Resilience not enough for England
THIS WAS the real test of Roy Hodgson’s new England. If two wins and a draw in the group stage of this European Championship had rekindled the affection of their sorely tried public, here was a match against authentically formidable opposition, a night that would tell us exactly how much progress they had made since the new manager took up his duties on May 14th, and perhaps indicate the extent to which they had been failing to reach their true potential under previous regimes.
In a matter of weeks Hodgson’s air of natural modesty and his understated, commonsensical approach to the job of shaping a football team have impressed a nation fed up with oversized egos and empty promises.
As his revived squad approached this quarter-final last night there was a sense that they were already so heavily in credit that even elimination would not destroy the new esteem.
Hodgson had wasted no time making his mark on the record books. In the first two weeks of the competition he supervised England’s first defeat of Sweden, an old enemy, in a competitive fixture, and followed up by sending the team out to beat a host nation at a major tournament for the first time since they got the better of Switzerland in Berne in 1954.
All he had to do last night was get England to beat a leading footballing nation in a major tournament anywhere other than on home soil for the first time in their history, ending a sequence of defeats that began with Spain in the Maracana in 1950.
And to do it they had to get the better of opponents with one particularly daunting statistic on their side. Before last night each side had played 10 quarter-finals in World Cups and Euros, and England had lost seven while Italy had won eight, both their defeats narrow ones that came via penalty shootouts.
Hodgson retained the 4-4-2 formation that has been his trademark for more than 30 years, making no changes to the team who started the match against Ukraine. Prandelli opted to stick with the 4-3-1-2 used against Croatia and the Republic of Ireland, and for England’s supporters, the overture was nothing short of terrifying.
Italy took the kick-off and rolled the ball around the length and width of the pitch with perfectly lubricated ease and precision until, after two minutes and 50 seconds of virtually unbroken interplay, Daniele De Rossi suddenly took aim from almost 30 yards out and sent in a fierce shot which smacked off the left-hand post.
Much more of that sort of thing, and it was going to be all over very quickly. Instead it turned out to be a prelude to a purple passage from England, who kept their composure in the face of Italy’s display of technical prowess and responded with some useful passing of their own, culminating less that two minutes later in the clever right-wing move between Glen Johnson, Ashley Young and James Milner which ended with Johnson following up to improvise a scooped shot that Gigi Buffon managed to claw down from close range.
Nor was that all from England. Their opponents could not, as it turned out, reproduce those svelte early combinations at will, although they could keep trying to get Mario Balotelli free on the wrong side of the defence.
Luckily, the Manchester City striker was in one of his more opaque moods. England were returning fire by coming at Italy from all angles, a particularly clever combination between Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck ending with the younger man hitting a side-footed shot just over the bar from a good position.
Soon there would be too many incidents to catalogue in a match at least as entertaining as any of the preceding quarter-finals, and with a great deal of quality on show from both teams.
The second half continued in the same vein, although the balance of play was shifting. The increasing influence of Andrea Pirlo meant more chances were falling to Italy, with Hart making saves from De Rossi, Balotelli and Riccardo Montolivo in quick succession and Balotelli, with his back to goal and Terry in close attendance, flicking the ball up and producing a bicycle-kick that sent the ball just over the bar.
With an hour gone, the arrival of Andy Carroll and Theo Walcott represented a bold move intended to brighten up an attack that had gone quiet. But the signs of Rooney’s lack of sharpness in his second match back – he missed a fine chance with a glancing header from a Gerrard free-kick with 15 minutes of normal time remaining – suggested perhaps England wouldn’t be in the tournament long enough to allow him to regain his best form.