Expert analysis of the events in Poland and Ukraine
The second that Italy knew that they had finally and deservedly overcome England came when Andrea Pirlo coolly converted his penalty. It was a delicious moment to savour for any football lover and one that turned the tide in the Azzurri’s favour.
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Riccardo Montolivo had missed the second shootout spot-kick, but at 2-1 down Pirlo brought back the belief and from there England crumbled as both Ashleys Young and Cole failed, with Gigi Buffon saving the latter’s effort.
The Italian word for extravagantly scooping the ball over a prone goalkeeper is il cucchiaio [the spoon] and had become a staple of Francesco Totti’s penalty repertoire – the AS Roma man had finished in similar style against Holland at Euro 2000 semi-finals. Antonin Panenka chipped Czechoslovakia into history in 1976, but the patent has now passed over to Italy.
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In truth, Italy should have seen off the opposition with a thousand little cuts long before we headed to the midnight hour goalless. Pirlo dominated the midfield, seeing off both Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker – the former reduced to a hobbling wreck, the latter withdrawn from battle in a daze.
Pirlo was without doubt the focal point, as the statistics prove: he made 139 passes to the England captain’s 38 and only 21 that did not find their intended target.
All around the playmaker there were eager runners and intelligent movement that could have led to at least three goals. Daniele De Rossi almost opened the scoring on three minutes with a curling shot that came back off the post and although England hit back quickly, Mario Balotelli then spurned three presentable chances in the first 45 minutes.
The statistics state Italy had 36 shots to England's nine but they must have been counting some of those when the English humped the ball up the pitch to Gigi Buffon at a drop-ball.
And so it went on: De Rossi missed a great opportunity at the start of the second half, Montolivo volleyed over from close range, Alessandro Diamanti hit the post with another curling effort and then Antonio Nocerino had a goal ruled out to a marginally offside decision.
However, Italy showed patience and with England doing nothing more than hitting long hopeful balls which the Juventus pair of Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci picked off with ease, it was a blue tide sweeping towards Joe Hart’s goal.
Even with 68% possession and all the chances bringing gasps of despair throughout the country – in the piazza, the packed bar or apartment living room there was the fear that the better side would not go through.
Pirlo’s moment of magic dispelled those worries and when Alessandro Diamanti neatly finished off his spot-kick Italy were in their 11th major-tournament semi-final – and tellingly they have only lost twice, to the USSR at Euro 88 and Argentina at Italia 90.
This time, on Thursday, it's Germany, who usually struggle against the Azzurri – witness the defeat on their own soil in the 2006 World Cup semi-final.
Jogi Low's men have had two more rest days and Cesare Prandelli must lift a side beset by injury and tiredness, with Antonio Cassano in particular looking a spent force: Diamanti may start, or at least come on early in the second half.
However, the coach has a squad that is united in overcoming the odds – and, in Pirlo, the chef who can always cook up a treat.
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