Their soccer histories are linked indelibly – the game arrived in Italy with British industry in the late 19th century – though England and Italy have seldom met competitively. The Italians have won both tournament meetings, beating England 1-0 in the group stage at Euro 1980 and 2-1 in the third-place playoff at the 1990 World Cup.
England won Group D, but looked middling at best. The France draw looks worse in retrospect. The wide open Sweden match could have gone either way. Ukraine dominated possession and created more chances against then the English but could not finish up front. England allowed more touches inside their own penalty area in the group stages than any team except Denmark. They survived, largely, on fortune and great goalkeeping.
Italy finished second in Group C, despite an incoherent performance. Experimenting with formations, from a 3-5-2 to a 4-3-1-2, they never quite set the assembly line churning. The Azzurri put in a solid performance against Spain and looked good in the first 45 minutes against Croatia. Beyond that, Andrea Pirlo’s influence declined and, with it, Italy’s control of proceedings. They beat Ireland, mostly because they were just more talented.
The Italians are excellent passers and should control possession. All four midfielders can create and play on the ball. They can also confuse England’s midfield and central defense with movement. The midfield will drop deep and come forward in different combinations. Both Balotelli and Cassano, as well as Di Natale off the bench, can drop between the lines and drag defenders. They can force England not just to execute Hodgson’s defensive system but adapt and react within it.
England should have the advantage down the wings. Italy’s midfield is narrow and their fullbacks are vulnerable. England can exploit them with Glen Johnson and Ashley Cole. Getting Walcott’s speed off the bench in the second half could turn the tide. The English are also one of the best crossing teams at Euro 2012 and Italy are without their best defender Chiellini. Their key may be Gerrard. He’s adept at getting a foot on passes and breaking up buildup in midfield. His infamous “Hollywood balls” are just what England need when attacking quickly from deep positions. The worry is the Three don’t really have a player who can rattle Andrea Pirlo.
Prediction: This should be cagey and slow. Italy 1-0.
[Photo via Getty]