DONETSK, UKRAINE - Five key players to watch in Sunday’s Euro 2012 quarterfinal between Italy and England at Kiev’s Olympic Stadium.
F Wayne Rooney, England
Was there rust against Ukraine after his two-game suspension? Sure. There were missed opportunities, headers that normally would have been planted in the back of the net that instead clunked wildly off the side of his noggin. But when the chips were down, when England needed a goal, it was Rooney. Who else? He’ll definitely have to be much sharper against an Italian side that can produce one of the most suffocating defences in the world. Chances will be few and far between, so it will be up to Rooney to make them count.
MF Andrea Pirlo, Italy
Even at age 32, Pirlo is still Italy’s smooth-as-silk quarterback of the midfield. While Spain’s dynamic duo of Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez get more ink, the Italian veteran is still one of the top performers in the game at his position. The English seem to have adopted a bend-but-don’t-break gameplan, meaning they are quick to back up into their own territory and go on the defensive whenever the opposition has the ball. That should open up some space for Pirlo through the midfield and give him time to find teammates in the seams.
MF Steven Gerrard, England
Maybe he isn’t the game-breaking force each time he touches the ball like in years past, but there still is power in his boot and finesse in his game. It was Gerrard’s cross, if you’ll recall, that was tapped in by Wayne Rooney for the two-foot putt that gave England a 1-0 lead over the Ukraine on Tuesday (with a slight deflection en route to Rooney by a Ukrainian defender, of course). Perhaps the most impressive part of Gerrard’s contribution to this team at Euro 2012 has been his leadership, using his role as captain to set the example for England’s large gaggle of young players. Against a quality opponent such as Italy, Gerrard’s composure will be a must.
F Mario Balotelli, Italy
This guy is a Headline in Cleats. On or off the pitch, he just can’t stay out of the limelight, often for the wrong reasons. His decision to acknowledge scoring a goal against Ireland during the group stage by yelling at manager Cesare Prandelli for not starting him was, simply put, bush-league stuff. At the same time, much like Rooney, this guy is a difference maker. In a match that likely will feature two similar game plans of sitting back and waiting for the counter attack, one flick of Balotelli’s boot is all that will be needed to change the outcome.
G Joe Hart, England
The leadership and composure exhibited by the England No. 1 is a huge reason the Three Lions have come this far. Gone are the days when English fans had to fret about the age of fossil David James or the yips of David (Hands of Clod) Green. Sure, Hart was helped out by some erratic Ukraine shooting, not to mention a goal that wasn’t counted, in England’s controversial 1-0 victory over the hosts at Donbass Arena that punched the ticket of the Three Lions to advance to the quarters. Then again, if it was not for Hart, England doesn’t get this far. With Hart back there, the English have confidence against any foe, even as one as difficult as Italy.
BREAKDOWN OF ITALY VERSUS ENGLAND
Italy (1 wins, 2 draws, 0 losses in group stage, runner-up in Group C)
- Tied Spain 1-1
- Tied Croatia 1-1
- Beat Republic of Ireland 2-0
Andrea Pirlo, 1
Marco Bolatelli, 1
Antonio Cassano, 1
Antonio Di Natale, 1
Italy win if:
They don’t lapse into that defensive-first shell early in the game, Sure, smothering opponents is this team’s bread-and-butter. It need not waver from that. At the same time, dropping back after collecting a first-half lead versus Croatia probably ended up costing them a game they were controlling, resulting in a 1-1 draw. Manager Cesare Prandelli promised a side with more pace and offensive ambition, so let’s see if he practices what he preaches. Ukraine exposed England’s defence at times but could not convert on its chances, Italy’s finishers are far more efficient.
England (2 wins, 1 draw, 0 losses, won Group D)
- Tied France 1-1
- Beat Sweden 3-2
- Beat Ukraine 1-0
Wayne Rooney, 1
Danny Welbeck, 1
Theo Walcott, 1
Andy Carroll, 1
Joleon Lescott, 1
England Wins If:
They tighten up in the midfield and at the back. Despite all the hype and hoopla over England’s deserved trip to the quarters, their defence allowed two goals to the Swedes and looked wobbly versus Ukraine. Goalkeeper Joe Hart has played a major role in England’s march to the final eight, but he’ll need more than that against a solid Italian side. Scott Parker and James Milner can not allow as much space in the midfield as they did against Ukraine.
Did You Know?
- That these two icons of the sport have not faced each other in an international tournament in 22 years. To trace their last such meeting, you must go all the way back to 1990 when the host Azzurri beat England 2-1 in the third-place game at the World Cup, which was won by Germany. The only other time they clashed at a World Cup or Euros came in group play at Euro 1980, a match won by Italy 1-0.
- That they haven’t actually faced each other since the Italians posted a 2-1 victory in a friendly in 2002.
- That English goalie Joe Hart will be facing a familiar foe in Italian striker Marco Balotelli. The two are teammates with Man City. Wonder if Hart has been keeping mental notes of Balotelli’s tendencies during practice the past few months in order to prepare for a potential meeting such as this.