THE manager changes, the players come and go but, for the English, one thing stays the same – the agony of yet another defeat on penalties.
But although losing out on spot kicks was cruel, as it always is, England deserved to lose this game.
They had been outplayed for all but about 20 minutes of the 120. But as midnight passed in Ukraine and this Euro 2012 quarter-final dragged on into another day, England hung on in there. They blocked and resisted, they fought and held out, chiefly thanks to excellent performances from a back four led by John Terry and Joleon Lescott, who were the stand-out players.
Then came that test of nerve from 12 yards or, as it is known in relation to the England team, the near certain ritual of elimination. This was the sixth time in seven shoot-outs that England have been beaten on penalties in a major tournament. That one victory, against Spain in the quarter-finals at Euro ’96, remains the only fragment of evidence that |English players can prevail in this unique pressure.
The best penalty of all was scored by the best player on the pitch, Andrea Pirlo. The 33-year-old, taking Italy’s third penalty with his team trailing after Riccardo Montolivo’s miss, deceived Joe Hart into diving early to the right while he dinked the ball gently down the centre of the goal.
“The cool, calculated way Pirlo chipped the goalkeeper,” Roy Hodgson said, “that’s something you either have or you don’t”.
In the assurance of his penalty Pirlo reasserted the confidence he had given to his team-mates all game. They never looked like losing after that.
Mario Balotelli scored Italy’s first penalty – in spite of Hart’s sledging – and Alessandro Diamanti, that refugee from West Ham’s 2010-11 relegation season scored the last that sent England out the competition. In between Ashley Young and Ashley Cole both failed from the penalty spot. Young blasted his against the bar but it was Cole, so calm in Munich in the Champions League final last month, who was the only player of nine to have his saved.
Hart did not save a penalty and he was certainly the goalkeeper who was given the most practice during the previous 120 minutes.
Of Italy’s 35 attempts on goal, 20 had been on target. By way of comparison, England had nine attempts on goal (four on target). They completed 320 passes to Italy’s 815 and this was not one of those games when the statistics did not tell an accurate story. They told the story exactly as it was.
Aside from a period of 20 minutes at the start of the first half when
England came alive with the kind of attacking brio that surprised everyone, and should really have scored a goal, there was a steady decline from the mid-point of the first half when Pirlo took charge.
Hodgson blamed the retreat on “the powerhouse of his team” succumbing to injury: Scott Parker’s Achilles problems and an attack of the cramps for Steven Gerrard.
Of greater concern was the ineffectiveness of Wayne Rooney whose brief sabbatical for the first two games has robbed him of the sharpness and touch that he had at the end of the season for Manchester United.
He looked tired at first and soon exhausted. He does not seem to be match fit and some serious questions need asking of England’s preparations in that regard.
Often needing just three passes to extricate themselves from their own half, the Italians stood off them. Gianluigi Buffon had to stretch out a hand to stop Glen Johnson’s shot from close range. The move that had created the chance, taking in flowing passes from Johnson, Rooney, James Milner and back to Johnson was impressive.
Instead of standing off England, Italy stepped up with the three of De Rossi, Montolivo and Claudio Marchiso applying constant pressure to Gerrard and Parker. Pirlo dropped deep to get the ball off his centre-halves and at times it seemed as if he was operating on an area of the field reserved for his exclusive use.
On 25 minutes, with Terry hopelessly deep, he played on Balotelli who did not have the presence of mind to run free of England and score. A better striker would have done so.
It was Pirlo’s first-time flick to Balotelli that the striker got an awkward |connection on 32 minutes in, although it was decent enough to force a save from Hart. Antonio Cassano had a shot saved on 38 |minutes and then, before half-time, he headed down yet another Pirlo ball into the path of Balotelli.