Euro 2012 preview: England v Italy

Quarter-final, Kiev, kick-off 7.45pm (coverage starts 7pm BBC1)

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We said we wouldn’t get our hopes up but, let’s face it, we have. England topping Group D has led its fans back into the trap of thinking the team can win the tournament, despite strong contrary evidence.

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Such was the relief when England beat Ukraine 1-0, people seem to have forgotten the game itself. The first half was probably the worst 45 minutes of Euro 2012 so far, resembling a giant anti-football satirical art installation. You’d have got a more fluid, skilful game out of 22 primary-school kids kicking round one of those trick balls they sell in toy shops that have an off-centre weight in them.

The second half was, if anything, worse, with England fluking the lead but then lucky not to concede a goal, not least because Ukraine did score one. Throw in a decent but passive game against France and the face-palming chaos of the Sweden match, and you do not have championship form.

Still, let’s look at the positives. Wayne Rooney can only improve on his ball-repelling play against Ukraine, while Steven Gerrard has developed a knack of crossing it onto his team-mates’ heads, to add to his usual speciality of majestic, 70-yard diagonal passes that land in the crowd. With Roy Hodgson unwilling to risk Theo or “The Ox”, James Milner will bring his normal, reliable… presence to the midfield, so England should at least start in solid, circumspect fashion.

Roy’s cautious approach, when added to Italy’s long-standing rep for negative “catenaccio” tactics (literally, “fouling and crying”), has led some pundits to speculate that this game may suffer from both sides looking to give up possession and play on the counter-attack, with long periods where the ball remains motionless in a deserted centre circle.

Such pessimism reckons without Italy coach Cesare Prandelli who is, compared to previous national managers, an out-and-out nutter who likes two or three up front, is happy to pick Mario Balotelli and often gives unfashionable formations a whirl. If anyone’s going to play like Italy, it’ll be England. But whatever happens, you can guarantee this game will be 250 times more exciting than Spain v France.

WATCH THAT MAN: Italy’s key player is deep-lying playmaker Andrea Pirlo. After a brilliant title-winning season at Juventus (AC Milan thought he was too old and let him go for free – oops) he’s carried that form into the Euros. When Croatia gave him space, Italy killed them. Pirlo probably plays too near his own defence for Scott Parker to stick to him, but someone has to: the obvious player to run back and hassle Pirlo is the not always level-headed Wayne Rooney…

NO, NO, AFTER YOU: England so far have five goals from five different scorers: whose turn is it tonight? Steven Gerrard or Ashley Young are most likely, although Hodgson is yet to unleash the terrifying power of Stewart Downing.

LET’S LOOK AT THE REPLAY: England are increasingly a magnet for dodgy referee’s assistant decisions. For an omen on that front, check out the last time the teams played in a tournament, at Italia ’90: at the end there was possibly the worst offside call of all time.

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PREDICTION: Enormously hard to call, so let’s go for the reverse hex and say England 1-2 Italy.