Friday 19 January 2018

England's shoot-out jinx strikes once more

England 0 Italy 0 (Italy win 4-2 on penalties)

Henry Winter In Kiev

The curse continues. England suffered their fifth shoot-out defeat out of six last night as Italy progressed to a Euro 2012 semi-final against Germany.

To rub salt in the wound, England had even held the advantage at 2-1 on penalties but then Ashley Young struck the bar after Andrea Pirlo chipped an impudent finish straight down the middle. Antonio Nocerino made no mistake and Gianluigi Buffon saved Ashley Cole's tame effort, leaving former West Ham star Alessandro Diamanti to seal his side's advance.

Italy had played the better football for most of the two hours, particularly when the ball was at the elegant feet of Pirlo.

Only John Terry's blocking, Joe Hart's goalkeeping and the post saved England.

The Germans will have hardly have been perturbed by events here, particularly as they will have had an extra two days to recover and Italy had that draining additional half-hour.

Hodgson and Andrea Pirlo had embraced before kick-off, showing their mutual respect from their Inter Milan days, and the England coach really needed his players to get to grips with the deep-lying Italian playmaker.

Within a minute Rooney was closing Pirlo down yet he found his man, moving the ball on, keeping the pressure building. Rooney endured a sluggish first half, failing to tame Pirlo, who was soon inviting the ball to travel on a journey all over England's realm.

Italy are so much more than Pirlo. When Riccardo Montelivo crossed from the right, England expected Daniele De Rossi to control the ball and find a team-mate. The ball was moving too quickly, and he was surely too far out.

De Rossi let the ball come across his body and then caught it perfectly, sending his shot swerving away from the diving Joe Hart but striking the post and bouncing clear.

Any predictions of a tight, cagey affair dissolved amid a flurry of attacks.

Glen Johnson so nearly scored, having played an important part in the build-up. Dribbling in from the right, Johnson found Young, who laid the ball back to James Milner. Johnson ran on, collecting Milner's cross.

As Leonardo Bonucci dived in, Johnson scooped his shot goalwards but too close to Gianluigi Buffon. Italy's captain, whose face had been a picture of patriotic fervour during his national anthem, rescued his country with a good save.

England were looking far more settled, far more measured in possession.

Scott Parker started strongly in midfield, even forsaking his defensive station to charge through into the box before Italy managed to man the barricades. Parker, an old-school player who has succumbed to the modern trend for colourful boots, nicked the ball off Mario Balotelli, sending Rooney away down the left before Bonucci cleared.

The fans were absorbed, occasionally breaking into a Mexican wave, although England's contingent were booed for not joining in. They were too busy with their band and with chanting "Roy Hodgson's Barmy Army".

Unfolding in front of them was the most intense of spectacles.

The teams were evenly matched. Balotelli sought to use foul means as well as fair to find a way through but was rightly penalised for pushing John Terry.

Back came England again. Johnson dinked in a cross which Rooney headed over under pressure from Ignazio Abate.

England were conjuring up frequent opportunities, demonstrating far more sustained creativity than in the group stage. Defensive resilience remained, especially from Terry, who blocked an effort from Antonio Cassano and then closed down Balotelli who had controlled a marvellous ball from Pirlo.

On it went. "Let's all do the Welbeck" chanted the England fans, relishing their new song and dance.

Their team, sadly, were slipping back into an old habit of sitting deep, inviting Italy on. Montolivo fired wide. Federico Balzaretti thundered the ball cross which Johnson calmly cleared with his chest, earning a respectful shake of the hands from the Italian left-back.

Italy finished the half stronger. Pirlo was peerless. From another Pirlo through ball, Balotelli let fly athletically but Hart was equal to the challenge. England briefly broke out, Danny Welbeck sending Rooney down the inside-left channel. Rooney backheeled the ball across, perfectly weighted for Welbeck. The goal opened up but Welbeck missed badly.

With England dropping off, Italy pushed on. Hart clawed away Cassano's shot.

Montolivo was prevented from finding De Rossi by some excellent tracking back by Welbeck.

Italy still should have turned around in the lead. When Pirlo confirmed that he was now running the game with another sweeping pass, Cassano headed the ball across for Balotelli. Only a sliding interception from Lescott saved England, City denying City.

Cassano and Balotelli were engaged in animated conversation as they descended the steps towards the tunnel at the break. Italian television reported Balotelli directing some caustic criticism about, including towards De Rossi.

Yet no changes came at the interval, Hodgson waiting until the hour-mark before unleashing Andy Carroll and Theo Walcott.

Until then, England were almost on the rack. When Montolivo headed back into the box, the unmarked De Rossi caught the ball with his left foot but shot wide.

Still Italy pressed. Abate crossed from the right but Terry cleared.

De Rossi unleashed another special which Hart simply parried into the middle, not away form the danger zone. Balotelli was first to the ball but Hart saved again. The ball was still loose, and still the Italians were quickest. England breathed a sigh of relief when Montolivo was off target.

Painfully aware of who was in command, Hodgson sought to wrest the initiative from Cesare Prandelli's men. He was bold.

On came Carroll and Walcott for Welbeck and Milner and England almost broke through immediately.

Walcott whipped in a cross and Carroll's presence clearly unnerved Italy's defence. The ball rebounded off Abate towards Young, whose shot deflected for a corner.

The game drifted towards extra time. Terry kept blocking. The England fans kept singing. Diamanti tested Hart's reflexes. Terry kept on having his shirt tugged at England corners. Both sides could have settled it in normal time.

Claudio Marchisio lifted a fine pass through which was controlled by Nocerino. As the Italian substitute was about to shoot past an exposed Hart, Johnson blocked brilliantly. Then Carroll headed Cole's cross back but Rooney's overhead kick flew over.

Italy looked the likelier to score in the first additional 15 minutes. Pirlo continued to find Balotelli, who seemed obsessed with shooting from range.

Hart was beaten by a swirling left-footed ball from Diamanti but it clipped the post and fell to safety.

England threatened only infrequently. Walcott went on a scampering run as the first half of extra time closed.

England continued to defend like Italians, doggedly, cleverly. Italy just ran into a wall of white shirts, in which Terry stood supreme. Balotelli earned derisive whistles for a poor free-kick that disappeared far over. Then Diamanti shot over.

Penalty kicks ensued. Unfortunately for England, the outcome was a familiar one. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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