Euro 2012: Expert v Expert Preview - England v Italy

English perspective: Iain Macintosh

So, we’re ready for Germany in the semi-finals, are we? Excellent! Ah, for the third time in 22 years, we meet again in the final four, old enemies dest… hang on? What?! We have to play Italy first? Well, this is preposterous!

Given some of the nonsense I’ve heard in the last 48 hours, you could be forgiven for assuming that England had blown the competition away and were simply plotting the closing stages of the tournament. The truth, of course, is quite different. England have shown heart and grit and determination and all the other attributes they generally leave at Luton airport before embarking on these tournaments, but they haven’t actually played very well yet. They can’t keep the ball, they don’t make many chances and their principle strength is the way they hold their lines under pressure. This is no bad thing; indeed it’s a lot better than we’re used to. But it’s hardly enough for us to start daydreaming about taking Joachim Löw’s men down.

Italy are not the side they were, but they’re still worthy of more respect than some in the media have shown them. Much will depend upon their tactics. Will it be a back four or a back five? I suspect that they’ll want to match up with England and hope that Cassano or Balotelli can conjure something up in the final third. That’s absolutely fine. With the exception of a brief spell against Sweden, England have kept it tidy at the back this summer. The question is, can they offer anything up front to put the Italians on the back foot? There hasn’t been much evidence so far to suggest that they can. England are nothing if not stubborn this year, they’re trudging through the tournament like the T1000 through an industrial press, but this match, regardless of what anyone else might say, could be too much for them. 

Score prediction: England 1-2 Italy

Italy to win at 2.75; Italy 2-1 11.00; Gerrard to score first at 15.00.

Italian perspective: Paolo Bandini

Speaking to the press ahead of Italy’s quarter-final against England, Gigi Buffon offered a succinct analysis of his team’s prospects. “Italy has one great quality, which is also our great flaw,” said the goalkeeper. “We keep every game in the balance – whether we are playing against a strong team or a weak one.”

Certainly that has proven the case so far in this tournament, where Italy have summoned their best performance against the world champions Spain, and their worst against a Republic of Ireland team who had already been eliminated. Whether Roy Hodgson’s England represent one of the toughest opponents in this tournament is a matter for debate – their results would suggest so, their performances perhaps not – but either way it seems likely that this fixture will be decided by fine margins.

Although the Italy manager Cesare Prandelli tries not to disclose his tactical plans – so as not to lend opponents an advantage – there is consensus in the national press that he intends to stick with the 4-3-1-2 formation deployed against Ireland. With Giorgio Chiellini out, his Juventus team-mates Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci are expected to start together at centre-half – a pairing used successfully on many occasions at club level this year but which does somewhat lack for pace.

There is concern, too, over the fitness of Thiago Motta, who would start behind the attack as the nominal trequartista – though in theory the midfield is supposed to rotate – but has tweaked his hamstring and may be replaced by Riccardo Montolivo.

Up front, Mario Balotelli is expected to return to the starting line-up in place of Antonio Di Natale, though do not rule out a significant impact for the latter off the bench. Even at 34, his turn of pace and willingness to play off a defender’s shoulder would appear to offer favourable match-ups against a sometimes-ponderous John Terry.

Score prediction: England 1-1 Italy (after 90 minutes)

The draw at 3.0; both teams to score at 2.1; 1-1 at 6.5.