England’s run through the group stage was characterized by a somewhat flavorless attack and effective adherence to a dogged 4-4-1-1 system that eschewed individual flair in favor of obedient positional organization. New coach Roy Hodgson has drilled his squad to defend deep in their own half and present a solid block of faceless artisans willing to commit themselves to the team cause and work tirelessly to not concede ground. This approach served to earn a creditable 1-1 tie with a talented French squad and two effective, but uninspiring victories against Sweden and the hosts Ukraine. Long-suffering English fans regard their team as having little or no chance of winning the tournament and thus, bearing low expectations, have been relatively pleased to see their team advance, win the group, and avoid facing Spain in the quarterfinals. In this air of new found English pragmatism, these types of ends-justifying-means results are a more-than-acceptable substitute for free-flowing, expansive football, even if it is grim to watch at times.
Italy arrive in Kiev having displayed some Jekyll and Hyde-like tendencies through the group stages by playing superbly to earn a tie against the vaunted Spanish; playing one good and one not-so-good half in a 1-1 result with Croatia and grinding out an unspectacular (except for a world-class volleyed goal from Mario Balotelli) win against an abject Ireland. That being said, there has been an air of vitality about some of the Italians’ play and Cesare Prandelli’s willingness to change formations has added occasional verve and unpredictability to their approach and has, for considerable stretches of their games, defied the dour defensive stereotype that has dogged them for so long. The loss of Giuseppe Rossi prior to the tournament has been mitigated by the return to form of Antonio Cassano who in tandem with the lively Antonio Di Natale and enigmatic Balotelli has been a troublesome question for defenses to answer.
For all its appetizing possibilities, it is unfortunately not hard to envision this match being played at a turgid pace governed by wariness and safety, much like a heavyweight fight between combatants employing rope-a-dope, clinging-on tactics to wear down the other and win on points.
The potential for a moment of great skill and inventiveness is certainly there from either team and we will relish the flash of genius from Balotelli or Rooney that could change the game into a fiesta. Intriguingly, both have also shown they are capable of moments of combustible madness that could transform fiesta to farce and the naked flame of pressure always seem to burn brightest around these powder keg players in big games with so much at stake. The game also affords the privilege of seeing two of the world’s finest goalkeepers on display and it is almost certain that Joe Hart and Gianluigi Buffon will be called upon to produce game-changing contributions of their own in order to help their team on to the semifinals.
Penalty shootout prediction? England never wins on penalties………..