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Euro 2012: Italy's strength will be tough challenge for England

Played three, won one, four goals, nine bookings. So far, so stereotypical for Italy, England's quarter-final opponents. Add another corruption scandal back home and it looks the same old Azzurri.

Cesare Prandelli's team are not, however, cast from the traditional mould. Modern interpretations of the laws – and the all-seeing eye of television – have rendered extinct brutal cloggers such as the mis-named Claudio Gentile and Romeo Benetti. Time-wasting, play-acting and penalty-area grappling are less prevalent. Just as significantly, Prandelli has created a culture of positivity around a team which in the past has often been too fearful of defeat to chase victory.

The old instincts are not banished – the chiselled features and sometimes rugged play of Giorgio Chiellini and Daniele De Rossi are testament to that. But any team which fields Andrea Pirlo, Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli and gives its full-backs licence to attack is one worth watching. Michel Platini, the Uefa president who is a former Juventus player, has certainly been impressed. He went so far as to state: "Prandelli has made them play. It is beautiful."

That was not as obvious when Italy struggled to kill off the Republic of Ireland on Monday as it was against Spain the week before, but there were moments of quality and adventure, notably Balotelli's volleyed goal.

Like England, Italy are surprising themselves and their public. The Azzurri beat Spain in August but they went into this tournament with successive defeats by Uruguay, the United States and Russia, in which they failed to score a goal. Their preparation was further disrupted by an earthquake which forced the cancellation of a planned friendly against Luxembourg in Parma, and the ongoing match-fixing investigation. That even prompted the exclusion of the first-choice left-back, Domenico Criscito, after his room at the team's HQ was searched by police.

Italy have the experience to handle this. They won the 2006 World Cup against a backdrop of domestic corruption and four of that squad are in the current side: Pirlo, De Rossi, Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Barzagli. All are expected to face England; Barzagli is as important as the other three given Chiellini's absence through injury.

Italy played a back three and wing-backs against Spain but they are likely to play four at the back against England. Sitting in front of them will be Pirlo, the conductor, whose deep-lying position poses a problem for Roy Hodgson.

The England manager will be reluctant to ask Wayne Rooney to sit on Pirlo, as that will restrict him. Neither, however, will he want Steven Gerrard to push on to Pirlo, as that will leave Scott Parker outnumbered. It is a bit late to switch to 4-3-3, so England will need their wide midfielders to tuck in. They may also benefit from pressing higher up the pitch, as Ireland did successfully until they grew tired.

Italy's main problem is scoring goals. Three of their four goals have been from set-plays – two corners and a direct free-kick. Neither Balotelli or Cassano have ever been prolific; Antonio Di Natale, though his movement is still superb, is now 34; and the back-up strikers, Fabio Borini and Sebastian Giovinco, are yet to score at international level. Even this youthful England squad has three players who have scored more than a dozen international goals (Rooney, Gerrard and Jermain Defoe). Italy have none.

This is something of a trip into the unknown, for England have not played Italy for a decade and the teams have met surprisingly rarely in major tournaments. Disregarding the third-place play-off at the 1990 World Cup, the only meaningful meeting was in the group stage of the 1980 European Championship. A late goal by Marco Tardelli, who now assists Giovanni Trapattoni with Ireland, earned victory but neither side went through. This time the winner will take a place in the last four, which is likely to make for a very tight match.

The match-up inevitably begs the question: does Fabio Capello now regret his decision to cut his ties with England? While the Italians respect Hodgson, who is well known in Serie A after coaching Internazionale and Udinese, they are doubtless relieved not to be facing their compatriot. Not that England appear to be missing him.

Blue heaven: The three key men

Antonio Cassano

At 29, with 12 seasons in Serie A and La Liga behind him, the Milan striker seems to have added maturity to ability. Maybe fatherhood and heart surgery provided perspective. Ignored by Marcello Lippi, he looks to be enjoying the lighter touch of Cesare Prandelli.

Mario Balotelli

Unlikely to play the full 90 minutes, but he is capable of winning or losing the tie. Will probably face three Manchester City team-mates. Whether Joe Hart can read his penalties is a question England hope does not need answering.

Andrea Pirlo

Deep-lying playmaker with an eye for a pass who has scored one and made two of Italy's four goals at Euro 2012. The 33-year-old veteran of the 2006 World Cup triumph has been rejuvenated by a switch to Juventus after a decade at Milan. Dangerous from set-plays.

Belfast Telegraph