England and Italy arrived at Euro 2012 free of expectation, but they meet in the quarter-finals on Sunday believing that this could be their year.
England and Italy, two teams packed with experience but spiced by youth and some volatility, meet in Kiev on Sunday in probably the most intriguing of the Euro 2012 quarter-final ties.
Clashing for the first time in more than a decade, England have met Italy only twice at major tournaments with the Italians winning a 1980 European Championship group game 1-0 in Turin and a 1990 World Cup third-place playoff 2-1 in Bari.
Both teams, enjoying unbeaten runs in competitive fixtures lasting 11 and 13 games respectively, are built on sound defence and counter-attack.
Both use flexible versions of 4-4-2 and have thoughtful and pragmatic managers in Roy Hodgson and Cesare Prandelli.
For England, where the Premier League has ushered in a financial boom, cosmopolitan coaching and many world class players, it is a chance to prove their game has progressed since they lost 2-1 to Italy at Leeds, in March, 2002.
Italian coaches have heavily influenced the English domestic boom.
Men like Gianluca Vialli, Carlo Ancelotti and Roberto Di Matteo at Chelsea and Manchester City’s Roberto Mancini have stamped their style on their teams and have been successful, with Di Matteo winning the Champions League and Mancini the Premier League title in 2012.
Yet, as English football has embraced the Italian way, Italy has moved in the other direction, seeking to instill more dynamic and open attacking play into a tradition of slow, defensive asphyxiation.
This sense of flux will be embodied on Sunday by teams with sound defences and outstanding goalkeepers – a relative newcomer for England in Joe Hart, 25, and a seasoned veteran for Italy in Gianluigi Buffon, 34, set to make his 118th international appearance.
Both teams also have Manchester-based potential firecrackers in Wayne Rooney, of United, who came back from suspension to score England’s winner against Ukraine. and Mario Balotelli, of City, who scored as a substitute against Ireland.
Rooney’s return has added threat to England’s attack without disturbing a smothering system that has earned Hodgson – whose peripatetic career has included two spells at Inter Milan – the soubriquet ‘the English Italian’, after he was praised as “intelligent, clever, experienced and cunning” by Mancini in La Gazzetta dello Sport.
Prandelli, like Hodgson, has kept his cards close to his chest on whether he will retain the 4-3-1-2 system used to defeat Ireland or revert to a three-man defence adopted in the previous group games.
He must also decide whether to continue with Antonio Di Natale as the main striker or recall Balotelli to face his club-mates Joleon Lescott and Hart. Midfielder Thiago Motta is a slight doubt with a hamstring strain.
Fullbacks Ignazio Abate and Federico Balzaretti are expected to keep their places while central defender Leonardo Bonucci is set to start in place of the injured Giorgio Chiellini.
England are expected to be unchanged.
“From our point of view, there is an understanding that we are a good team,” said Bonucci. “But we know that to go all the way, we also need luck. We’ve got to be careful against this England, who are increasingly playing like Italy, focusing on details in defence.”
In the only previous meeting of the two teams at a European Championship finals, Italy won 1-0 on home soil in Turin in 1980. Like many of their confrontations, it was cagey, dramatic and physical. This should be no different.
Scott Parker, who has emerged as the heart of England’s midfield, said: “We have done a lot of research, seen them play and know what to expect. Italy are a very good team and we know we will have to be right up for it to get a result.”
Having made it this far with a settled side, Hodgson is expected to keep faith with those who have served England well.
All 23 members of the squad are fit and in contention for a starting berth, but it is likely that the same XI which started the Three Lions’ final group game against Ukraine will take to the field in Kiev.
That means James Milner’s abilities going backwards will once again be favoured over Theo Walcott’s going forward, and Danny Welbeck will get the nod ahead of Andy Carroll in the battle to partner Wayne Rooney up front.
Skipper Steven Gerrard is among those one caution away from missing a possible semi-final date through suspension, with Ashley Cole, Ashley Young, Milner and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain also walking a disciplinary tightrope.
Italy have nine players looking to steer clear of the referee’s notebook, with enigmatic striker Mario Balotelli, captain Gianluigi Buffon and combative midfielder Daniele De Rossi aware that they must tread carefully.
It remains to be seen whether Balotelli will be offered the opportunity to line up against a number of his Manchester City colleagues from the start, with Prandelli announcing that he will not name his team until an hour before kick-off.
It is expected that Thiago Motta will be in contention for a starting role, with the midfielder having overcome a hamstring injury.
Giorgio Chiellini is still nursing a thigh problem, though, and his place is expected to go to Juventus team-mate Leonardo Bonucci.
Line – ups
England: Joe Hart, Glen Johnson, John Terry, Joleon Lescott, Ashley Cole, James Milner, Steven Gerrard, Scott Parker, Ashley Young, Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck.
Italy: Buffon, Abate, Bonucci, Barzagli, Balzaretti, Marchisio, Pirlo, De Rossi, Motta, Cassano, Balotelli.