It was 12.24am, local time, when Alessandro Diamanti walked forward for the final, decisive kick and, when it was all done, Italy had booked a semi-final against Germany while England were wallowing in the familiar sense of deja vu that comes with another harrowing disappointment in a penalty shoot-out.

They had withstood almost unrelenting pressure and nobody could say the result was unjust. Not when Italy had accumulated 35 shots, compared to England's nine, and greedily kept 64% of possession.

All the same, it was still a galling way for Roy Hodgson's players to go out of the competition, exacerbated by the way Riccardo Montolivo had created all that false hope by driving Italy's second spot‑kick wide of Joe Hart's post.

Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney had picked out the bottom right-hand corner of Gianluigi Buffon's net with England's first two efforts, but it was then that everything started to go wrong. Ashley Young went for power and managed only to strike the crossbar, and when Cole put the ball to Buffon's left it was not struck with enough force or precision to beat a goalkeeper of this expertise. In between, Andrea Pirlo had dinked the most extraordinary pitch-wedge of a shot into Hart's goal and that moment really encapsulated the difference in class between the teams. After chutzpah like that, it would have been almost impudent for Diamanti not to add the final flourish. Mario Balotelli had already scored and Diamanti did his bit to leave Cesare Prandelli's players in a victory scrum and Hodgson's ones on their knees, or lying flat out, in raw despair.

They had struggled to the finishing line – flat, leggy and suffering. Gerrard's first bout of cramp came after 71 minutes and it was remarkable in itself that he was still there at the end. Scott Parker had already succumbed in the first period of extra time and, during the breaks, England's physios and masseurs could be seen moving between the players, trying desperately to soothe their aching limbs.

Yet this was a night, ultimately, when it was brought home how far England are technically behind the four teams that remain in the competition. It was staggering at times to see their carelessness on the ball, and Italy would not be conceited to reflect they should have made it a far more comfortable evening. It was difficult to keep count of the number of chances that Balotelli alone had to make it a quicker kill. If England had won the shootout, it would have stretched good fortune into something bordering on incredible.

They had played with vigour and togetherness and all the other qualities that are associated with England teams. It is just that sometimes it is not enough to be organised and committed. It needs composure and ingenuity and, though there was plenty of it on display, it was almost always provided by the team in blue.

Hodgson had nothing but praise for his players afterwards and maybe he will reflect it might have been different if Glen Johnson had taken his chance, with the team's first serious attack, when he found himself inside the six-yard area with the ball at his feet only to scoop his shot meekly into Buffon's arms. Probably not, though. What they could never have imagined was that it would be the only time in the entire match they put together an exchange of passes to open up the Italian defence until the final moments of stoppage time at the end of normal time. It culminated in Rooney's overhead kick going over the crossbar and, with the chance gone, there was the clear sense that England were playing for penalties in extra time.

Italy's problem will be shaking their heads clear in time for their semi-final on Thursday. They played with refinement and a football intelligence, orchestrated by Pirlo, that should teach England much about the importance of taking better care of the ball. There were players in the England team who had not even touched the ball by the time Daniele De Rossi, from fully 30 yards, lashed a shot against Hart's right-hand post and the tone was set for a night of near-misses and erratic shooting. Hodgson's team actually began brightly but faded quickly and before half-time a clear pattern had emerged with one side pressing forward and the other sitting back and hoping to counter-attack.

Italy hit the post for a second time, via Diamanti's left-footed curler, and will think they could have spared themselves extra time. De Rossi turned one wide from inside the six-yard area. Balotelli missed from short, medium and long distance, so enraged he took an angry swipe at the post on one occasion and, in other moments, could be seen screaming to the skies. Their finishing was generous in the extreme.

The pressure was considerable and England's front players were guilty too often of not holding up the ball well enough. Young had another peripheral game, completing a poor tournament, whereas James Milner and Danny Welbeck were only on the edges before their substitutions. Rooney worked hard without any real spark. Andy Carroll tried to get involved but he, too, gave the ball away far too easily. It was contagious, spreading through the England players.

All the old failings, in other words. To go for the default setting, and focus on the penalties, would be to miss a far more significant problem.