There’s a growing feeling – or hope – that England can beat Italy and march on to the semi-finals. This sudden optimism that England can break the habit of a lifetime and beat a “blue chip” nation is perhaps a little over-zealous, especially as their record against Italy is far from convincing.
Only six times of the 22 meetings between the two nations have the games meant anything. The last time was in 1998 when they were drawn in the same World Cup qualifying group – England losing 0-1 at Wembley and drawing 0-0 in Rome. The last time – in fact, the only time – that England have won a game of substance was in late 1977 when Ron Greenwood’s team beat Italy 2-0 at Wembley. You could argue that this game was almost meaningless, however, as Italy were already bound for Argentina 1978.
But there have been other games of note. The “battle of Highbury” in November 1934 saw England beat the reigning World Champions 3-2 and in 1948, when Italy were also champions by virtue of the second world war interrupting normal football, saw England win 4-0 in Turin. In 22 meetings, England have won seven and six have been drawn.
Italy have a habit of being there or thereabouts even when they don’t have an especially strong team. Were Italy the best team in World Cup 2006? I don’t think they were, but they rode their luck, stayed the course and bagged the trophy. When they won the competition in 1982, Paulo Rossi aside, they were not the most talented outfit – that title belonged to Brazil or France. So, the moral of the story is – never rule them out.
It could be much the same story in 2012. Italy are not anyone’s favourites, apart from myopic scooter-riding fans in the back streets of Napoli, perhaps. They could just sneak in through the backdoor.
They have plodded along in qualifying, drawing with Spain – no mean feat – and Croatia, and brushing aside Group C whipping boys Ireland. They are difficult to beat, like all Italy sides of the past, and they have real talent in Andrea Pirlo and Antonio Cassano. They are also confident – manager Cesare Prandelli has openly said they fear no-one after drawing with Spain. They usually play with Cassano just behind the front one or two with Pirlo in central midfield. Prandelli has tried to move away from the old Italian method of catenaccio (a style that almost resembles England’s current set-up), but opts for possession football.
England, however, could be the surprise package. They have improved game-by-game and now from playing down their chances pre-tournament, the players are now putting out messages like, “we are here to win” and “there has been a group of people who did not think we would do well, but for anyone who knew the players, it is not a surprise and it is part of the plan”. So says Joe Hart. A cunning plan, convince everyone in England that the team has no chance, but then produce some respectable results. You can imagine it now. Steven Gerrard in the dressing room. “Hey wack, we conned them there, didn’t we. Pretend we’re lousy (put a few quid on us at 16-1 will you pal…) and then hey, ho, we’re in the last eight.” For “some people”, though, read “entire nation”.
Credit where it’s due, England have done well. But now it really gets under way. Put brutally, England do not beat decent teams often. Since Euro 96 when they beat Holland and Spain en route to losing, heartbreakingly to Germany, England’s record against AAA-rated countries is abysmal. In World Cup 1998, they beat Tunisia and Colombia, but went out to Argentina; in 2000, they may have beaten Germany, but both countries failed to get out of their European Championship finals group. In 2002, they beat Argentina but fell at the Brazilian hurdle. In 2004, their victories were against the Swiss and Croats before losing to Portugal. Two years on, they beat the giants of Trinidad, Paraguay and Ecuador but lost again to the Portuguese. In 2008, they failed to turn up at all, and in 2010, as soon as they met Germany, they were out, although, they had beaten the substantial hurdle that is Slovenia. It’s simple – England beat the weaker teams, but they cannot get past the powerhouses, hence the quarter-finals is their natural habitat.
I expect a dull evening, with two defence-oriented teams battling away towards a meeting on the penalty spots of Kiev. It’s hard to see who will scare the Italians. Rooney? (his red-face in Donetsk suggests otherwise), Carroll ? (too basic), Wellbeck? (inexperienced), Walcott?, Oxlade-Chamberlain? (too green), Gerrard? (only from set-piece) or Parker? (lost in space).
As has often been said, the Euros are tougher than the World Cup, and England are about to find that out.