Whenever these two countries lock horns on the football field, it is always has an extra level of importance no matter what the circumstances are, and tomorrow, in Olympic Stadium in Kiev, Ukraine, they meet in the Quarter Final of Euro 2012. I can hardly believe that it is eleven years since they last played each other, and historically, the series is close with Italy winning nine, England seven with seven draws. Tomorrow’s loser goes home while the winner plays Germany on Thursday in the Semi Finals. The stakes have never been higher.
My first England game at the old Wembley Stadium was in 1977 when England were attempting to derail Italy in qualifying for the 1978 World Cup. England were behind with one game left and needed a win badly. What transpired back then was one of my most exciting experiences as a football fan as England ran out easy 2-0 winners in a very emotional game, but Italy qualified via a win against minnows Luxembourg in their final game. My car broke down on the way back to college in Manchester but we didn’t care as we had beaten “The Azzurri”. These games are always cagey and physical, and a battle of defense, and this time around will prove to be no exception. Both teams are not at their best and are in transition. Italy have lost their iconic stars such as Cannavarro, Rossi, Inzaghi, and Maldini while England are a patchwork squad of veterans and young players led by new manager Roy Hodgson. Both teams negotiated their way through tough Group games without setting the world alight, and particularly England, who have shown that they are more focused on stopping the other team from scoring rather than scoring themselves.
Italy invented the word defense and nothing has changed. They have Gigi Buffon in goals who has been there forever it seems and are very tough to beat without possessing the flair of previous sides so I expect a bit of a slow, possibly even boring game tomorrow, unless an early goal is scored, in which case both teams will be forced to come out of their shell. I have to admit that throughout this tournament, I have been pretty pessimistic about England’s chances whilst at the same time, starting to appreciate what a difference there is in this squad from the disaster of South Africa in 2010. Consequently, I picked Italy to win this one by the odd goal earlier in the week just because they seem to have more team strength.
However today, I’ve been reading some of the press reports coming out of England’s training camp and I have to admit, there is an attitude in their approach that should not be ignored. They are totally aware of their limitations and have become very disciplined at the back. Steven Gerrard is one of those veterans that have experienced huge disappointment over the years and I think this might motivate some of the other players like Cole, Terry, and Rooney to perform. If Hodgson starts Rooney and Carroll up front, they might just spring a surprise on the Italians. Mario Balotelli is their talisman and nothing would give him more pleasure than to score the winning goal against the country that seems to give him such a hard time during the regular season, but other than Pirlo, their stars have left and they are just an ordinary team in my view.
I’m positive that it will be tight, and physical for sure, but I’m going to change my mind and predict that England will win on penalties after a 1-1 tie following extra time.
Don’t let me down, boys.