The final quarter-final of Euro 2012 takes place this evening as the Azzurri tackle Roy Hodgson’s England in Kiev with the winner setting up a rendezvous with Germany on Thursday night.
It is a meeting of two of the tournaments more conservative sides that are well drilled, disciplined and tactically aware. Italy are renowned for possessing such assets in their artillery but it is England who have taken a leaf out of their counterparts to find themselves in the last-eight.
Roy Hodgson has instilled a new sense of belief in the English dressing room, remonstrating to them that they can be the dark horses of the competition and go afar. Although their play has been minimal in an attacking sense, the discipline and desire must be applauded. Allowing other teams to come on to them, they have found a way to hit teams on the counter and make the most of set-pieces which have been taken superbly. With Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker providing security just in front of the back four, the two wingers – Ashley Young and James Milner – have been able to link-up with the front-men. Interestingly, England are only second to Portugal in turning limited possession into goals.
The main protagonist for the Three Lions is Gerrard, who has been rolling back the years. Although he is unable to produce those gut wrenching runs through the middle of the park like he used to, he still provides defence splitting passes with a superb awareness and vision to match. He still has not lost his touch in that sense and he will be pivotal tonight if England are to succeed.
Wayne Rooney, who marked his comeback to the team with a goal on Tuesday night against Ukraine which sent them through as group winners, is just as important. A born match winner, looking to make a statement in a big tournament scenario after going eight years without a goal up until his tap in against the hosts. If he can play to his ability, then there is no doubt England can hurt Italy. He did show some rustiness in mid-week but that should not be an issue now he has felt his way into the tournament and got that elusive goal.
Italy on the other hand have steadily gone about with their work and have been impressive. They more than matched Spain in their opening game with Danielle De Rossi excelling just in front of the back three as a makeshift sweeper. He and Andrea Pirlo are the creative influences in the middle of the park as they look to plot their opponent’s downfall.
Mario Balotelli, residing in England with Manchester City, has the spotlight cascading over him as it so often does – but it now it appears to be more than ever. He will start the game up top, partnering Antonio Cassano, and can be the Azzurri’s match winner if he is singing from the same hymn sheet as his teammates. You feel that if he or Rooney have the better game, then that will make all the difference in who progresses.
Coach Cesare Prandelli will continue with his favoured 3-5-2 formation that has worked brilliantly since his tenure. Nevertheless, he will be aware of the pace England have down the flanks and will get his players to tuck in when defending to quell that influence. England too will sit back and allow Italy to play their game at will before hitting them on the counter and their pace could also be the difference.
It is such a close one to call with both sides on a current even footing. There will not be a flurry of free flow attacking football, but it will just be as fascinating all the same.
Ross Mackiewicz is a Soccerlens columnist. You can follow him on Twitter.