KIEV (Reuters) - Italy needed penalties to eliminate England and reach the semi-finals of Euro 2012 on Sunday after the match finished goalless at the end of extra time but any other outcome would have been a travesty.
The Italians, whose shootout record largely mirrors England's for failures and disappointments, came back to win 4-2 after trailing 2-1 when the outstanding Andrea Pirlo recalled one of the great moments of European Championship history to turn the spot kicks their way.
The most famous chipped penalty of all came from another player with the initials A P - Antonin Panenka - for Czechoslovakia against West Germany in 1976 and, while that spot kick helped the Czechs win the title 36 years ago, Pirlo's brought Italy level at 2-2 and paved the way to a victory.
It was an utterly audacious strike and left England keeper Joe Hart floundering after diving for what he thought would be a normal shot. The successful penalty also capped a near-perfect evening for Pirlo, who was named man of the match.
In contrast, England winger Ashley Young, who had a woeful match, lashed the next spot kick against the bar so instead of putting his side 3-2 up they remained level and the psychological balance swung Italy's way.
Antonio Nocerino then scored for Italy to make it 3-2 to them, Ashley Cole's penalty was saved by Gianluigi Buffon and that set up Alessandro Diamanti to score the winner and put Italy into a semi-final against Germany in Warsaw on Thursday.
But Italy really should have seen off England long before the match finally ended at 27 minutes past midnight local time.
After a relatively even opening half an hour, which saw both teams go close to scoring in the first five minutes, Italy - and Pirlo - took a grip on the game and never really let go.
Before the match England manager Roy Hodgson and his captain Steven Gerrard pinpointed Pirlo as the man who would dominate the game given half a chance, and that is exactly how it panned out.
Creating space, playing laser beam passes both short and long, linking play and evading his markers, Pirlo was at the heart of most of the 35 Italian goal attempts.
The fact Italy failed to score was down to some stubborn England defending - and some woeful Italian finishing.
Mario Balotelli, determined, he said on Friday, to get one over on his Manchester City club mate Hart, had plenty of chances to do that, but did not find the net until he struck the first penalty home in the shootout.
He did though go close four times in the match, including an overhead kick which flew over the bar.
Antonio Cassano, Nocerino, who had a late header disallowed, and Diamanti also had chances as did Daniele De Rossi who would have given the evening a totally different complexion if his stunning 25-metre shot, struck with the outside of his left boot, had gone in rather than smashed against a post.
Two minutes later Glen Johnson had England's best attempt from close range when Buffon scooped his shot away, initially with one hand. But apart from that, and a few isolated chances from Wayne Rooney, England were totally outclassed.
The longer the game went on, with Italy hammering on the door but finding no way in, so the almost inevitable conclusion came more into focus.
England are serial losers in penalty shootouts having been eliminated that way by Germany at the 1990 World Cup and Euro 1996, by Argentina at the 1998 World Cup and by Portugal at Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup.
This was their fourth defeat on penalties at the knockout stage of a major tournament in 14 years -- and while they did well to get this far after their troublesome build-up, for once this was not a case of poor old England.
They were extremely fortunate to see out 120 minutes against Italy, and only had themselves to blame for failing to win the match when they went ahead in the shootout.
Still, under new manager Roy Hodgson, they remain "unbeaten" and leave the tournament with their self-respect restored, if not their ability to score from the penalty spot.
Editing by Ken Ferris