It was Rome in 1997 where England under Glenn Hoddle earned a hard fought point against Italy, sealing their place in the 1998 World Cup. It is with this same determination and unity that the 2012 England will approach this game; underdogs with belief.
In winning Group D, England avoided World and European Champions Spain but still come up against a side described by Roy Hodgson as “worthy opponents”. Italy themselves may well be grateful for finishing second in their group, avoiding the attacking fluidity of the French. While the other quarter finals may provide pace and flair, the Olympic Stadium in Kiev will play host to a battle of organisation and rigidity.
England sealed top spot with a workmanlike victory over co-hosts Ukraine. Sitting back and soaking up pressure waiting to hit the hosts on the counter, Hodgson’s men lacked fluidity but displayed no lack of fight nor desire. Steven Gerrard got his third assist in as many matches and Wayne Rooney marked his return to the side with a goal.
Facing Italy raises new questions for the new England boss, who is undefeated to date. While he sets his side up in two organised banks of four, hard to break down and biding their time to attack, he will be up against a side that is not set up to take the game to the opposition.
Hodgson, who has had spells at both Internazionale and Udinese, is not scared of changing a winning team and will be looking to utilise his squad. Andy Carroll could come in for Danny Wellbeck, providing a physical challenge to an Italian defence missing their most capable performer; Giorgio Chiellini.
While the core of the side will remain as the one which gained seven points in the Group stage, the wide positions could be an area the coach looks to freshen things up. James Miler has worked hard in the three games, covering more ground per minute than his teammates, but the pace of Theo Walcott or the guile of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain could come into play. Ashley Young has been hit-and-miss on the left and the crossing of Stewart Downing, in a game likely to have few chances, could tempt Hodgson.
Steven Gerrard’s impact as full-time captain has been evident. In a more disciplined role, he has attacked selectively, created chances while also working in tandem with Scott Parker to ensure the midfield unit remains tight. Former skipper John Terry has, despite the controversy surrounding his selection, lead the defensive line conscientiously and the pair will be critical to England’s chances here.
The Azzuri are the masters of organised defending, taking chances and playing with the backdrop of a scandal, and they have displayed all these stereotypical traits in their Group C campaign.
Coming into the tournament fresh from a Serie A match fixing scandal, Italy have earned a draw against Spain where they were rarely carved open and the same result against Croatia, followed by a win over Ireland.
Andrea Pirlo has made them tick, with the Juventus playmaker starting many of their attacking moves while also acting like a shield for his back four at times. Alongside him, Thiago Motta has impressed with his energy and drive. While they are missing their star centreback, coach Cesare Prandelli will have a well drilled and aware defence at his disposal.
Prandelli chose to adopt an unfashionable 3-5-2 formation in their first two games, enabling them to pack the midfield while also having significant attacking options. Antonia Cassano, dropping deep and running with the ball has been causing trouble, with Antonio Di Natale and Mario Balotelli fighting it out to partner him.
However, they switched to a flat back four against Ireland and though it ended in a win it was possibly the least convincing of their performances. Italy lacked options in wide areas and while Daniele De Rossi impressed in midfield, it is he who could drop into a centre back position should they return to using three at the back.
If they play three central midfielders, the England midfield pair of Gerrard and Scott Parker will face their toughest task to date. This is where Prandelli will be looking for his side to control the game.
Another threat to the Three Lions will be the enigma that is Mario Balotelli. As Premier League defenders are all too aware, the Manchester City forward has match winning ability but his teammates will be conscious of his ability to cost his side too. All eyes will be on him to see which Super Mario takes to the field.
It is in front of both defensive lines that the key battles will take place. Cassano will look to pick the ball up in areas Parker likes to occupy and at the other end, Wayne Rooney is likely to face the challenge of Pirlo as he looks to create space.
Both coaches are attentive to strategy and making pre-determined changes and this Quarter Final has the scope to be one that lacks entertainment but makes up for it with tactical intrigue. Both teams came into the tournament on a rocky road. Only one will progress and with English luck turning, it could be arrivederci to the Azzurri, just.
Prediction: England 1 – 1 Italy (England to go through on penalties)
Tags: Andrea Pirlo, England, Euro 2012, Italy, Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney