In England, the bookmakers have their nation as ever-so-slight favourites to progress to the semi-finals. The media, they’ve all been behind England since booking this match on Tuesday. However, here are 5 reasons why Italy should head into Sunday’s match as favourites and why I fancy the Italians to progress:
After a 3-0 defeat by Russia in their only pre-tournament friendly and a betting scandal back home, Italy didn’t enter Euro 2012 in the best of shape. However, they proved a lot of people wrong in their opening group game against defending European and World Champions, Spain. At times, Cesare Prandelli’s side took the game to the favourites, and in the second half, shortly after the substitution of Mario Balotelli, his replacement Antonio Di Natale curled home a wonderful finish. The lead didn’t last long however, but a 1-1 draw gave Italy a fine start.
That was followed by a 1-1 draw with Croatia, where a mistake from Giorgio Chiellini gifted Mario Mandzukic an equaliser after Andrea Pirlo’s free kick had given the 2006 World Cup winners the lead. Italy confirmed qualification as group C runners up with a comfortable 2-0 victory over the Republic of Ireland.
Whilst Italy have performed well in their three group games, England were unimpressive in picking up their 7 points. A 1-1 draw with France saw England score with their only effort in goal, whilst Joe Hart was forced into a couple of fine saves as England held onto a point. France would lose two of their three games after this, including a 2-0 defeat to Sweden, to give you an idea on how England performed.
England then required a goalkeeping error at 1-2 to get back on level terms with a Swedish side who looked unimpressive in a 2-1 loss to Ukraine in their opening game. This deficit came in the opening 15 minutes of the second half when former Juventus defender Olof Mellberg caused the English defence problems from two set pieces. Just imagine what the Italians can do with Andrea Pirlo standing over the ball.
As Sweden turned out to be one of the worst teams in the competition, Ukraine hadn’t proven to be much better. They were the only side to lose to France in this championship, and in that game they forced just one save out of Hugo Lloris. Without Andriy Shevchenko in the starting lineup, Ukraine took the game to England. They caused Joe Hart trouble with two efforts, one that had crossed the line, although not spotted by the Hungarian referee. In the end, their goalkeeper handed the game to England as Roy Hodgson’s side scraped past.
One of the best goalkeepers in the world and has been since his Parma days. It is rare that Gianluigi Buffon makes a mistake. And one of the biggest reasons England won group D (other than France’s collapse against Sweden) was because of goalkeeping howlers against Sweden and Ukraine.
With the Swedes leading England 2-1, former Internazionale boss Roy Hodgson introduced Theo Walcott in place of James Milner to rescue the game. Almost immediately the Arsenal forward had equalised with a 25-yard effort. Replays showed that former Juventus backup goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson was at fault. Walcott’s effort was straight down the middle and the tallest player in the tournament failed to see it as he stumbled into the back of his own net. No other goalkeeper lets that attempt in. This goal and Walcott spurred England onto a 3-2 victory.
Needing a point to progress in their final group game against co-hosts Ukraine, England were the second best for long parts of this game. However, they scored the only goal. Or at least the only goal that was awarded. Wayne Rooney headed in from close range almost-immediately after the break. However, Steven Gerrard’s cross from the right that did take a knick off the defender on its way in should have been picked up by the Ukrainian goalkeeper, Andriy Pyatov. Instead, Rooney’s goalscoring instinct waiting at the back post lead to a simple header.
England will not get lucky for a third game in a row. Gianluigi Buffon is a higher standard than both the aforementioned goalkeepers. The Juventus and Italy number 1 does not gift goals. Not on the verge of a semi-final in the European Championships especially.
There have been questions made about the Italian strikers. Mario Balotelli’s attitude. Antonio Cassano’s fitness. Antonio Di Natale’s age. However, they’ve all looked lively in the group games and they all have their name on the scoresheet.
Mario Balotelli is expected to start and we would expect him to up for beating the English more than any other nation in this tournament with his criticism from English pundits, fans and the media. As well as beating his club team mates, Joe Hart, Joleon Lescott and James Milner.
Antonio Cassano has shown good movement in his games, although his finishing has let him down. He scored a headed effort from a corner against the Republic of Ireland in Italy’s last game to get him off the mark.
Antonio Di Natale has featured in all 3 games and found the net in his substitute appearance against Spain. He has been a frequent goalscorer with Udinese over the past three seasons; top scoring in Serie A twice during that period. His movement is excellent and any ball-watching from Joleon Lescott could leave England exposed with this striker on the pitch.
Italy’s fourth option is Sebastian Giovinco. He’s been a one-man team at Parma for the past two seasons, certainly up front. 22 league goals over the past two seasons in a side with very few playmakers. Deadly at set pieces too, England won’t want this little forward making an appearance late on as he did in two of Italy’s group games.
