KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING
— KYIV: England shot out of yet another finals on penalties here in the early hours of a Ukrainian morning; yet the winners were not so much Italy but Germany.
A goalless extra-time draw in the Euro 2012 quarter-final between English and Italians was resolved by the Azzurri’s 4-2 success in the shootout. But the rampant Germans, whom Italy face in Thursday’s Warsaw semi-final, will have enjoyed two days’ more rest. Also, they will not carry in their muscles the fatigue fall-out inevitable for the Italians.
Both England manager Roy Hodgson and Italian opposite number Cesare Prandelli agreed that penalties represent a rough justice lottery. Shootout statistics are weighted against England and must turn one day. They have won only one of seven in major tournaments but can have no complaints.
England were outrun, outplayed, outpassed and outclassed.
Progress for England, rather than Italy, to the semi-finals would have represented an utter travesty. Hodgson would not have seen it that way and Prandelli was too polite to put it quite that bluntly but for anyone else to pretend otherwise would be unhelpful if not downright dishonest.
Italy had dominated the match, enjoyed almost two-thirds of the possession, created almost all the chances, hit the posts twice and had one ‘goal’ disallowed for a narrow offside decision.
Ironically, then, the first goalless draw of Euro 2012 had arrived in the knockout stages. England were even ahead briefly in the shootout, at 2-1 after a miss by Riccardo Montolivo. But then Ashley Young hit the bar and Ashley Cole had his kick saved by Gigi Buffon. Alessandro Diamanti cracked in the decisive penalty [The sequence (Italy first): Balotelli 1-0, Gerrard 1-1; Montolivo wide 1-1, Rooney 1-2; Pirlo 2-2, Young hits bar 2-2; Nocerino 3-2, Cole saved 3-2; Diamanti 4-2].
Hodgson had brought organisation and reactivated purpose and pride in the England camp. They had even finished top of their group which Italy had not; they had won two of their three group games while Italy had won only one. But the chasm between the mean standard of football was there fro all to read in the statistics. Italy not only possessed the ball, they owned it; England could only ever give it away.
Time and time again.
The duel enjoyed a bright, bubbly start. Daniele De Ross thudded a 30m drive against England keeper Joe Hart’s right-hand post after three minutes. England responded in like fashion two minutes later when Glenn Johnson, from close range, was defied fortuitously by Gigi Buffon’s upthrown left hand.
Hart’s Manchester City team-mate Mario Balotelli wasted three sharp offerings before England created another. Wayne Rooney laid off a perfect return pass only for Danny Wellbeck to snatch at the chance and pop a ‘free’ shot over the bar.
So it went on. This was Bayern v Chelsea adapted for a different stage in different colours. In the 52nd minute Italy contrived to squander three chances in one: Hart was very nearly surprised by a distance effort from Daniele De Rossi, blocked Balotelli’s shot on the rebound and was then fortunate that Montolivo could not pull his subsequent shot down below the crossbar.
John Terry, Joleon Lescott and Cole – winning his 98th cap – held the line for England but in midfield skipper Gerrard and anchor assistant Scott Parker ‘lost’ their legs while Rooney, for all his willing effort, continued to look ring-rusty at this rarefied level.
Hodgson was the first manager to blink and seek a change for the better with Andy Carroll and Theo Walcott replacing the lightweight Wellbeck and ineffective Milner after an hour. Italy coach Cesare Prandelli waited a further 20 minutes before bringing on Diamanti for the faded Antonio Cassano and then Antonio Nocerino for De Rossi.
The changes failed to disrupt the shape of the game. Italy continued to command, England to resist. Diamanti almost scored, too. He curled a cross into the penalty box and was probably as surprised as anyone to see Hart misjudge the flight and allow the ball to scud against the outside of that lucky right-hand post.
And so it ran on, through Sunday midnight and into Monday . . . and German smiles would have grown ever broader.
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