Watching England in a knock-out game is a truly painful experience. We’ve never beaten a major footballing nation on foreign soil and we usually lose to the first good team we come up against at the finals, often on penalties. So the stage was set for our quarter-final exit against Italy. Dare we hope for something different? Dare we dream of victory? Dare we open ourselves up to the possibility of winning only to increase the painful, crushing nature of defeat? Of course we do, because we’re England fans.
England versus Italy
England were unchanged from the game against Ukraine. Italy went with a similar side to that which faced Ireland, Giorgio Chiellini missed out through injury so Leonardo Bonucci came into the team, Thiago Motta had declared himself fit but wasn’t risked so Riccardo Montolivo came in and finally and perhaps most importantly, Antonio Di Natale was left out in favour of Mario Balotelli.
England created chances and started well. Not before Daniele De Rossi hit the post with a ridiculous swerving effort hit from miles outside the area that bent away from Hart beating him all ends up but fortunately striking the post. England’s chance came from Glen Johnson, who played well on the night, getting forward on the counter and linking up with James Milner before getting on the end of his cross, sadly his shot didn’t quite have enough on it and Gianluigi Buffon extended an arm to claw it into the safety of his arms. The ball got caught awkwardly under Johnson’s feet and he couldn’t get the required power on the shot while also having to scoop it over the legs of the defender. Still, England had posed a clear threat on the counter.
The game continued in much the same way, Italy having more of the ball but England still having chances. Wayne Rooney headed over from an excellent Johnson cross and Italy were almost ahead but for a saving block tackle from John Terry, after the back line were caught flat and Andrea Pirlo released Mario Balotelli with a ball over the top.
Riccardo Montolivo conjured an exquisite disguised pass which he clipped round the corner and over an again stationary English defence into the run of Balotelli but his vollyed shot was easy for Hart to deal with. Then England’s best chance of the game, fast on the counter-attack Rooney linked excellently with Danny Welback, with an inventive back-heeled pass opening up space for Welback to pick his spot, much to my dismay he placed it beautifully with the side of his right foot over the bar as Buffon could only stand and watch, agony.
England looked tired, chasing the game for much of the first half and gradually dropping deeper, Rooney in particular didn’t quite seem to be fully fit, often struggling to catch his breath and looking very red in the face. Which might explain the fact that as the game had gone on he had done less and less to stick close to Pirlo, much to Joe Hart’s anguish who at one point could be heard shouting repeatedly at him to pick up Italy’s creative maestro.
England were looking tired and hadn’t really got out of the dressing room for the first five minutes of the second half, which prompted a change. Andy Carroll and Theo Walcott were brought on in place of James Milner and Danny Welback. Milner was unlucky, he hadn’t played brilliantly, but he had certainly offered far more than Ashley Young who was virtually anonymous. Welbeck had done well to win headers from long balls from Hart, but not once had Rooney got on the end of one of his flick ons.
With the introduction of Carroll England continued the direct approach. Joe Hart almost never played out from the back, opting to kick the ball long every time.
The contrast in styles is obvious. It goes to show exactly why the England players were becoming more and more tired as we frequently surrendered possession with Hart booting it long. This isn’t a criticism of Hart directly, more of the set up of the England team. Still, England’s most completed pass of the match was Hart to Carroll, which highlights perfectly how bad England passed the ball in open play.
I can’t remember much of extra-time, except for the fact that it seemed to last forever. I think time slowed down, I felt crushed by the gravity of the game, as England now dead on their feet clung on for dear life, gradually dropping deeper as they had been for the entire game. Alessandro Diamanti had come on and hit the post with a curling effort that was meant as a cross but caught Joe Hart flat footed in England’s goal.
Jordan Henderson had come on and not done anything wrong, taking over Scott Parker’s role of midfield chaser after his legs he finally vanished. Then the other Italian sub, Antonio Nocerino found the net with a well taken header only to be denied by the offside flag. Both Italy’s subs had far more impact than England’s and more was to come.
And so it was that yet again England’s fate would rest on penalty kicks. We had lost to West Germany. We had beaten Spain, we had lost to Germany, then to Argentina, then to Portugal and then again to Portugal, the weight of history was not in our favour. Balotelli beat Hart, after Hart had done everything he could think of to put him off. Gerrard beat Buffon. Montolivo dragged his shot wide and suddenly there was hope, could we steal the game? Rooney stepped up and scored with an excellent spot kick.
Then Pirlo… he had controlled the game, “he’s going to go down the middle, just stand up Hart and you’ll save this” … *chip* … “I called it.” It was coolness and calmness personified, then Ashley Young stepped up and as to serve as the complete antithesis to Pirlo smashed his kick against the bar. Antonio Nocerino stepped up and slid his effort home. Then it was Ashley Cole’s turn. “He’s only got one penalty, it’ll be to the keeper’s left and he’ll save it” it was and he did. So Alessandro Diamanti had a kick to send Italy through, with perhaps a penalty worse than Cole’s he slotted it to the keeper’s right with no real power and not threatening the corner of the goal, it was definitely savable, only for Hart to dive completely the wrong way again. Dreams over, hope gone and in truth the better team had won.
Highlight of the game: It has to be Pirlo’s penalty. Shades of Antonin Panenka, it has also been done notably by Francesco Totti. Leicester City fans will know what it feels like when it goes wrong, thanks to Yann Kermorgant.