Classic Azzurri Matches – Italy vs England 2012
Italy went into the 2012 European Championship with the intention of restoring some credibility as one of Europe’s top footballing nations following their humiliation in South Africa two years prior, Conor Clancy takes a look at their Quarter-Final match against England.
Two years on from one of Italian football’s great capitulations, Cesare Prandelli and his Azzurri headed for Poland and the Ukraine with the intention of exorcising some demons.
The challenge was evident before a ball was kicked, as Italy were drawn in a group with Spain, Croatia and gritty underdogs Ireland.
Prandelli’s side had stuttered through the group stages. They put in an admirable shift against the then seemingly unstoppable world champions Spain, but they were yet to hand in a truly convincing performance. There were some positives, however, as the players showed versatility as they seamlessly transitioned from deploying a 3-5-2 formation to a 4-4-2-diamond system.
On the other hand, their quarter-final opposition – England – were trying to integrate an unfit and out of form Wayne Rooney into their starting eleven as he returned from suspension.
The term match is perhaps generous to England when discussing this particular event, as it implies the meeting was a contest. It was the Azzurri who controlled the game from the first minute, with the exception of a 10-minute spell in which England briefly looked to be a side deserving of their place at the tournament.
The tone was set early on as Daniele De Rossi rattled the woodwork within five minutes. The midfield trio of Riccardo Montolivo, Claudio Marchisio and De Rossi were fluid and interchanging throughout the game in front of the elegant Andrea Pirlo, who, as a result, was afforded the space to dictate and orchestrate everything positive Italy did.
The sophisticated and distinguished regista never seemed to break sweat. To make reference to his own autobiography – I Think Therefore I Play – this epitomizes what he means when he describes himself on the pitch.
“I’m a bit of a wandering gypsy on the pitch,” he wrote.
“A midfielder continually on the lookout for an unspoilt corner where I can move freely just for a moment, without suffocating markers sticking to me like shadows. All I’m after is a few square metres to be myself. A space where I can continue to profess my creed: take the ball; give it to a teammate, teammate scores. It’s called an assist and it’s my way of spreading happiness.”
The reality of the game is that he was afforded many unspoilt corners, and granted all the time he needed to showcase his passing range. Pirlo completed 114 of his 131 attempted passes on the night – a tally of over 30 passes more than the next most active player on the field.
The gulf in technical ability was evident for all to see, as Steven Gerrard – who boasted England’s best past success rate on the night – only completed 71 percent of his passes, while the worst passer in the Italian midfield was Montolivo, who still completed 79 percent of his attempts.
Remarkably, the game finished scoreless after 90-minutes, and remained without a goal after 120. The stalemate stood, despite Italy having 35 attempts at Joe Hart’s goal, 20 of these were on target. Rather contrastingly, England could only muster 9 attempts.
Italy will feel aggrieved to have not won the game without the assistance of penalties, as Mario Balotelli seemed to be waiting for the goal to move to him rather than run towards goal on the handful of occasions he found himself through against his Manchester City teammate.
Substitute Alessandro Diamanti hit the post with a rather fortuitous cross-come-shot before narrowly diverting a late attempt over the crossbar. Antonio Nocerino thought he had won the game late, only to be thwarted by the offside flag.
The penalty shoot-out got underway as Balotelli and Hart went head-to-head. The tension was palpable even through the television and the psychological battle was evident for the world to see. It was the former who came out on top however, as he swaggered up to the ball and almost shrugged it into the bottom corner as if there was no pressure at all.
Montolivo dragged his penalty wide, only to see Rooney put his beyond Gianluigi Buffon.
Then came arguably the most memorable moment of the tournament. The game’s standout player sauntered up field from the halfway line, nonchalantly juggling the ball on his right foot as he entered the 18-yard box.
The camera panned in on his face – which now, looking back looks naked without its rugged and almost cultivated beard – as he stood, staring at the imposing Hart in goal.
Pirlo trotted toward the ball and sent the England goalkeeper hopelessly leaping to his right, while he caressed the ball straight down the middle with one of the most tender and delicate touches you will see.
It was at that moment that the outcome was beyond doubt. Granted, England still lead, but the mood had changed. The tension was lifted. Hart’s psyching out techniques were reduced to ineffective absurdity. He, and England, had been defeated. They missed their two subsequent penalties.
The protagonist himself, and the scorer of the eventual match-winning penalty – Diamanti – admitted as much.
“Joe Hart was doing some strange movements, so when he dived I decided to take it like that and it went well. It put a bit of pressure on their takers and in fact Ashley Young missed his penalty after that.” Pirlo bragged to Rai Sport after the game.
Diamanti went further, saying he never even considered the possibility of missing as he prepared to take his turn.
“I did not think anything while I was taking my penalty, I only thought about scoring and going to Buffon to celebrate with him.”
Despite the game finishing scoreless, the utter domination of Italy was by far their most impressive performance of the tournament. That is, until they went on to play Germany in the semi-final.