The Great Escape or A Bridge Too Far?
24 Jun, Euro 2012 (quarter-final): England v Italy (Kiev, 7.45 UK)
It’s crunch time for Roy Hodgson’s “Brave New England” in Kiev tomorrow night, with the national side facing the ultimate test and instant dismissal should they fail to deliver.
Despite my choosing Italy as the side most likely to overachieve in the competition, I have been underwhelmed by a team whose outstanding player has been a defender. Fortunately for England, Giorgio Chiellini is out, nursing a thigh injury and leaving a massive hole to be, hopefully, exploited.
So evenly are the teams matched that it’s too easy to visualise another cagey game as both sides seek a channel to exploit. If Italy stick with three at the back, Hodgson may opt for a wider attack using the pace of Theo Walcott to find the head of Andy Carroll. It’s a happy Hodgson who has the option to start the game with these two and leave the undoubtable talents of Wayne Rooney in reserve if a change of tactics is needed.
Rooney looked decidedly out of condition against Ukraine but will always give the opposition a problem, tearing defences apart with his trademark darting runs into space at the edge of the box. With Steven Gerrard back to his best, England have a convincing backbone, but there will be a limit to the reliance on 30-yard crossfield passes and, without the close-passing skills celebrated by the Mediterraneans, a likely breakthrough may rely once again on a set-piece.
For Italy, much will depend on which Mario Balotelli turns up. At his best, the maverick striker could break England with a strike of spontaneous genius; at his worst, he can become a disruptive force to his team and will be subbed by ruthless coach Cesare Prandelli at the first sign of a sulk. Mario’s frailties are well known and it will be up to the likes of Glen Johnson and John Terry to give the Manchester City player a hard time. If Balotelli gets no sympathy and protection from the ref, it’s easy to see his game imploding.
With an England manager now enforcing penalty practice, my worry is a surprising concern regarding Joe Hart. Amid the current self-congratulations and back-slapping, am I alone in noticing a few surprising slip-ups from the usually reliable keeper? At times, the ball has spun from his hands and he’s been guilty of a couple of unconvincing and nervy flapped clearances.
With the very likely outcome of a full-time draw, extra time and deciding penalties, who would bet against Gianluigi Buffon, the Italy goalkeeper, being the last man standing after the resulting shoot-out?
But, oh, what a luxury it is to be talking up an England team! Whatever the outcome of this match, it will be interesting to learn if Hodgson has been the catalyst for England’s revival or it’s simply the result of the slow drip of foreign influence to our national game.
And wouldn’t it be revealing to hear comments from some of the immediate past coaches. Would they admit to a dislike between team and manager (Sven), a distrust of ability (McClaren) or a breakdown in communication (Capello)? Maybe, like the only ex-manager thick(skinned) or broke enough to peer above the parapet, they would deny and deflect all responsibility, instead blaming everything from the media to bad luck (Graham Taylor)?
Disregarding tomorrow’s result, Hodgson has come a long way in a short time and earned a new respect for a once unenviable job.
Prediction: England 1, Italy 0