Monday 20 November 2017

Hodgson brings passion but mission impossible ends with familiar woe

James Lawton in Kiev

In the end it had become excruciating for manager Roy Hodgson, who for some weeks now has been attempting to do what so many deemed impossible.

Excruciating but filled with the possibility of undreamed glory. For a few moments it looked as though he had done it, but he hadn't. England, with something close to ultimate cruelty, had lost still another shoot-out.

Hodgson had been trying to make a new team from the broken culture of England's international football and in these European Championships he had succeeded in some ways better than he could have dreamed.

Here though, as the minutes ticked away, one of Europe's master players, Andrea Pirlo, worked relentlessly to destroy his work.

With Pirlo at their hub, the Italians poured on England's goal. They hit posts several times, they brought extremes of defiance from goalkeeper Joe Hart and, deep into extra-time, Antonio Nocerino headed into the roof the England net. But he had been lurking fractionally offside.

Pirlo probed, the Italians queued up outside the England goal area. Mario Balotelli, the great brooding enigma of football, failed to connect with another fleeting chance.

And then we had the recurring curse of England, the spectre that has consumed them five times -- now six -- in major tournaments over the last 22 years. Penalties.

For Hodgson, so early in his watch, it must have been almost too much. It proved so as the Italians, buoyed by a penalty of outrageous nerve from Pirlo, made it to the semi-final.

Hodgson had given Pirlo a warm 'abbraccio' and kisses on both cheeks before the game and the Italian responded with considerable charm.

It was a civilised little cameo, but it was unlikely to have lulled Hodgson too far from the worry that he was briefly in the arms of a superior assassin.

Pirlo versus Steven Gerrard was plainly a potentially huge pivotal factor.

So was the clarity of Balotelli's pre-match vision of what might be possible. He sat on his own for a while, receiving who knew quite what communication and inspiration through headphones tuned to an unannounced station -- or planet.

INSPIRING

England could only pray that the messages, from wherever they came, were not too inspiring.

They weren't. Balotelli might have scored three times after England fought their way back impressively from an Italian opening that was impressive to the point of intimidation.

In one of his more overwhelming modes, Balotelli could well have put the game beyond England before half-time but as we have been seeing for some time now, Hodgson, in a remarkably short time, has created a team who, while not exactly purring with tactical coherence, have certainly developed an instinct for the fight.

The thrust of Hodgson's message seems to be that English international football has nothing to lose but its chains. Unfortunately, Cesare Prandelli was able to ignore such basics and proceed with some of the more subtle aspects of the game.

We have, of course, also learned something else about Hodgson during his brief but increasingly assured term of office. It is that he is not an England manager who is ever likely to sit on his hands.

With Italian flowing menacingly on Hart's goal, Theo Walcott and Andy Carroll replaced James Milner and Welbeck.

First though, England had to stem a tide which seemed always to have Pirlo serenely sailing along the surface, winning a ball here, dispatching another one there, always seeking out a weak English link.

He was everything Hodgson feared he might be when they had their pre-match embrace, but then it was a team of considerable resolve that he was seeking to undermine.

As the game moved into extra-time, there was still plenty of evidence of England's new capacity to absorb almost infinite amounts of punishment without surrendering the possibility that they might just find a way to win.

Rooney produced some moments of danger. A sharper level of game fitness might have produced a more spectacular result but, even so, Italian blood had reason to run cold.

The Azzurri had run the match for 90 minutes but they couldn't find a way to win, cleanly, authoritatively, even with Pirlo pulling the strings. And there was, it just happened, an additional complication. It was that England seemed increasingly reluctant to lose.

But then then some things you not change in a few weeks -- especially when it involves taking England into the doomsday country of a penalty shoot-out.

Irish Independent

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