For England, Danny Welbeck has played the most minutes up front. The 9-goal Manchester United goalscorer last season has managed to fire in just 3 shots in the 262 minutes he has on the pitch, and only 1 of those went on target. And whilst that 1 on target did go in, it’s worth viewing the replay to see whether Welbeck meant it or not.
Wayne Rooney returned after his 2-game suspension for England’s final group game against Ukraine. Ignoring his free header from a couple of yards out, there wasn’t much praise to give to the Manchester United striker. He looked ever-so-rusty, with poor first touches and losing possession. He failed to score in the last two World Cups so some have questioned whether he can deliver on the international stage. He needs rapid improvement between Tuesday and Sunday’s quarter-final if he wants to impress against Italy.
Andy Carroll too has a goal. He headed England into a 1-0 lead over Sweden when he connected with Steven Gerrard’s perfect deep cross. Otherwise, the £35 million striker offered little whilst he was on the pitch. A couple of free kicks and possession conceded didn’t aid his team. If he gets the nod on Sunday he’ll have a difficult time against the Italian central defence even without the imposing Chiellini.
If England haven’t been beaten in 90 minutes and they’ve managed to get through extra time without losing the game then comes the dreaded penalty shoot-out. England’s record at these is 1-5 and have lost their last 4 since beating Spain in the quarter-finals of Euro 96.
England Don’t Beat the Big Nations
Since World Cup 66, England have not beaten a major nation in the knock out stages of an international tournament (even Le Tournoi was a mini league).
In the two knock out stages of European Championship’s England have reached, they made the semi-finals in Euro 96. It took a penalty shoot-out to defeat Spain in the quarter-final. Officially classed as a draw, Spain weren’t even amongst the favourites for that tournament. Two years earlier they had reached the quarter-final of the World Cup in USA, winning just two games; against Bolivia and Switzerland. They failed to reach the previous European Championship in 1992 and only just reached the quarter-final of 96 with a late Guillermo Amor against Romania in their final group game. Otherwise it would have been Bulgaria…
The semi-final saw England lose to 1990 World Cup champions Germany.
And in Euro 2004, England reached the quarter-finals after impressive victories over Switzerland and Croatia in their group to face hosts Portugal. They conceded a late equaliser to Premier League-reject Helder Postiga before Frank Lampard rescued them in extra time to force a penalty shoot-out. Goalkeeper Ricardo took his gloves off before saving Darius Vassell’s weak effort before stepping up to score the winner himself.
In the 1970 World Cup, teams reached the quarter-finals after progressing from the group stage. England met West Germany in a rematch of the final from 4 years previous. England blew a 2-0 lead in this match to end up losing 3-2 in extra time.
England’s next World Cup knock out game would come 16 years later in Mexico. England had defeated Paraguay 3-0 in the second round to setup a match with Argentina in the quarter-final. I guess we’ll never know who would have won this match if all things were equal, but England were eliminated in one of the most blatant acts of cheating ever committed in sport.
4 years later, England required extra time to beat both Belgium and Cameroon to setup a semi-final clash with West Germany. Bobby Robson’s side lasted 120 minutes for the third consecutive match in Italy, but were dumped out of the tournament on a penalty shoot-out. Chris Waddle and Stuart Pearce famously missing.
England didn’t qualify for USA 94, but at France 98 they finished runners-up in a group consisting of Romania, Colombia and Tunisia to setup a tie with Argentina. Although David Beckham had been sent off and Argentina scored one of their goals through a dodgy-awarded penalty, England’s fate would be decided in another penalty shoot-out. This time, Paul Ince and David Batty missed to send England home.
The quarter-finals of the first ever World Cup held in Asia would be where England dropped out in 2002. They had beaten Argentina 1-0 in the group stage before thrashing lowly Denmark in the second round. Michael Owen gave England the lead against Brazil in Shizuoka before Rivaldo equalised in first-half stoppage time and Ronaldinho gave the favourites the lead after the break. Even after the latter goalscorer got sent off, England failed to get themselves back into the match.
After an unconvincing performance as group winners, finishing above Sweden, Paraguay and Trinidad & Tobago, England progressed past Ecuador in the second round thanks to a long range free kick from David Beckham. Despite Wayne Rooney’s red card in the second half they held Portugal to a 0-0 draw after 120 minute. Only for Canada-born, German-raised Owen Hargreaves to score their only penalty and Portugal eliminate them for the second consecutive tournament.
And finally, in 2010, after scraping through their group as runners-up against USA, Slovenia and Algeria, England were humiliated in a 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Germany; their first real test in South Africa. On that day, Germany were 19/10 to win in 90 minutes and 1/1 to qualify through any method. Almost identical prices to Italy this year…