ANDREA Pirlo is 33 years of age. This time last year he was released by AC Milan. His career as a top, top footballer over then? Not a bit of it. He was snapped up by Juventus, who he promptly led to their first post Calciopoli Scudetto and now he's the name on everyone's lips as Euro 2012 reaches its crescendo.
His performance against England last weekend was a thing of beauty. He controlled the game from first minute to last – given his age and given the fact that the game lasted 120 minutes that's saying something. His cheeky little dink on Joe Hart in penalties capped a magnificent performance.
His reading of the game, his instinct to get into the right positions to recieve the ball and his ability to pick the killer pass left England in the ha'penny place. England boss Roy Hodgson will watch this game back and realise where it all went wrong – in their handling of the great man.
In fact they didn't handle him at all. They stood off him, they let him have the space he prospers in, they let him glide around the pitch on his terms and at his pace. Ireland for all their faults didn't even do that – Glen Whelan and Ke i th Andrews, at least, made the Italian midfield work for their crust.
Steven Gerrard was being spoken of as one of the players of the tournament before Sunday night and, in fairness to him, yes he was the dominant performer in Group D. That doesn't disguise the fact that against Italy he was anonymous. Pirlo on his own hit more passes than England's entire midfield. England were as unimpressive against Italy as Ireland were. Forget about the 0-0 final score – Italy should have had two, three or maybe even four goals by the end of extra-time – they were as outplayed as badly as the Republic were and largely as a result of the promptings of Pirlo, who they failed to curb.
It's a mistake Germany are unlikley to make on Thursday night. Unlike England they have an effective midfield. In Bastian Schweinsteiger they've got the right man for the job. Schweinsteiger has the football brain, the brawn and the stamina to live with and eclipse Pirlo. That's not to say that Schweinsteiger is a better footballers than Pirlo – not that he's a bad one – just that he has the attributes required to burn off a 33 year old footballer who played 120 minutes of football just four days beforehand. In some of the earlier rounds Pirlo's influence faded in the second half of games – that it didn't happen on Sunday is an indictment of the easily time of it he got from Gerrard and to a lesser extent Scott Parker.
Germany have another two days rest compared to Italy and were even able to rest three of their top players – Lukas Podolski, Thomas Müller and Mario Gomez (all three could come back in, but don't be surpised if Macos Reus retains his palce at Müller's expense however) – against Greece. In short Italy have it all to do. They do have the benefit of a long running hoodoo over the Germans (who have never beaten them at an international tournament), but on this occasion it's the Germans who'll be enjoying la dolce vita.