Chip off the Old Block

An Italian job awaits England and captain Steven Gerrard in a classic quarter-final clash in Kiev. Photo courtesy oleole.Having entered the tournament refreshingly free from much of the usual delusional over-optimism, it will have surprised many that England finished top of their group on Tuesday. It may not have been pretty, but having scored in every game and shown defensive discipline throughout (10 minutes against Sweden apart) many are comparing this version of England to the style of their quarter-final opponents, Italy.

France's surprising defeat to Sweden meant that England dodged the bullet with 'Spain' written on it and will instead face the Azzuri in Kiev on Sunday. While this may not quite be the catenaccio-oriented Italy of tournaments gone by, parallels between the opposing teams have already been drawn, with both reliant on defensive solidity, skilled but temperamental strikers, a slightly aging central midfielder and two of the best goalkeepers around.

While Joe Hart's excellent form comes as no great surprise, the way captain Steven Gerrard has taken to Roy Hodgson's emphasis on shape and discipline was not entirely expected. But the skipper has been impressive, providing three assists from fine crosses and showing a tactical awareness that many thought he never had.

Despite his goal, Wayne Rooney looked rusty against Ukraine and his first touch heavy, but he will surely start on Sunday in what is likely to be an unchanged side. Theo Walcott fans will make a case for him to start ahead of James 'the English Park Ji Sung' Milner, but Hodgson will probably look to keep it tight for an hour and unleash young Theo from the bench if needed.

For Italy, Juventus defender Giorgio Chiellini is out injured and will likely be replaced by club-mate Leonardo Bonucci. The main focus, though, will be on who Cesare Prandelli opts for up front. Antonio Cassano seems his first choice, leaving him with two options: the nutty-as-a-fruitcake partnership of Cassano and Mario Balotelli; or, as he did against Ireland in the previous game, Cassano and Udinese veteran Antonio Di Natale. Early indications suggest Balotelli will be allowed to introduce fireworks from the bench.

Prandelli's other main decision will be whether to go with three at the back, as in the tournament's first two games, or stick with his preferred 4-3-1-2. Regardless of the formation, if England are to stand a chance, they must get close to Andrea Pirlo. After a fine season with Juventus, Pirlo has looked majestic at times in this tournament, but has often faded in games. It will be interesting to see if Hodgson opts to pressure on Pirlo in his deep-lying playmaker role, or sit back, as England have until now and concede territory.

Neither team has set the Euros alight so far and a tight game is expected on Sunday evening. History would favour the Italians, as England have won just three of 10 major championship quarter finals compared to their opponents' seven wins from nine. Their only two defeats have come in penalty shoot-outs, though, and they'll be keen to avoid adding to that record, which is why I think they will win in extra-time.

Prediction: England 1 - Italy 2 (after extra-time)


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