FOX Soccer Exclusive
Same old penalties tale for England
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Unlike Chelsea, England's proud winners of the Champions League, the national team lost in a penalty shootout, as England always tends to do. But shed no tears for coach Roy Hodgson and his players. If England had prevailed over Cesare Prandelli's Italy, whose technical superiority was epitomized in a majestic man-of-the-game performance from 33-year-old Andrea Pirlo, it would have been a sporting travesty.
The English were comprehensively beaten in every aspect — bar the goals that failed to arrive after 90 minutes. Italy’s Daniele De Rossi had struck a post after only three minutes had elapsed; saw a header from Antonio Nocerino that rocketed into the roof of Joe Hart's net rightly called offside; and substitute Alessandro Diamanti hit a post, albeit accidentally, with a cross that found no takers.
When required to raise a standard that had been good enough to see them top Group D in Euro 2012, England failed to deliver, never making use of the attacking verve that often helps Premier League teams overwhelm Serie A opponents in the Champions League. The likes of Ashley Young, Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott are very quick but underperformed in this game as if wearing leaden lining to their boots.
England were, to do them justice, seldom shown space in which to run. Prandelli cleverly arranged his resources and sacrificed a man at the back in order to thicken the midfield blend, which ensured a plentiful supply of the ball for Pirlo; whose elegant, creative and often penetrative distribution will linger in their memory. It was the richest individual display of the tournament so far and served to emphasize the relative creative shortage from Steven Gerrard on what will surely prove his final appearance for his country.
At least Gerrard succeeded with his penalty. Ashley Cole, another member of what the English have come almost satirically to describe as a golden generation, made a sad mess of his, shooting weakly in the direction Gianluigi Buffon. The other England player to miss off the bar was Young.
Among those whose expertise reprieved Italy's initially distraught Riccardo Montolivo was, almost inevitably, Pirlo. Even his penalty was a work of art; a chip down the middle of the utmost delicacy, reminiscent of the immortal impudence of Antonin Panenka, whose kick won the 1976 tournament for Czechoslovakia. England could summon nothing remotely that clever, no moment of inspiration to rival Welbeck's incredible winner against Sweden.
The fact that the English were the inferior team does not mean they played badly at all. Though always trailing Italy in terms of possession — the ratio ended at 63% to 37% — they took part in first half exchanges contrary to most conventional wisdom.
If this was a cat-and-mouse game, where was the mouse? There were touches of class from Wayne Rooney on his second game back from suspension. Even with specialist strikers on the field, fullback Glen Johnson challenged Italy keeper Buffon who cleverly saved Johnson’s shot one-handed at close range; the save, in essence, helps explain to the uninitiated why the Italian has been considered one of the best goalkeepers in the world.
In 45 minutes, there were eight clear chances, five of them falling to Prandelli's side who signaled their intentions when De Rossi slashed his left foot against a falling ball fully 25 yards from goal,
What always gave Italy the edge was the divine passing of Pirlo. Given a new lease of life by a switch from Milan to Juventus, the floppy-haired midfielder delivered a master performance, controlling the midfield with his short game and using the long pass to split England's defense.
A perfect example of the latter gave Mario Balotelli the opportunity to secure the lead, but the young enigma shot without care. In the lead-up to half time, Pirlo again conjured, picking out Antonio Cassano with a ball that swirled beyond the far post and told Cassano where to nod it in order to find Balotelli. This time the striker was unlucky, a deflection taking the ball over Hart's crossbar.
Hodgson made two changes on the hour, also introducing the aerial presence of big Andy Carroll. This hinted early trouble for the Italian defense, but not for long. Pirlo was soon fashioning another opportunity for Balotelli. And, if any Italians feared the worst during penalties, they had temporarily forgotten who protected their line: the 34-year-old Buffon who rescued the Azzurri from disaster once again.
Pirlo and Buffon, World Cup winners in 2006, are advancing to yet another semifinal in a major tournament. As for England, it’s another agonizing, disappointing penalty shootout chapter.
Patrick Barclay is one of England's most experienced soccer writers. He has covered the game for every broadsheet newspaper and attended eight World Cups and nine European Championships. Barclay is the author of biographies of Jose Mourinho (Further Anatomy of a Winner) and Sir Alex Ferguson (Football - Bloody Hell!) You can follow him on Twitter @paddybarclay.
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