Frank Malley: Andrea Pirlo and co prove too hot to handle for England
AS SO often in the past, England found the air in a quarter-final of a major championship just too heady to handle.
True, their 4-2 defeat by Italy in a penalty shoot-out after a goalless two hours was tight and insufferably tense.
And you would have to possess a heart of stone not to sympathise with Ashley Young and Ashley Cole who stepped up to take spot-kicks, only to see one hit the woodwork and the other saved. Heartbreak again.
But, let’s be honest, not even the most one-eyed English supporter could make a case for England deserving to progress to the semi-finals of Euro 2012.
Justice was done. By any measure England were well beaten. Buried in terms of technique. Lacking in terms of quality. Out-thought, out-manoeuvred and outplayed yet again when they faced a top nation in the knockout stages.
The gulf in class was embarrassing at times, yet Italy are no world-beaters. They just happen to have a world-class orchestrator in Andrea Pirlo and a striker of unpredictability and imagination in Mario Balotelli. Despite squandering a string of chances, it proved just enough to take Italy into a semi-final against Germany on Thursday.
There were just too many areas where England fell short. There was an obvious vulnerability in the back four. Italy had clearly targeted John Terry as a weak link and they attempted to play long balls over his shoulder to let Balotelli exploit his lack of pace.
Three times in the first half Balotelli manoeuvred himself into positions to hurt England but failed to ripple the back of goalkeeper Joe Hart’s net.
Factor in Daniele de Rossi’s swerving long-range thunderbolt which crashed back off Hart’s post, plus a couple of useful Cassano strikes, and Italy edged the first half. England barely had a kick after that.
Why? Mostly because England failed to shackle 33-year-old Pirlo. Yes, Wayne Rooney picked him up on occasions but Pirlo is too smart a footballer to be given the time and space he enjoyed at times.He was the reason why Italy dominated possession. He was the man who weaved the magic in midfield, dictating the pace of attacks, threading cultured passes.
The disappointment for England was that they showed more adventure from the start than they had in their previous three matches. There was a more urgent tempo and Glen Johnson might have put them in the lead if the ball had not stuck between his feet before a dug-out shot straight at Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.
England were playing well then. You could sense the spirit. You could feel the confidence growing. Much had been made of their togetherness under Roy Hodgson. They dig in. They up the work rate. And that’s what kept them in the game. But England have also ridden their luck in this tournament, no more so than just after half-time when De Rossi contrived to miss a sitter from four yards.
England’s problem was a familiar one – hard won possession too easily squandered. And where was the spark? Rooney battled and battled to regain his peak form after so few competitive minutes owing to his two-match suspension. But it just never came.
Cue Hodgson’s Plan B, Andy Carroll and Theo Walcott thrown on in place of Danny Welbeck and James Milner. Nothing much changed. Yes, there was a great block by Johnson when Nocerino looked to have struck a winner in the last minute of normal time but England were running on empty and were fortunate even to make it as far as penalties.
Of course there will be obvious disappointment for England that they have not progressed past the quarter-final milestone which has been their lot in major championships since Terry Venables took them to the semi-finals of Euro 96. But, when the shoot-out against Italy is forgotten, Euro 2012 should not be seen as a disappointment, but as a bridgehead, built by Hodgson, a manager only a few weeks into the job, who has affected a transformation in the England psyche.
Hodgson trusted the players and they repaid him in the group stages with performances of solidity and resolve. Yes, they need more imagination and creativity to trouble the world’s best nations. Most of all they need to address their Achilles heel, squandering possession.
But Hodgson has brought unity and togetherness. It is at least something on which they can build for the World Cup.
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