Italy are through to a UEFA EURO 2012 semi-final against Germany after winning a dramatic penalty shoot-out over England following a goalless draw in Kiev.
Alessandro Diamanti converted the crucial winning spot-kick after Ashley Young and Ashley Cole had missed from 12 yards. Riccardo Montolivo also failed with a penalty but Gli Azzurri deservedly triumphed 4-2.
After an even first half, Italy had completely dominated the second half and the majority of extra time, creating the better chances and having a late goal ruled out for offside, with England seemingly clinging on for a shoot-out.
Although both sides had been pragmatic during the competition to date, there was an open feel from kick-off. Claudio Marchisio made progress down the right hand side and his pull back to the edge of the England box was met by Daniele De Rossi, whose wonderful looping volley from distance beat Joe Hart but flicked out off the post to deny Italy an early opening goal.
The Three Lions almost took the lead themselves two minutes later, Gianluigi Buffon producing an outstanding save from Glen Johnson, who should have scored from six yards out. The Liverpool defender was free in the penalty area but could not control James Milner’s centre sufficiently and his awkward, scooped effort was blocked by the Juventus goalkeeper.
Wayne Rooney nearly picked out Manchester United team-mate Danny Welbeck after creating space down the left wing, Scott Parker drilled an attempt wide after an anxious Buffon punch, before Johnson then tried to set up Rooney with a delicious curling cross which was cleared by Ignazio Abate.
Chances for Balotelli
Much of the talk before the match focused on the return of England-based Mario Balotelli, and the Manchester City forward had a clear opportunity to put Gli Azzurri in front on 25 minutes. The 21-year-old found himself one-on-one with club-mate Hart but, as he did against Spain in Italy’s first match at the tournament, wanted too long to make a decision and was thwarted by John Terry.
Shortly after the half-hour mark, Balotelli had sight of Hart’s goal again courtesy of a clever dinked ball by Montolivo which fooled the England defence. Balotelli’s shot from the left was straight at Hart, however. Again Roy Hodgson’s side responded and a neat combination between Rooney and Welbeck presented the latter with a chance to strike, but his contact was poor and Buffon was not troubled.
Italy were dictating the tempo, both in possession and territory, though, and Antonio Cassano was the next to test Hart. Afforded space close to the England penalty area after linking with Balotelli, the AC Milan forward hit a clean attempt which was just too central to worry England’s No1.
But the best chance of the first period undoubtedly fell to Balotelli with four minutes remaining in the half. The England defence was slow to react to a short corner and the ball arrived at Andrea Pirlo, who picked out Cassano at the back post. The diminutive forward nodded the cross back across the six-yard box to strike partner Balotelli, but he contrived to smash the ball over the bar.
As in the first half, De Rossi had the opening chance of the second period and the Roma midfielder will still be wondering how he failed to score. After Hart punched a corner clear, Marchisio directed a pass back into the area to an unmarked De Rossi, who had time and space but made a complete mess of his left-footed finish and it rolled harmlessly wide to the relief of the exposed England defence.
Cesare Prandelli’s men had all of the momentum by this stage and England again had Hart to thank for keeping the score level in the 52nd minute. The Manchester City man could only parry a long-range effort into the path of Balotelli but he was quick to react and save the forward’s follow-up and Montolivo sent the second rebound sailing over.
Balotelli had already scored one spectacular overhead volley at EURO 2012, Italy’s second goal against Republic of Ireland in the group stage, and he tried to repeat the trick with an hour played. The forward showed his strength to hold off Terry and whipped a shot towards goal but it was too high to trouble Hart.
Hodgson reacted to Italy’s dominance by introducing Andy Carroll and Theo Walcott to replace Welbeck and Milner. The aerial threat suddenly provided by Carroll almost paid dividends in the 65th minute when Young latched on to the Liverpool striker’s knockdown, but his shot was deflected wide of Buffon’s goal.
With Pirlo an imperious presence in midfield, probing and supplying passes at every angle, the Italians were camped in the England half, albeit without any clear-cut chances to break the deadlock. Some brief respite came in the form of an inswinging Steven Gerrard free-kick but Rooney could not make a connection and the ball landed in Buffon’s hands.
Extra time and penalties
Prandelli made his first substitution with 12 minutes remaining, with another forward with experience of English football, Diamanti, replacing Cassano. Shortly after, De Rossi was withdrawn in favour of Milan midfielder Antonio Nocerino. The pace of England’s pressing dropped significantly and Diamanti took advantage to work Hart from distance.
Fellow substitute Nocerino had another excellent sight of goal just two minutes before full time, but Johnson covered brilliantly to block his goalbound attempt before Hart could be called into action. Prandelli’s final switch saw Christian Maggio come on for Abate.
Rooney had cut a frustrated figure for much of the match and the final chance of the 90 minutes came after England’s most effective piece of build-up play. Cole supported Young on the left and his cross was headed down by Carroll but Rooney’s difficult and ambitious overhead kick flew well over.
Balotelli was still a lively figure as extra time began and he again directed a shot, partially deflected, on target but again too close to Hart. The same two opponents featured a minute later but the forward could find no way past the goalkeeper. Diamanti did beat Hart 11 minutes into extra time but his curling cross-shot flicked the post on its way wide.
England spent the majority of the extra period defending and it was Diamanti who looked most likely to claim the winner, sending several shots wide of Hart’s goal. The former West Ham United striker then crossed for Nocerino to finally find the net, but the midfielder’s header was rightly ruled out for a narrow offside and a shoot-out was required to settle it.