England face the Azzuri in last quarter-final.
Oh, to be a fly on the wall of Fabio Capello’s living room for this one.
Less than four months after the Iron Sergeant walked out on England, the Three Lions are preparing to face his native Italy in the quarter-finals of a major tournament, with Capello’s unhappy regime quickly slipping from memory.
His replacement, Roy Hodgson, has fashioned an unpretentious England side: not pretty but hard-working and realistic about their own limitations.
They face a nation who have been building great sides based on these very principles for decades. But amid all the hard graft and defensive solidarity, the match may well be decided by one of two maverick strikers from Manchester, namely Wayne Rooney and Mario Balotelli.
Prediction: We’ve been horribly pessimistic about England’s chances so far so, what the hey, we’ll say 2-1 to the Three Lions!
Story so far: Roy Hodgson’s side have already exceeded expectations by topping their group with two wins and a draw. The football hasn’t been pretty and the defending has been questionable but the quarter-finals were always a realistic expectation.
Team news: England are set to be unchanged from the side that beat Ukraine, meaning Wayne Rooney continues up front with Danny Welbeck, while impact subs Andy Carroll and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain remain on the bench.
One to watch: It’s gotta be Wayne Rooney. The Manchester United striker was hardly at his devastating best against Ukraine but still managed his first international tournament goal since 2004. With 80 minutes under his belt, the toupée-wearing front-man is bound to be sharper against the Italians.
Soundbite: “It’s a different environment and different members of staff but it’s another major tournament and we’re trying to do well, just like we did in South Africa.” Eh? Full-back Glen Johnson appears to have forgotten the unspeakable distaster that was World Cup 2010.
Stat attack: Believe it or not, England have the best chance conversion rate of any team at Euro 2012, putting away 22% of their efforts. Nice.
What to expect: Scott Parker to get hit in the face and/or groin by a football and England to score from a Steven Gerrard cross. Beyond that, it’s awfully hard to say.
Story so far: In a tough group, Italy did what was required, qualifying second courtesy of 1-1 draws with both Spain and Croatia and a 2-0 victory over the Republic of Ireland. But that doesn’t tell the whole story, as Cesare Prandelli’s side outplayed the World Champions for long periods and were unlucky not to win.
Team news: Centre-back Giorgio Chiellini is out with a calf strain so Leonardo Bonucci of Juventus is expected to deputise. Daniele De Rossi will continue in central midfield, rather than the centre of defence, thus facing his ‘idol’ Steven Gerrard directly. Mario Balotelli could start, going head-to-head with his Manchester City team-mates Joe Hart, Joleon Lescott and James Milner.
One to watch: Mario Balotelli. The crazed striker started Italy’s first two group games before being dropped in favour of the more consistent, but far less entertaining, Antonio Di Natale. He came off the bench against Ireland and scored a stunning over-head volley and is now expected to start against the English.
Soundbite: “Unfortunately sometimes he does crazy things. He’s spontaneous but he’s a good kid.” Bonucci on Balotelli.
Stat attack: Beware the early goal. Italy haven’t lost a game they’ve been leading at half-time since facing South Korea in the 2002 World Cup under Giovanni Trapattoni.
What to expect: The unexpected…from Mario Balotelli.
FANCY A FLUTTER?
Outside bet: Mario Balotelli to score, Italy to win 3-1: 225/1