(Reuters) - The doom-mongers said Italy’s Euro 2012 quarter-final with England had 0-0 and penalties written all over it and although that is what transpired, the Azzurri deservedly progressed after looking fresher and more inventive.
England defended manfully - as they almost always do - but it is not enough in an international tournament and when Alessandro Diamanti’s winning spot kick hit the back of the net on Sunday, purists Europe-wide heaved a sigh of relief.
Inexperienced Mario Balotelli missed a host of chances, and Italy’s lack of clinical finishing could well be found out in Thursday’s semi-final with Germany, but he at least found himself in decent positions unlike the poor Wayne Rooney.
One diving header over and a misdirected overhead kick was all England’s usual talisman could muster in a leggy display which belied the fact he had only played one match in Ukraine and Poland because of suspension and should have looked fresher than all the rest.
Italy dominated possession with 64 percent of the ball and had 35 shots to England’s nine, with 20 on target. Daniele De Rossi and Diamanti hit the post and Antonio Nocerino had a goal disallowed for offside.
Gone are the days of Italian catenaccio and trying to seal 1-0 wins, whatever the blank score line says. Pundits still comment that Italy are defensive, but that is because they have good defenders, not because of the style of play.
Italy see holders Spain as the high watermark, with coach Cesare Prandelli praising his Latin brothers every time he can, but Sunday’s game was in some ways more entertaining than the world champions’ cagey 2-0 win over France on Saturday.
Spain might have managed two more goals with 30 minutes less game time but Italy were always looking to score, unlike Spain and certainly unlike England.
The Azzurri have learnt one thing from the English and nowadays they look much more threatening from dead balls than in the past, meaning all their attempts at goal do have not to come from clever flicks or sublime Andrea Pirlo passes.
AC Milan thought 33-year-old Pirlo was washed up last year when they let him join rivals Juventus on a free transfer only for him to inspire the Turin side to steal Milan’s Serie A title.
The 2006 World Cup winner sprayed the ball around the Kiev pitch like he owned the place, which he did for large parts of the contest as Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker were run ragged in a one-dimensional English 4-4-2. His chipped penalty was coolness personified.
Pirlo still needs to move closer to the opposing goal to be really effective but Germany will identify him as the man they have to stop to reach the final. Indeed, all of Italy’s four goals in the group stage were scored or created by Pirlo.
England missed the injured Frank Lampard, someone with guile to create like Pirlo, but in truth England’s long tale of woe when it comes to major tournaments is a just reflection of their creative limitations whatever the glamour of the Premier League.
Italy kept the ball for long spells but moved it faster and were more forward-thinking than Spain. The lack of a finisher though may prompt Prandelli to mull bringing in Antonio Di Natale for Balotelli, who at least dispatched his penalty with aplomb.
Italy’s penalty shootout record improved to three successes in eight at major tournaments while England have now won only one of seven.
But it was not penalty demons that did for England, it was the footballing gods who knew full well that Italy had deserved to win.
Editing by Justin Palmer