England fall short on penalties again
England 0 Italy 0 (Italy win 4-2 on penalties): England have more penalty shootout misery to reflect on after ceding a position of control in the game's cruellest decider, but they can have few complaints after being dominated by Italy in their Euro 2012 quarter-final in Kiev tonight.
The winning strike came from the boot of former West Ham striker Alessandro Diamanti, after Ashley Young and Ashley Cole both missed the target to render Riccardo Montilivo's wayward spot kick obsolete.
England were beaten in every aspect of the game after two hours, bar the key one. They had a number of scares, most notably in the 115th minute when Antonio Nocerino headed in Diamanti's cross but was correctly ruled offside.
Daniele De Rossi hit the post with a fierce 30-yard drive after just three minutes and England responded with a finessse that was never to be seen again when Glen Johnson was denied at close range by Gianluigi Buffon's fantastic save after good work from Young and James Milner. Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck also showed a brief glimpse of their familiarity with a neat one-two, but the latter sidefooted his effort well off target.
Otherwise, Pirlo contolled proceedings and ran the centre of the pitch with consummate ease from the first whistle until his final contribution; a sublime, dinked penalty down the middle that was a fitting riposte to Joe Hart's elaborate efforts of distraction in the England goal.
“At the moment I saw the goalkeeper making strange movements, so I waited for him to move and hit it like that," said the playmaker afterwards. “It was easier for me to chip it at that stage. Maybe my effort put some pressure on England and in fact Ashley Young missed the next one after me.
“I didn’t fear an upset, as England barely created anything, just tried to defend the result and drag us to penalties. We stayed in control and in the end won out.
“We knew that we could control the match, as England are a very defensive team and we saw that from the way they played throughout the group phase. It’s just a shame we took this long to beat them and used up a lot of energy.
“We dominated the encounter and it’s a pity we didn’t take our chances during the 90 minutes or extra time. At least the penalties sent the right team through."
Mario Balotelli also had numerous chances, but was denied by a block from John Terry and then alert defending from his Manchester City team-mate Joleon Lescott. De Rossi had a golden opportunity to put the Azzurri in front, this time three minutes after the break, but he snatched at his shot, while Balotelli was denied by club colleague Hart and then saw an ambitious overhead kick fly over.
England retreated more and more as the game wore on and were almost punished in the first period of extra-time when Italy substitute Diamanti saw his cross come back off the post. The Azzurri finally had the ball in the net with five minutes left of extra-time, but Nocerino was a yard beyond the last defender.
Roy Hodgson's side finally found themselves in the driving seat after Montilivo dragged his effort wide of Hart's tight-hand upright, but the initiative was soon lost when Young crashed his shot off the crossbar and Cole's tame strike was saved by Buffon, whose final contribution ensured a semi-final meeting with Germany.
For England, it was the latest in a long line of penalty shootout exits, following on from 1990, 1996, 1998, 2004 and 2006, and while captain Steven Gerrard praised his team-mates for their showing in Poland and Ukraine, he conceded it was a painful way to go out.
"Everyone's been great in training, every time we've come out I think we've done the country proud, but again we're going home with heartbreak, which is difficult to take," he told BBC1.
The Liverpool midfielder added: "I just feel for the players who from day one have given everything and today we did the same. This time in the penalty shootout we thought we might have the bit of luck we needed but it wasn't to be.
"Credit to Italy they are fantastic team and they got the luck in the shootout."