Monday, 25 June 2012

England Suffer Shootout Heartbreak Yet Again

by George Kimber-Sweatman

Man of the Match: Andrea Pirlo

Once again, England’s footballers were knocked out in the quarter-finals of a major tournament by a penalty shootout defeat. This time, it came after a valiant effort against a far more technically-gifted and experienced Italy side and after a tournament campaign that exceeded the expectations of most - so it was not all doom and gloom.
The closing quarter-final of this summer’s European Championships began with most expecting a closely-fought encounter, with at most only the single goal separating the sides – and so it turned out. The match certainly started with a bang as Italy hit the post through a thunderous Daniele de Rossi volley which just curled too far from an Italian point of view. Only a matter of minutes later, England had a golden chance to take the lead themselves as they broke down the right and right-back Glen Johnson almost finished off the move that he had started, but just failed to get enough power on his shot as the ball became stuck underneath his feet and Gianluigi Buffon made a reaction save.
The match then started to take the shape expected at the outset, as the two cautious teams reverted to type and it became more of a midfield battle. There were, however, more chances for both sides before the half came to an end: Scott Parker fired wide from an errant Buffon punch on 12 minutes, before Wayne Rooney headed over the bar and enigmatic striker Mario Balotelli broke the offside trap worryingly often but was thwarted eventually in each instance by the solid-looking English defence. Despite Italy’s domination of possession – helped in no small part by Andrea Pirlo’s craft and flair – it had been a fairly even half, with England creating plenty of chances to go with Italy’s inevitable attempts on goal.
In the second half, however, Italy’s superior quality began to show and England looked increasingly likely to concede the vital first goal of the match. Wave after wave of Italian attacks flowed towards the English goal, as the Three Lions gave the ball away far too often on the rare occasions that they were afforded possession. Indeed, just 3 minutes after the restart, de Rossi inexplicably fired wide from just 6 yards out when unchallenged following a Joe Hart punch – perhaps snatching at the golden opportunity. On 52 minutes, England were given another let-off as first de Rossi had an effort saved by Hart, before Balotelli suffered the same fate and Riccardo Montolivo fired over from 3 yards under vital pressure from Johnson. England were certainly hanging on. They did, though, have chances of their own as Danny Welbeck fired just over the bar with England’s best chance, before Ashley Young’s effort from substitute Andy Carroll’s knockdown was well blocked by Ignazio Abate. Following some heroic blocks to prevent Joe Hart from being made to work in the English goal, Rooney was inches away from connecting with another dangerous Steven Gerrard set-piece delivery.
Then there was more drama to come as both sides came close to stealing the victory in the dying minutes. Firstly, only a valiant Johnson block prevented Antonio Nocerino from providing the sucker punch after a perfect first touch, then England broke away in the final minute of stoppage time, with Ashley Cole’s tireless run ending with a cross that was just too high for Carroll, who still managed to provide a header for Rooney to acrobatically fire just over the bar with an overhead kick attempt. It would have been harsh on Italy to have scored then, but the 8,000 England fans in Kiev’s Olympic Stadium and the tens of millions watching at home would certainly have been screaming and dancing around in delight at what would have been one of the most euphoric and dramatic sporting moments in recent memory.
And so we went into 30 minutes of extra time in an attempt to find a winner. Italy continued to dominate for the duration and it became increasingly apparent that surviving long enough to force a penalty shootout would be an outcome that England would be content with. Those feelings were extended as Italy hit the post for a second time; this time through former-West Ham man Alessandro Diamanti, as he deceived Joe Hart with a mishit cross which almost snuck in. But English hearts were in mouths twice more before time was up. Initially, Italy were awarded a free kick within shooting distance with specialist Andrea Pirlo in their side. Luckily, it was left to Balotelli to strike the crucial attempt and he proceeded to smash the ball extremely high over the crossbar. Finally, Italy thought that they had taken the lead on 115 minutes, as Nocerino headed in from close range – only to be denied by a confident and correct assistant’s flag for offside.
The penalty shootout that had been looming for most of the match finally became reality after a 0-0 draw that had been anything but dull. Mario Balotelli was the first man to face the music and coolly passed the ball into the bottom corner, past Manchester City teammate Joe Hart to make it 1-0. However, England captain Steven Gerrard followed suit with a powerful finish. Italy were the first to crack under the pressure as Riccardo Montolivo fired just wide of the post and England took full advantage to get their noses in front through an unstoppable Wayne Rooney spot-kick into the top left corner. Then came what many neutrals have labelled the highlight of the tournament so far; Andrea Pirlo stepped up with the his country’s expectations weighing heavily on his shoulders but managed to produce a chipped finish straight down the centre that was the epitome of a calm head under pressure. 2-2.
Ashley Young was next up for England, who was unlucky to see his effort cannon back off the crossbar – still 2-2. The Azzurri regained the lead through a Nocerino penalty which sent Joe Hart the wrong way and suddenly, it was England who were under pressure again, having been in the driving seat only two penalties earlier. England’s most capped player in tournament football Ashley Cole stepped up next, fresh from his successful spot-kick for Chelsea in the Champions League Final shootout. Unfortunately, he could not reproduce such a finish and had his weak effort saved by Gianluigi Buffon. So, Alessandro Diamanti took the long walk from halfway line to penalty spot knowing that if he converted, Italy would win – and convert he did, sending Joe Hart diving the wrong way. Game over. Another English penalty shootout disappointment. Another two years before our next attempt.
There is no denying that Italy fully deserved their victory in Kiev and it would have been unbelievably harsh on them had England scraped an unlikely victory. The possession statistics tell most of the story of dominance (Italy had 64% possession compared to England’s 36%), but not the whole story – Italy had 35 attempts on goal compared to England’s meagre 9.
England can only dream of having players with the technical ability of man of the match Andrea Pirlo, who controlled the match in an apparently tireless and effortless fashion. His performance was particularly impressive considering his age of 33, which is relatively old for an international footballer. He scarcely made a mistake as his range of passing and footballing genius shone through – he was peerless on the night and will, no doubt, cause Germany all sorts of problems in the semi-finals on Thursday. England hardly got close to him.
However, it would be unfair to suggest that it was a one-man effort, for it was certainly not. Right back Ignazio Abate was a constant threat before his forced exit through injury, as he played in a much more attacking, almost right wing role, rather than carrying out the more defensive duties that his position suggests. The rest of the defence were as strong as ever in blunting the England attack and the five-man midfield controlled the match, thanks in no small part to Pirlo’s brilliance.
England, on the other hand, set up with the same tactics that they began the tournament with against France – defensively strong and with their goalscoring opportunities coming on the breakaway and from dangerous set-pieces. Captain Steven Gerrard was again immense alongside Scott Parker in the engine room of central midfield and the back four threw themselves in front of everything to produce some heroic last-ditch tackles and blocks. Substitutes Theo Walcott and Andy Carroll again impressed in giving England more pace and height in attack, but the wingers and strikers in the starting line-up were a disappointment. James Milner had his best game of the tournament and was perhaps unlucky to be substituted, Wayne Rooney seemed off the pace, Danny Welbeck wasted England’s best chance and Ashley Young was woeful – losing the ball almost every time that he received it. And that, in essence, was England’s downfall – after working so hard to regain possession of the ball, they gave it away far too often and thus gave Italy the chance to reassert their dominant pressure. They were lucky to remain on level terms in order to reach the penalty shootout as Italy wasted countless golden chances, but no blame is attached to Ashleys Young and Cole, who missed their crucial penalties – they had the confidence and bravery to volunteer for the pressure-cooker situation, but despite their practice, just couldn’t manage to convert when it really mattered. It was a disappointing and emptying feeling yet again, but to blame the tournament exit on those two penalties after an eventful and tense, sometimes unwatchable two hours of football would be wholly unfair.

