England may have made progress and restored pride but were undone by a familiar failing
Roy Hodgson had waltzed through his first few matches as England manager exorcising ghosts wherever he went, though at least one considerable hoodoo remains. Confronted by a classy, if profligate, Italian side at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev, the English heaved desperately to stay in the contest and then departed, almost inevitably, via a penalty shootout. It was their fifth defeat in a row when a contest has boiled down to efforts from 12 yards. To the lengthy list of those who have missed in the lottery can be added the Ashleys, Young and Cole, as the quarter‑final stage ushers the national team from a tournament yet again. Hodgson has achieved much in Poland and Ukraine. On a base level, he has inflicted a first competitive defeat on Sweden since 1967, and beaten a host nation at a finals. Those achievements should be considered encouraging. Yet this offered up proper context. England are still yet to eliminate a footballing powerhouse from the knockout stage away from Wembley, and that hoodoo will dog them still ahead of the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil and the 2016 European Championship in France.
Not that this campaign should be deemed a failure. Far from it. A certain amount of pride has been restored, particularly with those wins in the group stage, and shoots of progress are very much in evidence. The youngsters may have departed the turf at the end here in tears, but they will have learned from these experiences. Joe Hart, Jordan Henderson, Andy Carroll, Alex Oxlade‑Chamberlain and Theo Walcott will have benefited from the game‑time they enjoyed here. Phil Jones, Martin Kelly and Jack Butland have now tasted life at a major finals. And Danny Welbeck feels a fixture in this team's future. The Manchester United forward is still raw, but he was slippery in partnership with Wayne Rooney at times here and rugged even in helping out his defenders from set-pieces and in open play. He will cherish that winner against the Swedes, and should become a mainstay of the team – fitness permitting – that attempts to reach Brazil. There is promise to be found in this squad's youth.
Germany will hardly be quaking in their boots at the prospect of confronting the Azzurri in Warsaw on Thursday, but they will be warned. This Italy team will be pepped by progress into the last four and feel threatening. If they could add bite to their armoury, they would be imposing opponents. Twice they struck the woodwork here with Hart beaten, while the close‑range misses from Daniele De Rossi, Mario Balotelli and Antonio Nocerino defied belief. They monopolised the ball – something they will struggle to do against the Germans – but used it intelligently, largely courtesy of the gem in their midst. Andrea Pirlo was imperious, untouchable in central midfield throughout 120 minutes and conjuror of the cheekiest penalty imaginable to flummox Hart in the shootout. England tried and failed to snuff him out. Joachim Löw must find a way of preventing him conducting the semi-final.
How England must have wished they boasted a player of Pirlo's class and calm quality in the centre of their midfield. Where the Italian dictated play, England were all huff and puff, their Achilles heel retained when it came to maintaining control of possession. The basic statistics were brutal come the final whistle. The Azzurri enjoyed the ball for 68% of the contest, Italy mustering 36 attempts to England's nine, the tally of those on target eight to one. There had been flashes in the opening exchanges of the quarter‑final where England had summoned rhythm when they had the ball – the early chance from Glen Johnson that was clawed away by the Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon coming at the culmination of arguably the team's best flowing move of the tournament – but they remain limited. Gary Neville had pinpointed the need for more incision and precision in the pass in the buildup to this fixture, aware as he was of the Azzurri's threat. That was to be the "next stage" of this team's development now that a semblance of defensive base had been established. It is a process that will take considerably more time to complete.
There may be calls for revolution now, albeit not as many as there had been after the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa, and some of this England team's elder statesmen may even consider whether their bodies will allow them to continue while club duties sap their energy. But the old guard should be persuaded against retiring just yet. The performances summoned by Cole and Steven Gerrard were superb at times, while Glen Johnson enjoyed his best game of the finals against the Azzurri. Then there was John Terry. The Chelsea centre-half's selection had been controversial, and he has a date ringed in his diary for 9 July at a magistrates' court back in London which might have been expected to play on his mind. The Chelsea defender has faded into the background off the pitch, but his displays in Ukraine have been gargantuan at times. It was his recovery run and block that snuffed out Mario Balotelli in the first half, and his leap to flick behind that denied the striker another clear sight of goal after the break. His partnership with Joleon Lescott, another to have risen to the challenge, started as unfamiliar but now feels like a strength.