Roy Hodgson's side do not offer much excitement but their diligence will stand them in good stead against Italy
What a match we have in prospect, with two passionate football nations coming together in the quarter-final of a major tournament. It is an event to make even the most experienced players feel nervous as they contemplate being just two wins away from a place in arguably the biggest game of their lives.
Getting to the final of Euro 2012 is a definite possibility for England given the impressive defensive shape they have adopted at the tournament so far. As a former centre-back I know how reassuring it is to have two central midfielders working hard to cover the back four and both Joleon Lescott and John Terry will be in dreamland seeing Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard consistently shutting down attacks in front of them.
Along with Glen Johnson and Ashley Cole, they will also have appreciated the extra cover provided by the wingers, who have mainly been James Milner and Ashley Young. These guys have operated as secondary full-backs and overall it is so encouraging to see an England side in which everybody is always covering and fighting for each other. That has undoubtedly been the key to their success so far in Poland and Ukraine.
This must continue against Italy, when it will become even more imperative that the space between the midfield and the back four is kept to a minimum, ideally no more than 10 metres. That will curtail the Italians' threat in the final third and also allow England to hit them quickly and effectively on the break, with the main striker – which is likely to again be Wayne Rooney – the principal target once possession has been won back. This is how Roy Hodgson has been lining up the side since the opening game against France and it is sure to be how he sends them out again on Sunday.
But as strong as England look defensively, it is almost certain Italy will create chances against them, particularly if, as expected, Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli start up front for Cesare Prandelli's side. The only thing that is predictable about these two players is their unpredictability and Lescott and Terry will have to stay fully focused and be prepared for the men they are marking to seek to hurt them in any way and every way possible. Both Cassano and Balotelli are capable of producing a bit of magic that sparks a winning moment for their side, and that is a worrying prospect for even the most experienced defender. Equally, however, an entire match can pass without the opposition hearing a dicky bird from either of them and it should encourage all England supporters that Lescott and Terry are playing well enough, and working hard enough, right now to keep the Italian strikers in their pockets for the entire 90 minutes.
The biggest fear I have is if Italy score first. That will force England's players to come out of their allotted slots and play with a more cavalier spirit in order to expose the opposition's defence and get back into the game. This will give the excellent Andrea Pirlo the space to dictate the tempo of the match and thread passes into the path of the lurking Cassano and Balotelli. Hopefully that will not happen and England will be able to get on the front foot quickly, take the lead and use their defensive strength to seal their passage into the semi-finals. Both of these sides are capable of victory in Kiev and in my opinion it is too close to call. I rate both their chances as 50-50.
This really is the type of game all players dream of being involved in. My strongest memory of facing Italy was when we took them on in Rome in October 1997 for a crucial World Cup qualifying tie. We needed just a point to get through to the finals in France and, as such, it was a really tense affair in what was a crackling atmosphere. The match could have gone either way but thankfully we held out for a much-deserved goalless draw. It will never escape my recollections of the night, though, that Christian Vieri missed a header right at the death that could easily have won the game for Italy and sent us instead into a play-off tie.
A similar moment could well come to pass on Sunday as both Italy and England are set up to produce a tight match in which a single goal is likely to separate the winner from the loser. That might not make for great entertainment, but there should be appreciation and admiration from England fans and neutrals alike for the work rate and desire Hodgson's men are showing at Euro 2012. They may not be the best team to watch but they definitely have the defensive strengths to go all the way and win the tournament. First, of course, they have to get past equally defensive-minded opponents, ones that know just what it takes to triumph in the grandest of occasions. It should be a fascinating match-up and I for one cannot wait for kick-off.
Sol Campbell has donated his fee for this column to his foundation Kids Go Live, http://www.kidsgolive.com