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Damned, damned penalty shoot outs. For the first time in these European Championships, the destiny of a match was decided on penalties and in the quarter-finals Italy successfully overwhelmed England 4-2 in Kiev.
It would be easy to speak in terms of misfortune from penalty spot for England, taking into account the outcome in five previous major tournaments from 1990 to 2006. Still, the Azzurri deserved to reach the semi-final against Germany, a classic match in the history of football, as they played better and got more opportunities throughout the 120 minutes against too renunciative opponents.
The beginning was absolutely terrific. After three minutes Riccardo Montolivo crossed from the goal line and Daniele De Rossi hit the post with a superb left-footed drop kick from 30 yards. On their part, England immediately replied with a quick, efficient manoeuvre poorly finished by Glen Johnson.
Italy centre-backs Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci initially suffered the rapidity of Danny Welbeck and Wayne Rooney, whose diving header put the ball just past the woodwork.
The Azzurri had difficulty in performing at the same level of previous displays, perhaps due to the defensive attitude by England. In particular, harmony lacked among Montolivo and the Antonio Cassano-Mario Balotelli attacking tandem. Midway through the first half, the Manchester City striker triggered a counterattack, with John Terry eventually obstructing his shot.
Both teams got another chance whilst entering the half-a-hour. Balotelli was decently fed by Montolivo but he volleyed too weakly, then Welbeck missed the target for inches. Inspired by the genius of Andrea Pirlo and the rushes of left-back Federico Balzaretti, Italy emerged in the last minutes. Joe Hart saved on a strike by Cassano, Joleon Lescott avoided a finisher of Balotelli and England started to rattle.
The clearest opportunity came early in the second half. Montolivo served De Rossi with a header and the Roma warrior incredibly fired wide two steps away from the goal. Few minutes later, Hart parried a close attempt by Balotelli and Montolivo kicked out on the rebound. The England rearguard managed to stand up, despite fruitless attempts of applying the offside trap.
Manager Roy Hodgson opted for a more offensive formation replacing Welbeck with Andy Carroll and James Milner with Theo Walcott. Still, the Azzurri kept up ball possession and territorial supremacy. Newly-entered Antonio Nocerino was stopped by Glen Johnson before stoppage time and then Rooney shot wide with an overhead kick.
The first half of extra-time flowed with a series of attempts by obstinate Balotelli and a post hit by Alessandro Diamanti, who came in for Cassano, on a cross-cum-shot. The ex-West Ham talent himself eventually missed the target on a Balzaretti assist in the second half and then served Nocerino for a winning header disallowed due to offside.
Then, time for penalties came. Montolivo was the first to miss the target, but then the two Ashleys emulated him – Young hit the bar and Cole was hypnotised by Buffon. Finally, Diamanti converted the decisive shot, after a fantastic Panenka-like kick by Pirlo, and gave Italy the first Euro semi-final from 2000.
For long time penalty kicks were the bête noire of Italy, who broke the spell in the 2006 World Cup and once again this time after the elimination against Spain four years ago. But for England those 11 metres are still damned.
England 2-4 Italy p.s.o. (0-0 FT)
SportsUN Man of the Match: Andrea Pirlo.
England (4-4-1-1): Hart – Johnson, Terry, Lescott, Cole – Milner (61 Walcott), Gerrard, Parker (94 Henderson), Young – Rooney – Welbeck (60 Carroll). Manager: Roy Hodgson.
Italy (4-1-3-2): Buffon – Abate (90 + 1 Maggio), Barzagli, Bonucci, Balzaretti – Pirlo – Marchisio, Montolivo, De Rossi (80 Nocerino) – Cassano (78 Diamanti), Balotelli. Manager: Cesare Prandelli.
Referee: Pedro Proença (Portugal).
Goals: none. Penalty kicks: Balotelli goal, Gerrard goal, Montolivo missed, Rooney goal, Pirlo goal, Young missed, Nocerino goal, Cole missed, Diamanti goal.
Notes: additional time 0 and 3 FT, 1 and 1 ET. Corner kicks: 3-7.
Bookings: 82 Barzagli, 94 Maggio.