Tonight England face up to the four time World Champions and one time European Champions Italy. However, despite the illustrious history, the Azzurri appear to be heading towards a long period of undoubted mediocrity, something England fans are certainly familiar with. Both sides face up to the prospect of playing joint-tournament favourites Germany in the last four although will know just reaching the semi-final will be an accomplishment they can be proud of.
Italians could breathe a sigh of relief as they beat an Irish side they had been unable to defeat in their last three meetings confirming their spot in the quarter finals finishing second in Group C behind current holders Spain.
England were able to finish top of their group with two wins and a draw most notably; a first competitive victory over Sweden after a 3-2 thriller.
The Italian sides 2-0 win against Ireland was in fact their first victory of the calendar year having lost three out their last five games including a 3-0 defeat to Russia in a Friendly. Roy Hodgson’s England sides victory over co-hosts Ukraine represented his fourth win as England manager in under two months in charge and if form is to play a part in things England can most certainly go into the game with a sense of confidence seldom felt by England sides in knockout rounds in the past.
However, with form aside how do these two giants of international football compare as the main aspects of the two squads are weighed up.
Gianluigi Buffon can boast a long career that could still go on for a few years yet, this year he won his third Serie A winners medal with club side Juventus and in the Group Stages still looked a keeper more than capable of performing on this stage for years to come.
Buffon has not been a keeper shrouded by errors although it was a recent mistake for Juventus that did present an uncharacteristic error that certainly reminded all he is not the keeper he was during his early years at Juventus.
Joe Hart is going to have to get used to hearing all the compliments imaginable and it looks like he does not mind it. This young keeper shows a confidence that fans have called for in an England keeper for years and it would be hard to imagine Hart making the sort of mistake we had grown accustom to seeing from England keeper’s gone by.
Hart has an undoubted lack of experience when compared to his Italian counterpart and he will be making only his fourth international tournament appearance when the keeper’s take the field tonight. Nerves can be expected although if the 25-year old can shrug off the ‘glitz and glamour’ of the occasion he will certainly be a typically formidable figure in between the sticks against the Azzurri.
With the prospect of penalties, fans can certainly be sure that two top quality goalkeepers will be present to help add to the drama.
Italian football has long been known as the advocate of defensive unity and organisation with an average 48 goals being conceded by Italian teams in this years Serie A season as opposed to the average 54 in the Premier League and 53 in the Spanish Liga BBVA.
Italian Coach Cesare Prandelli had been forced to experiment with his backline in the early stages of the group stage with defensive midfielder Daniele De Rossi being deployed in centre back. Defensively the side have looked strong conceding just twice in three games with only Spain conceding less.
However, they did go up against the Spaniard’s in which coach Vicente Del Bosque decided to experiment with a tactic that involved playing no recognised striker. Following the sides inability to keep a clean sheet against Croatia Prandelli did overt to the more traditional four man backline and the side were able to weather an Irish storm as they manoeuvred their way into the knock-out stages.
Italy are set to be without strong centre half Giorgio Chiellini and with the likes of Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Andy Carroll looking set to feature throughout the game a strong figurehead in the backline is most certainly needed.
England are able to call upon their full strength backline for fourth time of the tournament and consistency at the back is proving a vital part of Hodgson’s England side. John Terry put in a strong performance in the final group game against Ukraine and has the highest tackling success rate in the backline with 85.71% of challenges won.
England conceded two very cheap goals from set pieces against Sweden and will know that they cannot afford to give any goals away to an Italian side capable to shutting up shop for good. The decision to play with a deep defensive line has been met with heavy criticism although it is a necessity that if given up on could be fatal.
John Terry is a world class defender although if in a situation in which he must chase the ball he may as well not be on the pitch. Andre Villas-Boas’ decision to play a high defensive line resulted in a number of goals being conceded by the London side and played a large part in the Portuguese manager;s dismissal from the club. Hodgson knows he must try and get the most out of Terry and if he gives opposition sides the chance to catch Terry out then their is a large hole in England’s backline that is open to being exploited.
Glen Johnson has continued to show that defensively he is not the strongest and Hodgson will certainly hope Gary Neville can at least teach him a few ‘tricks of the trade’ to take into this make or break game. Whilst England’s long time first choice left full back Ashley Cole has continued his good club form and was unlucky to have not scored his first England goal against Ukraine.
The Azzuri’s midfield can boast high amounts of talent most notably one of only three survivors from the World Cup 2006, Andrea Pirlo. Those who had somehow forgotten Pirlo’s talents were most certainly reminded when the 33-year old scored an impressive free kick against Croatia in the Group Stage. The influential midfielder has looked strong and his passing has at times been unbelievable and is most most certainly a key man for the side going into any game.
Daniele De Rossi is a top quality holding midfielder and the AS Roma captain will hope he isn’t forced to drop back into defence as cover and he can continue in his preferred position.
