James Lawton: Roy Hodgson and England's Euro 2012 efforts ended by familiar curse
In the end it had become excruciating for the manager Roy Hodgson, who for some weeks now has been attempting to do what so many deemed impossible.
Excruciating but filled with the possibility of undreamed glory. For a few moments it looked as though he had done it but he hadn't. England, with something close to ultimate cruelty, had lost still another shoot-out.
Hodgson had been trying to make a new team from the broken culture of England's international football and in this European Championship he had succeeded in some ways better than he could have dreamed.
Here though, as the minutes ticked away, one of Europe's master players, Andrea Pirlo, worked relentlessly to destroy his work.
With Pirlo at their hub, the Italians poured on England's goal. They hit posts several times, they brought extremes of defiance from goalkeeper Joe Hart and deep into extra-time Antonio Nocerino headed into the roof the England net. But he had been lurking fractionally offside.
Pirlo probed, the Italians queued up outside the England goal area. Mario Balotelli, the great brooding enigma of football, failed to connect with another fleeting chance.
And then we had the recurring curse of England, the spectre that before last night had consumed them five times in major tournaments over the last 22 years. For Hodgson, so early in his watch, it must have been almost too much. It proved so as the Italians, buoyed by a penalty of outrageous nerve from Pirlo, made it to the semi-final against Germany.
Hodgson had given Pirlo a warm "abbraccio" and kisses on both cheeks before the game and the Italian responded with considerable charm. It was a civilised little cameo, but it was unlikely to have lulled Hodgson too far from the worry that he was briefly in the arms of a superior assassin.
Pirlo versus Steven Gerrard was plainly a potentially huge pivotal factor. So was the clarity of Balotelli's pre-match vision of what might be possible. He sat on his own for a while, receiving who knew quite what communication and inspiration through the big headphones tuned to an unannounced station – or planet.
England could only pray that the messages, from wherever they came, were not too inspiring.
They weren't. Balotelli might have scored three times after England fought their way back from an Italian opening that was impressive to the point of intimidation. Their passes rippled with an easy touch, with Pirlo at the heart of it, before Daniele De Rossi sent a beautifully flighted 25-yard left-foot shot against Hart's post. That would have been an opening statement of quite bloodcurdling authority from a team who in nine major quarter-finals lost just two, and those in penalty shoot-outs.
In one of his more overwhelming modes, Balotelli could well have put the game beyond England before half-time but as we have been seeing for some time now, Hodgson in a remarkably short time has created a team who, while not exactly purring with tactical coherence, have some certainly developed an instinct to fight their way out of trouble.
Such determination almost brought an early and quite withering counter-punch when Glen Johnson required Gianluigi Buffon to make a one-handed reflex save. Johnson also put in a cross which Wayne Rooney headed over. England were playing for a while with a freedom which, especially given the degree of Italy's early authority, was both refreshing and menacing. They were not, they seemed to be saying, about to defer to one of the great football nations re-exerting themselves in their favourite terrain of a major tournament.
The thrust of Hodgson's message seems to be that English international football has nothing to lose but it chains. Unfortunately, the Italy coach, Cesare Prandelli, was able to ignore such basics and proceed with some of the more subtle aspects of the game.
After England's breakout was contained before half-time – though not before Rooney and his Manchester United team-mate Danny Welbeck interchanged promisingly before the latter shot over the bar – it was clear enough that this had mostly do with the business of building pressure with the control of your passing and the imagination of your running.
Early in the second half this could easily have brought a brisk end to the England campaign when first Balotelli then Riccardo Montolivo missed at point-blank range. Pirlo, inevitably, was at the heart of England's progressive unease.
We have, of course, also learned something else about Hodgson. It is that he is not an England manager who is ever likely to sit on his hands. With Italian flowing menacingly, Theo Walcott and Andy Carroll replaced James Milner and Welbeck. They were dynamic elements against Sweden in this stadium and here was their chance to implant themselves at the heart of the new regime. First though, England had to stem a tide which seemed always to have Pirlo serenely sailing along the surface, winning a ball here, dispatching another one there, always seeking out a weak English link.
He was everything Hodgson feared he might be, but then it was a team of considerable resolve that he was seeking to undermine.
As the game moved into extra-time, there was still plenty of evidence of England's capacity to absorb almost infinite punishment. Rooney, still some way from full match fitness, produced some moments of danger. His instinct is still a superior one, of course, and in the last moments of ordinary time his attempted bicycle kick flew over the Italian bar. A sharper level of fitness might have produced a more spectacular result but, even so, Italian blood had reason to run cold.
The Azzurri had run the match for 90 minutes but they couldn't find a way to win, even with Pirlo operating the strings. And there was, it just happened, an additional complication. It was that England seemed increasingly reluctant to lose.
But then some things you cannot change in a few weeks – especially when it involves taking England into the doomsday country of a penalty shoot-out.