The manager changes, the players come and go but the dull ache of predictability that accompanies yet another gut-wrenching defeat on penalties, stays the same. If there was any consolation last night then it was that at least England deserved to lose this game.
They had been outplayed for all but about 20 minutes of the 120 that were played last night but as midnight passed in Ukraine and this Euro 2012 quarter-final dragged on into another day, England hung on in there. They blocked and resisted, they fought and held out, chiefly thanks to excellent performances from a back four led by John Terry and Joleon Lescott, who were the stand-out players.
Then came that test of nerve from 12 yards or, as it is known in relation to the England team, the near certain ritual of elimination. This was the sixth time in seven shoot-outs that England have been beaten on penalties in a major tournament. That one victory, against Spain in the quarter-finals at Euro 96, remains the only fragment of evidence that English players can prevail in this unique pressure.
The best penalty of all was scored by the best player on the pitch, Andrea Pirlo. The 33 year-old, taking Italy’s third penalty with his team trailing after Riccardo Montolivo’s miss, deceived Joe Hart into diving early to the right while he dinked the ball gently down the centre of the goal. “The cool, calculated way Pirlo chipped the goalkeeper,” Roy Hodgson said, “that’s something you either have or you don’t”.
England do not have it. And there is plenty more besides they do not have. Chiefly a player like Pirlo, one capable of dropping back to take possession off the toes of his centre-halves and dictate the play with the insouciance of an NFL quarterback tossing the ball around for his old high school buddies. In the assurance of his penalty Pirlo reasserted the confidence he had given to his team-mates all game. They never looked like losing after that.
Mario Balotelli scored Italy’s first penalty – in spite of Hart’s sledging – and Alessandro Diamanti, that refugee from West Ham’s 2010-11 relegation season scored the last that sent England out the competition. In between Ashley Young and Ashley Cole both failed from the penalty spot. Young blasted his against the bar but it was Cole, so calm in Munich in the Champions League final last month, who was the only player of nine to have his saved.
Hart did not save a penalty and he was certainly the goalkeeper who was given the most practice during the previous 120 minutes. Of Italy’s 35 attempts on goal, 20 had been on target. By way of comparison, England had nine attempts on goal (four on target). They completed 320 passes to Italy’s 815 and this was not one of those games when the statistics did not tell an accurate story. They told the story exactly as it was.
Aside from a period of 20 minutes at the start of the first half when England came alive with the kind of attacking brio that surprised everyone, and should really have scored a goal, there was a steady decline from the mid-point of the first half when Pirlo took charge. Hodgson blamed the retreat on “the powerhouse of his team” succumbing to injury: Scott Parker’s Achilles problems and an attack of the cramps for Steven Gerrard.
Of greater concern was the ineffectiveness of Rooney whose brief sabbatical for the first two games has robbed him of the sharpness and touch that he had at the end of the season for Manchester United. He looked tired at first and soon exhausted. He does not seem to be match fit and some serious questions need asking of England’s preparations in that regard.
As the England team flight lifts out of Krakow airport this afternoon, Hodgson’s players will recall a 20 minute period when they finally looked like they had arrived at the tournament. Aside from the moment in the third minute that Daniele De Rossi rattled Hart’s post they were expansive.
Often needing just three passes to extricate themselves from their own half, the Italians stood off them. Gianluigi Buffon had to stretch out a hand to stop Glen Johnson’s shot from close range. The move that had created the chance, taking in flowing passes from Johnson, Rooney, James Milner and back to Johnson was impressive.
Johnson was playing like a different kind of full-back to the one we know. He hit a sweet curling ball from the right channel to meet the run of Rooney two minutes later and only the close attention of Ignazio Abate prevented the striker from steering the ball where he wanted it to go. But then Italy recalibrated, reshuffled, changed up and the consequences for England were devastating.
Instead of standing off England, they stepped up with the three of De Rossi, Montolivo and Claudio Marchiso applying constant pressure to Gerrard and Parker. Pirlo dropped deep to get the ball off his centre-halves and at times it seemed as if he was operating on an area of the field reserved for his exclusive use.
Italy had the chances to win the game and their concern when they face Germany in the semi-final in Warsaw on Sunday will be that they do not have the firepower, especially in the erratic Balotelli to hurt the Germans. On 25 minutes, with Terry hopelessly deep, he played on Balotelli who did not have the presence of mind to run free of England and score. A better striker would have done so.
It was Pirlo’s first-time flick to Balotelli that the striker got an awkward connection on 32 minutes in, although it was decent enough to force a save from Hart. Antonio Cassano had a shot saved on 38 minutes and then, before half-time, he headed down yet another Pirlo ball into the path of Balotelli.
From inside the six-yard area, and facing his own goal, Lescott managed to get a foot under the ball and guide it over the bar with Balotelli beside him and needing just a touch to score. If the Italian press had a concern after the game it was that Balotelli could not afford to spurn so many chances against Germany.
Before then, England had created their best opportunity of the first half since their period of dominance had ended. Danny Welbeck, running at an exposed Italy defence, had exchanged passes with Rooney who set the ball nicely for his Manchester United team-mate to hit a shot. Welbeck chose the inside of his boot rather than striking through it and missed the target.
At half-time Balotelli and Cassano departed deep in conversation, a conversation that Cass ano appeared to find more stressful than his team-mate. At that point Italy were so much on top it seemed just a matter of time until their goal came.
De Rossi, offside, dragged a shot wide from just yards out with three minutes of the second half played and the linesman’s flag down. Terry got to a ball into Balotelli just in time to head it out the goalmouth. Hart made saves from De Rossi’s long range shot and then blocked Balotelli’s follow-up with his legs. Montolivo could not direct his shot on target. The siege was on.
There was a brave substitution from Hodgson on the hour, bringing off the more dependable off his two wingers – Milner – for Theo Walcott. Andy Carroll came on for Welbeck to little effect. Italy had the best chance in 90 minutes to win the game but Johnson got a commendable block on the substitute Antonio Nocerino’s shot when Marchisio played him in.
Tradition dictates that when exhaustion sets in for extra-time, both teams abandon their hopes of winning by the orthodox route and resign themselves to penalties. Italy did not, they kept coming at England because they knew that they deserved to win this game. Diamanti struck a post with a shot that deceived Hart.
Gerrard and Rooney were both successful from the penalty spot, and England briefly had the upper-hand when Montolivo missed, but it was thrown away as quickly as their first half advantage. Hodgson’s next game is on 15 August in Berne. The opposition is Italy. But already they, Pirlo in particular, have taught the new manager a lesson in international football he will not forget in a hurry.