Hint of progress but familiar faults exposed

Mon, Jun 25, 2012, 01:00

AMID THE the huff and puff of England’s game there were moments of real quality, but the penalty jinx goes on. So the hoodoo remains. England stuttered out of this tournament having impressed through the group stage, only to be jettisoned – almost inevitably – by the first truly classy team they met, and on a penalty shoot-out to boot. That all rings vaguely familiar.

This was a rearguard action from the early exchanges and, while the defensive resilience was admirable, Roy Hodgson’s side lacked the guile to impose themselves as an attacking force.

Italy will march on to Warsaw to confront the Germans, who will hardly be quaking in their boots at that confrontation to come, but England fly home having hinted at progress.

The statistics were not flattering, yet again. England, apparently, had enjoyed only 39 per cent of the ball through the first period here, the same old sloppiness inviting the Italians to pour forward with increasing confidence. Hodgson’s side had retreated as the contest progressed, their early attacking vigour giving way to customary industry in a bid to quell the Italian threat. Yet, amid the huff and puff, there were moments of real quality in those interchanges they did muster.

The early exchange between Glen Johnson, Ashley Young and James Milner which culminated in the right-back forcing Gianluigi Buffon into a fine left-handed save was arguably England’s best passing move of the tournament up to then. Gary Neville had pinpointed the need for more incision and precision in the pass in the build-up to this fixture. That was to be the “next stage” of this team’s development now that a semblance of defensive base had been established. It is a process that will take considerably more time to complete.

Mario Balotelli served up plenty of the sublime and as much of the ridiculous. He remains the star attraction. His evening had started with an optimistic volley dribbled at goal from 35 yards, an effort so audacious it was strange to see him mustering such a tentative attempt at a chip over the advancing Joe Hart just before the half-hour which allowed John Terry in to block. The striker’s mood soured at that miss, Balotelli kicking angrily at a post after Terry and Joleon Lescott had deflected another close-range effort over the bar.

The collection on the stretch and shot on the turn that Hart did well to save early in the second half suggested personal reward could not be far away. The 21-year-old tends to write his own script on the hoof. And it invariably feels like the most compelling on offer.

Whatever was to transpire at the Olympic Stadium, England will have benefited from the experience their bright young things have gained. This squad always felt a neat blend of youthful prospects and seasoned campaigners, with players at each end of their careers having grown into the finals to make their mark. Danny Welbeck and Andy Carroll have contributed goals to savour en route. Welbeck offered quality at both ends last night, leaping to head away set-pieces from Hart’s near-post and even tracking back to tackle in his own penalty area, while gliding up-field in partnership with Wayne Rooney whenever he could.

His slippery exchange with his Manchester United club-mate just after the half-hour took the breath away, even if Welbeck’s finish was high and wide from Rooney’s back-heeled return. The striker’s substitution on the hour for Carroll represented a switch in approach and was not a reflection of the 21-year-old’s efforts. Welbeck has been one of the success of these finals for England; a prospect coming good.

Meanwhile, the old guard didn’t let Hodgson down. Much had already been made of Steven Gerrard’s renaissance, a player who seems to be relishing the captaincy to the extent his international career will surely now extend well beyond a century of caps. The midfielder was as energetic as ever last night, trying to haul his team to his level, but the sight of him going down with cramp after 71 minutes was alarming.

Others among the old guard have excelled under Hodgson. Ashley Cole, while occasionally perturbed by Claudio Marchisio’s clever running, has maintained high standards in Ukraine, while Glen Johnson enjoyed his best game of the finals against the Azzurri. Then there is John Terry. The Chelsea centre-half’s selection had been controversial. Yet his displays in these finals have been gargantuan at times. It was his recovery run and block that snuffed out Balotelli in the first half, and his leap to flick behind that denied the striker another clear sight of goal after the break.

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