Italy's players celebrate after winning their Euro 2012 quarter-final soccer match against England following a penalty shoot-out at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev, June 24, 2012. (Photo : REUTERS/Darren Staples)
The battle between the Italians and English went to the limit as Italy moved on to the semi-finals by virtue of a victory in penalty kicks.
The match was essentially uneventful with both teams struggling mightily throughout the 120 minutes of regulation. Italy is known mainly as a team that excels defensively and attacks on the counter. England is supposed to be the attacking possession team that puts the opposition on its heels. However on Sunday evening, the complete opposite happened.
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England could barely hold onto the ball and failed to create many opportunities. Their air game was essentially eliminated as the Italian defense barely gave them room or space with the ball. Steven Gerrard, who was dominant in leading the English to victory, was a non-factor throughout the match. At one point he had the space to make a run on the right wing, but slipped and fell over the ball. As the match wore on, England almost seemed content to sit back and run out the clock as it became increasingly clear that they lacked the skill or style to pierce through Italy's defense.
England's most noticeable player was John Terry. In the first half, he was noticeable for all the wrong reasons. He had the thankless task of guarding Italian striker Mario Balotelli and early on it seemed that the task might be too big as he made a number of mistakes that gave the striker opportunities. Fortunately for him, they never went in. In the second half however, Terry minimized the mistakes and player a strong defensive effort throughout. He blocked shots and was all over the penalty area.
Italy on the other hand dominated possession and looked like the better team. However, they looked very uncomfortable on the attack and often reverted to passing the ball back to their defense and looking for outlets through which they could penetrate the British defense. Mario Balotelli had numerous opportunities to put Italy ahead, but fumbled each one. As the game wore on, he became increasingly less effective. At one point in the extra session the ball reached him in the box and bounced perfectly to him. Balotelli touched the ball but immediately loss control; it seemed as if he was not expecting the pass to get to him and was not completely focused on the play.
In the extra sessions, it seemed that Italy had broken through when an Alessandro Diamanti cross was met by Antonio Nocerino, who headed the ball into the net. However, the linesman called the play off side and the score remained 0-0.
If the game was sluggish and often sloppy, the penalty shootout was the complete opposite; an emotional roller coaster ride with its share of twists and turns. Both Balotelli and Gerrard scored on their respective shots before Italy's Riccardo Montolivo shot wide to goalkeeper Joe Hart's right. Wayne Rooney followed up with a goal to give England a 2-1 lead. Then Andrea Pirlo, the star and brain of the Italian midfield had easily the moment of the match when he softly flicked the ball in the back of the net. Pirlo's play had little to no power or speed, but instead was grace. Hart threw himself to the right side, but the ball curved up and into the middle of the net slowly. The shot was so slow it seemed that it might never reach the goal and that Hart could get up and make the save. However, the goal was a testament to Pirlo's skill and confidence.
The shot seemed to turn the shootout around as Ashley Young hit the crossbar on the ensuing shot. Nocerino scored on the following shot to give Italy a 3-2 lead. Then Ashley Cole shot it to the goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon's left. The veteran keeper dove and stopped the shot. It seemed as if Cole had stopped his momentum too soon and was unable to get enough power to blast it past Buffon. Then Alessandro Diamanti wrapped it up for Italy with a blast past Joe Hart.
With the victory, Italy now gets an opportunity to take on Germany in the semi-finals. Unlike 2006, Germany is the heavy favorite in this match and has an extra two days of rest on Italy; Germany played their quarter finals match on a Friday against Greece. Italy will likely not control the ball the way they did in this match, but will need to be better with the opportunities they have against Germany. Against England, Italy had 35 attempts on goal with 20 on target. They scored on zero of those opportunities. Against the defensive-minded Greeks Germany had 24 attempts with 14 on target; they scored four goals in that game. Italy has only scored four goals in its first four games.