England, Italy riveting chess match

Italy’s squad didn’t get back to their training base in Krakow from Poznan where they had defeated the Republic of Ireland 2-0 on Monday night until 3am the following morning.

As the players walked sleepily through the hotel lobby on their way to bed, coach Cesare Prandelli, his coaching staff and members of the Italian Football Federation rendezvoused in the foyer. Their day had already begun.

Prandelli had vowed that if Italy made it through the group stages to the quarterfinals of Euro 2012, they would make a 21km pilgrimage on foot to the Camaldolese Monastery of Bielany to give thanks. And so with that a weary party of 15 wandered back into the darkness and set out on their way.

They eventually reached their destination three and a half hours later at 6:30am. A photograph was taken outside the monastery to commemorate the journey, then everyone turned around and headed home.

Faith is strong within the Italy camp in more than one sense. Their quarterfinal draw with England was welcomed with cautious optimism. An editorial in La Repubblica was entitled "semifinal possible." On the whole, there was relief that Italy had avoided a more talented, if less together, France side. "They make us more afraid," admitted La Gazzetta dello Sport, "but England command great respect." In other words, there is a quiet confidence that Italy can beat them.

Nonetheless, they won’t be taking their opponents lightly. Of all the knock-out games thus far at Euro 2012 this one in particular gives the impression that it’s perhaps the most evenly matched.

While it’s true that Italy have a formidable record against England – since 1980 they have won six, drawn two and only lost two – the last time both countries met was a decade ago and the players in the current sides have no experience of playing each other at international level to draw on.

To provide a bit more context, goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon is the sole remaining player on either squad to have been present in their most recent encounter, a 2-1 win for Italy in 2002. "I have only played against England twice and only in friendlies," he said. "In effect this is my first important game against England. I hope that it’s not the last and above all hope that it’s happy."

The lack of familiarity only adds to the ambiguity. There isn’t a firm favourite, and as a consequence Italy and England supporters are as hopeful as each other of their team’s chances of making the final four of the competition. Buffon expects it to be tight. "Italy has one great quality, which is also a great flaw," he explained. "We keep every game close whether against a strong team or a weak one."

It was an astute observation. Italy have produced some fine football thus far in Euro 2012. They were excellent for an hour against Spain and did well in the first half of their encounter with Croatia too. But an inability to make the most of their chances when they were in the ascendancy of both matches came back to haunt them. On each occasion, they let their lead slip and were held to 1-1 draws.

England have been more efficient going forward. According to Prozone, 17:15 minutes have elapsed between each of their goals in 86.16 minutes of total possession. Compare that with Italy [21:39 minutes per goal in 86:16 minutes of total possession] and it’s clear that England have found it quicker and easier to get on the scoresheet at Euro 2012. That might come as something of a surprise.

Defensive, rigid, counter-attacking and opportunistic, one could argue that Roy Hodgson’s England honors Italian football tradition more closely than the Italy team itself, which has shed its own skin and successfully attempted to play a more attractive style under Cesare Prandelli.

One of the key tactical battles on Sunday will be that between Wayne Rooney and Andrea Pirlo. The England striker is expected to spend most of his time when out of possession pressing Italy’s deep-lying playmaker in an effort to prevent him from bringing his considerable influence to bear. Don’t underestimate the job Pirlo might do in stopping Rooney though either. He has picked a few pockets at Euro 2012, stealing the ball from his opponents 23 times and has proven better in that regard than even Claudio Marchisio and Daniele De Rossi.

If, as expected, Italy play 4-3-1-2, another area of interest will be what happens in wide areas. The system lacks width and so there’s an opportunity for England to attack down the flanks through the speed of their wingers and maybe even create 2 v 1s against Italy’s full-backs by getting their own players forward from that position.

Of course, for that to happen, Hodgson might have to not be so conservative in his team selection and instead pick Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain ahead of James Milner and Ashley Young. That seems unlikely from the start but as the game wears on, Hodgson does at least have the option to bring on two impact players against an Italy team that, while not lacking in pace, has tended to tire relatively soon in matches.

Italy have run hard at Euro 2012, clocking up 328km compared with the 316km reached by England. It’s attributable to a contrast in styles. For instance, when Italy were playing 3-5-2, they pressed intensely and covered a lot of ground. England have been more measured, sitting back, keeping shape, and choosing their moments. One of the reasons why Italy have gone back to the 4-3-1-2 is because, given the philosophy they use within its framework, it’s less demanding – the ball does more of the work, as they retain possession easier.

There are doubts about whether Italy are as direct, penetrative and dangerous with it as in the 3-5-2. Breaking teams down has been a problem and England’s two banks of four have proven a difficult nut to crack for others in the tournament. It will take a creative flourish, a moment of genius to do it.

With that in mind, Italy-England should be a great chess match.