England team: Hart, Johnson, Terry, Lescott, Cole, Milner, Parker, Gerrard, Young, Rooney and Welbeck.
Two titans of international football will square off on Sunday as the redemptive Three Lions take on the experienced Italians. With a date with Germany in the semifinals, both teams are going to want to continue improbable runs through the European Championship.
For Italy, manager Cesare Prandelli has done a fantastic job making Italy fluent with passing and possession. Considering the match-fixing scandal back home, the Azzuri have seamlessly put it aside just like in the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
What’s even more surprising is how Prandelli has made Italy not depend on traditional catenaccio tactics but rather more aggressive, free-flowing football. The most important player in Italy’s midfield has undoubtedly been the resurgent Andrea Pirlo. After looking like age had caught up with him in Italy’s disappointing run in South Africa, Pirlo’s time with Juventus has rejuvenated his abilities to maintain possession and rack up clinical assists. If England continues to play defensive, expect Pirlo to be the Three Lions’ greatest threat as he’ll spearhead attacks on England’s defenders. England must also be wary of Antonio Cassano whose pace and creativity has benefited from the chemistry he has with Pirlo and the rest of Italy’s midfield.
Italy has also shown that they have plenty of pace as they build chances against opponents. Against an England team which values shape and solidity, Italy could quicken their tempo to unlock their opponent’s defense. England has been lucky that the number of chances they’ve given up haven’t lead to more goals so Italy’s strikers must be clinical with the opportunities given to them. Whether it’s the erratic Mario Balotelli or the less explosive veteran Antonio di Natale up front is a major decision that can determine the outcome of the match.
For England, optimism is high as the expectations were lower heading into the Euro than they’ve been in the past. Manager Roy Hodgson has stuck to his trademark defensive tactics where England has defended in numbers and exposed opponents on the counter. Yet, despite the simple tactics, England look like they have more belief as the players seem to have responded well with having a quality English manager.
In terms of standout players, England have particularly benefited from goalie Joe Hart who was spectacular against Ukraine. Unlike prior English goalies, Hart hasn’t made any dreadful mistakes and has made stunning saves which have saved the Three Lions on numerous occasions.
Steven Gerrard also deserves praise as being England’s chief play-maker from central midfield which was a concern heading into the tournament. While not having Frank Lampard is a bad loss, Gerrard has benefited from having Scott Parker stay back defensively which allows the Liverpool star to stay up front and become a joint leader in assists for the Euro.
Yet, England’s forwards need to be less wasteful with their chances which were evident against Ukraine. The return of Wayne Rooney is a major boost to the team and his first goal was much needed considering all of his struggles. His strong rapport with Manchester United teammate Danny Welbeck will be essential in breaking down a fallible Italian defense that will be missing the imposing presence of Giorgio Chiellini. Center halves Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci are going to have their hands full trying to stifle the pressure and speed of Rooney, Welbeck, Ashley Young and subs like Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Overall, Italy should be expected to dominate possession and create numerous chances against a conservative English team who has shown resiliency in absorbing opposing chances. Yet Prandelli won’t throw caution away either with an Italian team that has always relied on their steadfast defensive roots. Therefore, an even deadlock may form between two teams who will focus on avoiding any costly mistakes.
As the match draws near, two teams which carried many doubts heading into Poland will square off with everything on the line. While Italy’s midfield will largely dictate the match, Rooney and the rest of England’s attacking options may give the Three Lions a crucial advantage on the counter. In the end, it may likely take one moment of brilliance or collapse to determine the difference between the Azzuri and the Three Lions.
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