So what next for Roy Hodgson’s fledgling England side? Well, they can certainly take heart from their performances in this tournament as they exceeded expectations in progressing from a difficult group in first place before meeting an Italian side who became World Champions only 6 years ago and who were ultimately too good. The team togetherness and unity, alongside the passion and resolve on display in the last couple of weeks is certainly encouraging for the future and something that England fans are unfortunately not too accustomed to. For Roy Hodgson to instil these qualities within such a short time as manager also bodes well, as does his personal performance throughout the championships. His timing and selection of substitutions has been immaculate, as he has affected results in a positive manner from his position in the technical area. Every big decision or gamble that he made with regards to team selection paid off – Andy Carroll, Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney and Joleon Lescott all scoring on their selection which had been debatable pre-match in each case.
England cannot hope to pass the ball as well as the likes of Italy, Spain and Germany in the near future, as our players simply do not have the technical ability to do so in most cases. Therefore, our defensive solidity is a fantastic asset to have and a solid foundation upon which to build. English youngsters are taught from a young age to kick the ball long in an attempt to remove any danger to their own goal, unless they are identified as prospects for the future and inducted into professional, high-quality football academies at top-level clubs. They are applauded for hoofing the ball clear and until that changes, it will be difficult for younger players to work their way through the ranks to the national team who do have the technical ability to warrant a change in the team’s style of play. There is nothing wrong, however, with the way that England are set up to play at this present time – if it is our best means of being successful and of winning a game of football, then it is surely the correct method to use, even if it is  less attractive than the intricate passing of the highest level sides.
There is certainly hope for the future and for a more successful attempt at World Cup success in two years’ time. England’s penalty hoodoo may have struck again and it may have felt as disappointing as ever, but perhaps the team have found their level – within the top 8 teams, but not quite good enough to break into the top 4. We are, after all, the seventh-best team in the world according the official rankings of world governing body FIFA. We have some improving to do before the summer of 2014 in Brazil where we hope that we will finally progress past the quarter-finals of a major competition for the first time in recent memory.

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