clever, like "Euro penalized again" or "Hart-Break for England."
In truth, Italy dominated this game for most of the 120 minutes of action.
Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi reigned in the middle of the park all night long. Meanwhile, Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli were on the end of—but couldn't finish off—a bevy of goal-scoring chances.
The English head home, and should be satisfied with the performance of an injury-riddled, hastily-assembled squad.
The Italians move on to face a formidable and favored foe in Germany in the second semifinal on Thursday.
The tactical battles were ultimately rendered moot by the penalty shootout, but let's take a look back anyway on what was a riveting, albeit goalless, international contest in Kiev.
Mario Balotelli vs. John Terry & Joleon Lescott
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Slight advantage to Terry and Lescott—well done, chaps.
Mario Balotelli played a fine game for the Azzurri. He was very active in the forward partnership with Antonio Cassano and confidently stroked the first penalty in the shootout despite some gamesmanship from his Man City teammate, the English keeper Joe Hart.
Having said that, for the most part, Super Mario was held in check by Terry and Lescott. Rare were the occasions—like in the 24th minute—when Pirlo was able to release Balotelli into the English penalty area.
Even on that play, Terry recovered in time to disrupt his chip attempt. In fact, most of Balotelli's 10 shots (half of which were on target) were taken from considerable distance.
Both Terry and Lescott played excellent positional defense against Balotelli. The Italian was challenged by one or both of the central defenders on just about every aerial encounter and afforded only inches of space when he found himself in threatening forward positions.
Gerrard vs. De Rossi & Pirlo
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Blue wins, check and mate.
This was no contest, partly because the English game plan ceded the midfield to Italy and partly because Steven Gerrard had perhaps his worst performance of the tournament.
By dropping so deep into their own defensive third, the English allowed Pirlo and De Rossi acres of space to control the ball and tempo of the game. Pirlo was hardly challenged on the ball, easily swinging and directing Italy's offense across the pitch and looking for an elusive opening.
Only when the Italians approached the edges of Joe Hart's penalty area did the white shirts close in, but they would just as soon end their pursuit once a backwards pass was made. The Three Lions weren't up for any sort of battle for territory in the middle of the park.
Gerrard's offensive impact was decidedly limited given the scant amount of possession his team was able to muster. Even so, when he strode forward, Liverpool and England's captain was too hasty in his attempt to play the long ball. His normal array of deadly crosses flew errantly into the hands of Buffon, over the heads of all but the last Italian defender or beyond the touchline.
He swung a few free kicks into the Italian area late in the second half, but his overall impact was minimal.
Prandelli vs. Hodgson
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Cesare over Roy.
Roy Hodgson came to the fight with one arm tied behind his back.
Not only did he take the job just one month before the start of the tournament, he had to deal with injuries that forced Frank Lampard, Gary Cahill and Gareth Barry off the final roster—not to mention, that two-game suspension of the team's best player.
Without those key members of the squad, and lacking a truly deep pool to pull from, Hodgson was left to fill his roster with six players from Liverpool. That is, a squad that finished eighth in the Premier League.
Hodgson deployed a very rigid 4-4-2 throughout the group stages and the quarterfinal was no different. Evidence of England's desire to defend from deep and find goals on the counter attack was reflected in their inability to draw a single offside call from an opponent entering the match.
Against the underwhelming opposition of the group stages, this tactical ploy worked. However, allowing Italy to control this match was too pessimistic a project from the start.
Prandelli, on the other hand, has boldly alternated between formations, lineups and personnel in Italy's four games thus far.
Against England, he reverted to his preferred formation, a 4-3-1-2 with Riccardo Montolivo picking up his first start and playing in the pocket behind the strikers.
While it was Montolivo's penalty miss that put the Italians behind in the shootout, he was the right inclusion considering his comfort handling the ball.
Hodgson's decision to bring in Andy Carroll was a bright move. Carroll was much better than Danny Welbeck at holding up the ball for Rooney to bring the team forward in greater numbers.
Prandelli countered with Christian Maggio, Antonio Nocerino and Alessandro Diamanti, with Diamanti the brightest of the bunch. The former West Ham midfielder struck the post and put a hard shot on Joe Hart before calming slotting home the winning penalty.