It’s here at last. June, 24th. Eight years ago, England exited Euro 2004 with a whimper. Punished for their pathetic penalties by Portugal, another agonising end hurt. In truth, England didn’t look half as threatening once Wayne Rooney had limped off and the only saving grace was the grudging recognition of Owen Hargreaves’ technical excellence in defeat.
Quarter-finals are usually the point of no return for England. Only twice have the Three Lions roared past this point in a major tournament since the one we hosted back in ’66 – and Lady Luck played her part on both occasions. By rights, England should have lost their last eight clash with Spain, who were denied the winner by an errant offside flag, at Euro ’96 but the sheer novelty of triumphing on spot-kicks was electrifying. Six years earlier, only the Gary Lineker in extra time carried Bobby Robson’s boys beyond the captivating Cameroon.
The realism that has accompanied Roy Hodgson’s brief tenure as national coach has been refreshing but the by-product of England’s serene progress through a tricky group is the raising of hopes up and down the land. Organisation, disciplined and lots of honest endeavour has carried England this far but beating an under-appreciated and united Italian outfit will need some artistry to be married to the application Hodgson demands.
Grit is one way of getting through but desire and passion won’t be enough. England’s goalless draw in Rome that clinched a spot at France ’98 has been turned into a backs-to-the-wall battling display over the last decade but that point in June 1997 was based on far more than just Bulldog spirit. The manner of England’s passing that evening led Gazetta dello Sport to conclude that this was the night England ‘graduated from kick and rush’ and, in truth, Ian Wright was exceptionally unlucky not to have made it a more comfortable evening. The template for success was created in Nantes a few months earlier when England comfortably outclassed the Azurri on their way to winning Le Tournoi. Wright raced on a majestic pass from Paul Scholes before returning the favour for the late-arriving little pocket rocket, so shabbily treated in the end by Sven-Goran Eriksson, to double the lead from twenty yards. It doesn’t take much imagination to see Gerrard and Rooney painting pretty patterns like those this evening.
The build-up to England’s biggest game since that sunny Saturday at Wembley sixteen years ago has been dominated by discussion of the Italian influence on our national side – a rather lazy construct dreamed up by hacks linking Capello, catenaccio and the Italians who have earned their living here since the mid-90s. It rather understates the slipping standards of Serie A since the days when Football Italia beamed a Sunday afternoon game into British front rooms as the likes of Gascoigne, Platt and Ince strutted in their stuff in Italy. As Hodgson pointed out last night, it also understates his own influence on Italian football.
They’ve held Hodgson in high esteem in Italy for a while. Not just for reshaping the philosophy and technical strategy at Internazionale in the mid-to-late nineties but also because Hodgson’s achievements against Italian sides over the years have been significant. His Malmo side knocked Internazionale out of the European Cup in 1989, drawing at the San Siro thanks a late equaliser from Leif Engvist after a 1-0 home win. Hodgson’s Swiss team took four points off the Italians as they qualified for the World Cup in 1994 – beating Arrigo Sacchi’s side 1-0 in Berne and drawing 2-2 in Cagliari. No reminder of this website will need reminding of that magical night at the Cottage when Hodgson’s Fulham routed a shell-shocked Juventus, either.
Can Roy rekindle the magic in Kiev tonight? Yes, but it’s not likely to set the pulses racing. Danny Welbeck’s movement and pace should test an Italian back line shorn of their most capable centre back in Giorgio Chiellini. The Juve defender’s thigh injury could see Daniele de Rossi pressed into service as a libero again. Brian McBride might have forgiven de Rossi, mocked up by Gazetta yesterday as ready to stop his ‘idol’ Steven Gerrard, for his cowardly assault at the 2006 World Cup but I haven’t. It is show to be a test of Wayne Rooney’s temperament, although the maturing Manchester United man should be sharper having got eighty-odd minutes under his belt on Friday. At the other end of the pitch, England’s centre halves – plus Scott Parker and the skipper – must quell Italy’s pacey forward line. The threat could come from anywhere: be it the deep-lying Pirlo, marauding Marchisio or Brazilian-born Thiago Motta. That’s before we even consider the likes of Cassano, who looks revitalised up front, and the brooding Balotelli.
Width will be vital for England as Italy will be compact whether Cesare Prandelli opts for a 3-5-2 or the midfield diamond.
With Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson expected to push forward from the full back positions, the discipline of England’s wide players will be crucial. That’s why James Milner – unfairly maligned considering that he’s just finished a title-winning season with Manchester City – will probably start on the right of midfield. His versatility might count against him (Milner could play in any midfield position and even at full-back) but his boundless energy should not. Those unstinting shuttle runs from box to box offer the vulnerable Johnson reassurance in his own third of the pitch and worry opponents tempted to leave the two-footed 26 year-old alone for too long. Far better to use the pace and fearlessness of Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, particularly as the teenage starlet isn’t scarred by previous tournament failures, off the bench against tiring defenders.
Hodgson has spent years on the big stage. He won’t be overrawed. England will be ready. But should they fall short this evening, let’s trust the current incumbent to have his own side ready for Brazil in a couple of time.