So remind me again, why was everybody so worried about England’s prospects at Euro 2012?
Taking seven points from nine to top Group D was a fine achievement that few seemed to expect, least of all the ever glass half-full Roy Hodgson, which backs up the notion that the lack of expectation heaped upon the team has had a galvanising effect on the squad.
The 1-0 win over Ukraine that secured first place in the group may not have been of champagne vintage.
But it was vintage England under Hodgson – give up possession of the ball, be hard to break down and make good use of your rare forays into enemy terrain – and that, allied with an obvious team spirit that has so often been lacking in the camp, has been enough to reach the quarter-finals of a competition that, despite Germany’s excellence, looks wide open.
And having reached the last eight, we are getting towards ‘anything can happen’ territory, where luck, the referee, one mistake or one piece of brilliance can make all the difference between progression and catching the next flight home.
In 11 games in 2011/2012, Italy scored more than once just three times (and one of those was against Northern Ireland, which is a given) and three of their four goals in this tournament have been from set pieces.
England have had a fair share of luck so far and for many, that extends to the identity of their quarter-final rivals.
Perceived wisdom has it that Italy are preferable opponents to Spain and while that may be true (although Italy were the better side in the 1-1 draw between the two teams in Group C), it doesn’t detract from the fact that facing Italy represents a huge challenge for Hodgson, who of course spent 18 months as manager of Inter Milan.
But as much as many fans and pundits – and in all likelihood, those connected with England – will try to put England up as huge underdogs, I see this as an evenly-balanced contest.
The odds compliers at bwin obviously agree, as they have priced up both dies at 7/4 to win in 90 minutes, with the draw at 2/1.
For me, the latter option is the safest way to approach this tightest of fixtures, with winnings of £60 on offer for anyone successfully backing it with their free £20 bet upon registering.
With few meetings to gauge form (this is the first match between the nations in ten years) memories will go back to the last competitive clash – a 0-0 draw in Rome in 1997, when Glenn Hoddle’s England defied the odds to grab the point that secured World Cup qualification.
Hodgson, who, oddly, worked as Hoddle’s translator in the build-up to that match, will no doubt recall the defensive solidity of England that night and his set-up will be exactly the same.
Now we are at the stage where you don’t have to win to progress, expect extra caution from England, who, let’s not forget, have not shown a great deal of attacking threat even when faced with Ukraine and Sweden, never mind the technically superior Italians.
You might think surrendering possession to the gloriously evergreen Andrea Pirlo would be a mistake, but once England’s shape is good they are very hard to break down and recent form suggests Italy could struggle.
Coach Cesare Prandelli has been rightly praised for bringing a more attacking outlook to the Italians, but it has not always paid dividends.
In 11 games in 2011/2012, Italy scored more than once just three times (and one of those was against Northern Ireland, which is a given) and three of their four goals in this tournament have been from set pieces. It doesn’t fill you with confidence that they will be able to find a way through a stubborn English defence.
When you also consider the fact that the 2-0 win over Republic of Ireland was Italy’s first in six outings, those 7/4 odds for an Azzurri triumph in 90 minutes don’t interest me.
Similarly though, 7/4 about England doesn’t tempt me either. Italy only conceded two goals in qualifying and have looked solid for the most part in their group games.
I can’t see England showing enough ambition or getting enough ball – despite the excellence of Steven Gerrard so far – to unduly trouble a side who have more nous and experience at this level.
It looks a draw after 90 minutes all the way for me and that 2/1 is the way I’ll be playing it. What happens beyond that is far too much of a lottery to speculate over convincingly.
I would also have a little go on no goalscorer at 21/4 – the longer the match goes without a goal, the fear of losing will overtake the desire to win and it could make for a long night in Kiev.
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