For English fans, the shootout torment continues. Heartbreak and despair descended in Kyiv as Italy held their nerve from the penalty spot to clinch the final semi-final berth, leaving Roy Hodgson’s men to confront a painful sense of quarter-final deja vu. So much for the increasing momentum and raised expectations – instead Euro 2012 joins a growing list of shootout failures that includes Euro 1996, the 1998 World Cup, Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup.
The history books make for dreadful reading, with five of England’s last eight major tournament appearances ending in an exit on penalties – and that includes losing five of their last six shootouts. Time and again, the topic comes up. Time and again, penalties are practised. Time and again, it seems to make little difference in the pressure cooker of the shootout.
The Italians have a miserable shootout history too, but can add this victory to their all-important win on penalties in the final of the 2006 World Cup. While Gianluigi Buffon and his team-mates have banished some of their ghosts (1994, 1998), England are reliving the horrors.
"Again, we’re going home with heartbreak, which is hard to take," Steven Gerrard admitted. "This time I thought we might have the bit of luck we needed but it wasn’t to be. Credit to Italy, they are a fantastic team and they got the luck in the shootout."
But dwelling on the shootout does not tell the full story. Lost amid the agony of the costly misses by Ashley Young and Ashley Cole was the fact that the Italians were vastly superior across the two hours of play, dominating possession (63%) and unleashing a staggering 31 shots (to England’s eight). Mario Balotelli had a hat-trick of promising chances while Daniele De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio went close and Antonio Nocerino had a goal disallowed. Despite the heroic efforts of the immense John Terry, Glen Johnson and the rest of the backline, England struggled to take the game to an Italian side that oozed quality. While Greece pulled off the impossible in 2004 with a defensive mindset, the style of international football today places the emphasis on midfield artistry more than anything else.
And in Andrea Pirlo, the Italians had just that. He was the best player on the pitch – and a candidate for Player of the Tournament. The Juventus man looked every inch the maestro that pulled the strings for AC Milan and Italy in their purple patches from 2005 to 2007. To put it into context, Pirlo completed close to 120 passes in Kyiv, which was more than Wayne Rooney, Scott Parker and Young combined. It was a masterclass in how to dictate a game in the centre of midfield and a great example of how to control a match without breaking sweat. His audacious penalty spoke volumes for the confidence flowing through his veins.
Italy’s dominance is also a significant point because it did serious damage to the hype around Rooney, Young and Gerrard, arguably England’s three most gifted players in the final third. The quarter-final firmly suggested that they remain a step behind the top players at this level.
There was every reason to believe that this quarter-final would be a tight, cagey affair, decided by whether Pirlo or Gerrard gained the upper hand in midfield. In the end, the match was far more wide open that anyone anticipated while the midfield duel was no contest. Pirlo was everywhere, never wasted a pass and showed why there are few better at ball retention. The England skipper worked hard but never imposed his will on the game and faded as the night wore on, in part due to cramp.
Rooney fared worse. On paper, he looked a real threat to an Italian defence that can no longer rely on the know-how of Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta. But Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli handled the Manchester United man expertly, denying him space and forcing a string of errant passes. England needed the best of Rooney if they were to progress, but he was off the pace for chunks of the night and never looked like beating his man. This performance will only strengthen the hand of those critics that believe the striker falls short on the big stage.
As for Young, he was frustratingly out of sorts throughout the tournament, stripping England of their biggest threat on the flanks. He deserves credit for taking a spot-kick but the miss summed up the past two weeks for the winger, who is still just too erratic.
Nonetheless, there were positives for England from a gutsy, disciplined campaign that was always going to be a challenge given the limited time that Hodgson had with the players prior to the first group game on 11th June. This was one of the most organised England teams in recent memory, the spirit within the camp seemed at an all-time high and there were encouraging signs for the future in the performances of Joe Hart and Danny Welbeck. This group should not be heading home in shame, a la the 2010 World Cup team, but the quarter-final provided another reminder of the significance of keeping possession and having technically gifted players throughout the team. Without doubt, it will have given Hodgson food for thought.
With less than two months until the new Premier League season begins, the England players will waste little time heading off for a well earned break. As they head for the beach, they will reflect on a tournament in which they gave their best and their best just wasn’t good enough.