Three thoughts: Italy nips England for well-deserved berth in semis
Italy toppled England in penalty kicks to hold off elimination and reach the semis
England is improving, but the country still has major issues in penalty kicks
It took 28 games for us to reach a 0-0 game, but it was the best of the quarters
|Final (PKs): Kiev, Ukraine|
|Italy advances on PKs|
Here are three thoughts on Italy's 0-0 win over England in penalty kicks:
1. Justice was done in the end. From the second minute of the match, when Daniele de Rossi struck a swerving shot from 30 yards out that cannoned off the inside of Joe Hart's post, Italy might have felt it was not going to be its night. Mario Balotelli had a hat-trick of chances in the first half, the last of which a close-range toe-poke that was deflected over the crossbar, led him to kicking the goalpost in frustration.
It was not so different in the second period, most of which Italy dominated.
De Rossi somehow shinned a volley wide from three yards out, and then three chances in quick succession: a De Rossi shot parried, Balotelli's follow-up blocked by Hart's knee and Ricardo Montolivo's lunging effort just over the top. Balotelli, who had 10 shots in the match, hit an overhead kick, Diamanti hit the post and Antonio Nocerino had a late header correctly ruled out for offside.
Even when the shootout got underway, Riccardo Montolivo's early miss, and Wayne Rooney's subsequent conversion, put England up 2-1 and Italy was close to elimination. But both Ashleys (Young and Cole) missed their spot-kicks and Alessandro Diamanti made no mistake to send Italy, deservedly, through to a semifinal against Germany.
The fact that Hart has made more saves than any other goalkeeper in the tournament, while Italy managed more shots on target in the game (20) as England managed in the entire tournament, tells its own story.
2. This was a watershed moment for England. Once again, England failed to reach the semifinals of a tournament away from home (only once in eight attempts, the 1990 World Cup in Italy), but for once, there should be no scapegoats after this elimination. In a short time, coach Roy Hodgson has overseen a significant transformation in this team. He has changed its identity to one more suited to his body of work as an underdog.
Okay, so England has failed to impress for long periods in any of its four games so far, its goal lived a charmed life, and once again simple tasks like keeping the ball seemed beyond it. But there was something heroic about topping Group B and being two penalties away from a semifinal place in spite of those deficiencies.
There is an irony to how Hodgson, a man who has coached in eight different countries and is multilingual enough to have spoken Swedish and Italian in press conferences before recent England matches, has done this: partly by instilling a sense of humility into his players (this is easier said than done -- just look at France and Holland, both arguably more talented sides but undone by its players' egos), and partly by changing England's style of play.
This last point was noted by Italian paper Gazzetta dello Sport before this game. "The English taught us the game and we learnt it so well that we won four World Cups," it wrote. "Lately we returned the favour, sending England great managers who taught the English to defend and fill the pitch with purpose."
While the last World Cup was notable for the sight of Germany starting to adopt the style of Holland, this tournament has seen England play in a much more Italian way, while it was Italy who peppered England's defence, often dangerously, with a series of English-style long balls. As one Italian fan put it during the game: "Now Italy knows what it's like to play against Italy."
Gazzetta is wrong to credit the likes of Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Mancini and Roberto di Matteo, though. Hodgson is merely continuing the work laid down by his predecessor Fabio Capello (a cent for his thoughts, tonight, please). Capello's England, after all, was the last team to beat Spain, back in November 2011.
Hodgson accepted this shift in a typically interesting way. During one training-session last week, he called his players together and told them a fable, "The Scorpion and the Frog." It goes like this: the scorpion wants to jump on a frog to help him cross a river; the frog is worried about being stung; the scorpion says, "I won't sting you as then you'll die and we'll both drown." The frog accepts, is stung, and they both drown.
The point is, there are some who can't change their nature, and if they don't, they will perish. The players were laughing too much to get the point (and suddenly the comments of Hodgson's former goalkeeper at Viking Stavanger Frode Olsen make a bit more sense. He once said: "Hodgson is by far the funniest coach I've ever had. He captivates and motivates the players before every session with a long stand-up show."), but Hodgson has set about changing England's nature.
The last vestige of that nature was apparent in the penalty shoot-out and even Hodgson could not affect that change. England's record now reads one victory from eight penalty shootouts. England is improving, but it is still a scorpion when it comes to spot-kicks.
3. This was the best game of the quarterfinals. We may have seen the first 0-0 of the tournament -- it took 28 games for that to happen -- but this was by far the most compelling of this knockout round.
You could argue that Germany, Spain and Portugal were such big favorites in their ties that their opponents approached them just with the intention of sitting back. The first 45 minutes was the most positive approach we had seen from England under Roy Hodgson, before normal service, or rather England's technical deficiencies in failing to keep possession, kicked in.
The rest of the match was all about if, and when, Italy would make the breakthrough. We were treated to a master-class in passing from Andrea Pirlo, whose final trick was the Panenka chipped penalty in the shoot-out, while Balotelli was always involved as well. For all his misses during the match, he showed admirable nerve to convert Italy's first penalty past his Manchester City teammate Hart.