Arsene Wenger was leaving the National Stadium in Warsaw after the first European Championship quarterfinals when a couple of English journalists walking by took the opportunity to ask if he thought England could follow Portugal in to the last four. The tall, lean and scholarly coach, about to enter his 17th straight season with Arsenal in the Premier League, gave no forecast. Only one of the popular Frenchman’s enigmatic smiles.
"For me,’’ Wenger said, "England’s game with Italy is the perfect 50/50.’’
No wonder he found it amusing. England and Italy have very distinct soccer traditions, especially when it comes to the balance between defense and attack. The Italians have always taken care to keep the bolt on the back door; England’s instinct is usually to try to batter it down. But of late there has been a convergence. The current coaches of the two countries, Cesare Prandelli and Roy Hodgson, are doing much to help it along. The Italian favors the spirit of adventure he once brought to the Fiorentina club, while Hodgson insists on a well-protected back four.
But what Wenger really meant was that their teams were so well-matched that calling the outcome in Kiev verged on the impossible. If he is right, maybe a penalty decider looms involving Gianluigi Buffon, widely regarded as the world’s top goalkeeper over the past decade or more, and Joe Hart, the young Englishman who wants to succeed him and is already emerging as a candidate for best of this tournament in the position.
But I’m not sure it will get to that stage. Indeed I have a hunch that England won’t even need extra time – because of a factor with which Wenger is more than familiar. The Italians call it tempo. And the English, when they play for their clubs, Arsenal included, tend to like it hot.
The speed at which games usually take place in the Premier League are part of the reason its television rights sell so well internationally. But speed is also a factor in the ascendancy of English clubs when they meet Italian counterparts in European competition. This hasn’t always been so.
During the English clubs’ banishment from UEFA after the 39 deaths when a wall collapsed before the 1986 equivalent of the Champions League final, the Italians took over. Milan and company remained generally on top until 1999, when Manchester United overcame both Internazionale and Juventus on the way to an ultimately sensational Champions League triumph.
There have since been several thrashings of the Italians by English clubs. United alone have recorded aggregate wins of 5-1 over Juventus, 7-2 over Milan and 9-2 over Roma. Wenger’s Arsenal, though they lost 4-3 to Milan last season, can count among their victims Juventus, Roma and Inter, who were beaten 5-1 on their own San Siro ground in 2003.
Often it has been because the Italian clubs’ defenders were not used to playing at Premier League pace and, although Serie A defenses are seldom entirely made up of Italian nationals, most of their tormentors have featured English components to their attacking array, such as Frank Lampard of Chelsea or Wayne Rooney of United.
Lampard is not at Euro 2012 because of a thigh strain suffered after the glorious culmination of his club’s season in Munich. But Rooney is. And while United’s main man does not cover the ground like a cheetah, he is fast enough in both thought and deed to keep the ball moving and worry Prandelli’s defenders. Here are some others who can keep the Italians on the hop.
Ashley Young: He’s had a good season alongside Rooney at Old Trafford and they work well together. Although right-footed, he uses his pace with particular effect on the left and can spin and whip in great crosses.
Danny Welbeck: Only 21, he came through the United ranks but gained valuable experience with Sunderland in the Premier League before, like Young, spending the past year with Rooney. This boy is one of the best things to happen to England in years, not just quick but clever and unselfish and the provider, against Sweden, of the technical highlight of the tournament in scoring the winning goal with a trailing heel; Lionel Messi would have thanked the heavens for that.
Theo Walcott: The quickest of the lot, and a Wenger buy for Arsenal from Southampton, like the 18-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Many see him primarily as an impact substitute for England and that’s how Hodgson used him against Sweden, when he scored the equalizer and then assisted Welbeck.
Glen Johnson and Ashley Cole: The England fullbacks can move a bit too. Although Cole has come to major in defense in recent years, he is still an occasional threat, while Johnson is capable of building the momentum of an express train when going forward.
All in all, my hunch is that England will run to victory and remove any need for that shootout Wenger seems to foresee. If it happens, the relatively low expectations of the English media and public, which have helped Hodgson to do his work without the distractions of hysteria, are likely to be abandoned. A semifinal is, after all, as far as England has ever traveled in this competition – back in 1968. History beckons.