Before the tournament Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard spoke of his dissatisfaction when looking back upon his international career, Hodgson handed the midfielder the captain’s armband and Gerrard has responded in an emphatic fashion. The captain has showcased top class form being considered many people’s top player during the group stages. Gerrard assisted three goals including one to Liverpool team-mate Andy Carroll and his set piece delivery has been bordering perfection.
James Milner has been subject to much criticism although he has started all three group games for Hodgson’s men. Theo Walcott’s escapades against Sweden certainly didn’t help to strengthen Milner’s case for a starting spot in the side. However, it is Milner’s defensive attributes that are what make him key to the England side. The Manchester City midfielder has been impressive tracking back to support Johnson at right back and has a 100% tackle success rate in doing so.
Scott Parker will once again be tasked with the job he does best: closing down and breaking up opposition play. It would be expected that Parker’s main task will be to limit Pirlo’s influence on proceedings; an unenviable task although one that the industrious midfielder will most certainly relish.
The Azzurri’s frontline certainly isn’t as formidable a force as Italian sides gone by although is can certainly boast a high amount of raw talent.
34-year old Antonio Di Natale has struck 29 times this past season for club side Udinese and showed his quality in front of goal putting his nation up against Spain with his first touch of the tournament. Antonio Cassano missed a large chunk of the 2011-12 season after Heart Surgery. Although he was still named in the squad for this tournament and has so far looked lively on the ball scoring the opener against Ireland in the final group game.
The elusive Mario Balotelli managed to garner much attention for comments regarding racism at this years tournament and gained more attention for some poor performances in front of goal in the first two games of the group. Most notably of which was his decision to allow Spain’s Sergio Ramos the time to dispossess him in the box when he found himself in a favourable one-on-one situation with keeper Iker Casillas.
Balotelli was dropped for the final group game although he managed to finally find the net with a tremendous goal that secured the victory sending the side through to the knock-out rounds although reports of a rift between the 21-year old and Prandelli may result in ‘Super Mario’ once again starting on the bench.
Something England have had an issue with in recent tournaments is goals scoring just three goals in the 2010 World Cup, however the side managed to find the net five times in the Group Stages with three of the four striker’s taken to the tournament having already scored.
Even Wayne Rooney managed to find the net for England, scoring his first international competitive goal since Euro 2004 and with a goal now finally under his belt it is hoped the forward will be able to find the form everybody has hoped he could repeat for England and not just for his club side Manchester United.
Whilst some complain about Hodgon’s squad selections for this tournament, the days in which England would actually have a decision to make regarding a forward or even consider not playing Rooney have finally come and Hodgson certainly has a tough decision to make over Danny Welbeck and Andy Carroll.
Welbeck’s all round performance has not been the strongest although it was a sensational winning goal against Sweden that confirmed his third successive start for England in the tournament. However, against Ukraine Welbeck was unable to have any impact on the game and with the prospect of a weakened Italian backline and the astute delivery of Gerrard to consider; Welbeck may find himself out of the starting side as Andy Carroll is brought in to add a much more physical nature to England’s frontline.
With all things considered, does this England side that went into this tournament with the lowest levels of expectancy and pressure in years now have a good chance of reaching the semi-final?
Of course they do, this Italian side is not a remarkably strong side by any means and will find it hard to break through an English team that have been at times been impressive in defence. Despite having averaged 51% possession to England’s 23% Italy have only been able to win one game against an Irish side that had already found themselves knocked out of the tournament, although they are yet to fall behind at any point during the tournament so far.
England may have poor possession statistics but they can boast the highest chance conversion rate of the group stages with 21.7% having also scored five of all ten shots on target in their three games. Fans may be disappointed to see they have not been able to hold onto the ball but with the teams ability to take their chances they are showing they could beat anybody, Chelsea proved this with their Champions League campaign.
Spain cannot boast the strongest defence and their style of play allows them to escape that fact a majority of the time as they keep possession and effectively ‘defend with the ball’ ensuring that the fact they hold onto the ball for 80% of the match allows them to easily walk away the victors.
The English however know that keeping hold of possession is not their strongest point although they do possess an impressive backline and goalkeeper and if they are able to remain organised and stop the opposition from scoring whilst taking their chances when they do come then they’ll know that they are able to be the team walking away with the win. It may not offer fans with the most exciting of spectacles but if England were to pick up the trophy in Kiev then it would certainly not matter in the slightest as a country rejoices in success.
Hodgson has already managed to succeed where many have fallen by winning the group allowing England to avoid some of a tournaments strongest sides. Whilst Italy don’t represent the most desirable of opponents it does give England a good chance of reaching their first semi-final of a tournament since 1996 in which they coincidentally went on to face the Germans. Could this be the omen England fans will hope comes true?