Reduced to a threadbare scuffling long before the end of what came to feel like an interminable evening, England did not deserve to bar Italy's way to the semi‑finals of Euro 2012. Not that the winners displayed an particular distinction. For the half-hour of extra time, indeed, it felt as though there was only one real footballer on the pitch. Andrea Pirlo, aged 33 and at the end of an exhausting season, continued to play as though the game were a matter of touch and beauty.
That neither side could prevail over 120 minutes spoke poorly of both. They started well and slowly fell away, albeit at different rates, Italy lasting the better but still unable to command the occasion with real conviction against a team eventually exposed for what it was in reality: the product of barely a month's preparation.
There was astonishment in the realisation that after each side had taken two penalties in the shoot-out, England were in the driving seat. All they had to do was finish the job. Yet had they done so, frankly, they would have been laughed at by the rest of Europe, having done so little to deserve the chance of direct comparison with the other semi-finalists: the Germany of Ozil and Lahm, the Spain of Iniesta and Alonso, the Portugal of Ronaldo. Cesare Prandelli's Italy were undistinguished here on Sunday night, but at least they have Pirlo as a guarantee of some sort of commitment to the game's creative arts.
Roy Hodgson's England, sadly, had no one. After the illusion of that bright start, Wayne Rooney was given plenty of opportunities to make an impression on a major tournament but looked like a man short of match practice and real physical fitness. After an hour Hodgson took the chance of replacing Danny Welbeck and James Milner with Andy Carroll and Theo Walcott, only for the side to play worse as a result. The big centre‑forward won a few headers but his lumbering presence was an embarrassment on a night when England's right to a place in the knock-out rounds was being judged by the rest of Europe.
This was the real test of Hodgson's new England. If two wins and a draw in the group stage had rekindled the affection of their sorely tried public, here was a match against authentically formidable opposition, a night that would tell us exactly how much progress they had made since the new manager took up his duties on 14 May, and perhaps indicate the extent to which some of the players had been failing to reach their true potential under previous regimes.
In a matter of weeks Hodgson's air of natural modesty and his understated, commonsensical approach to the job of shaping a football team impressed a nation fed up with oversized egos and empty promises. He had wasted no time organising them well enough to beat Sweden for the first time in a competition and to beat the hosts of a major tournament for the first time since 1950. As his revived squad approached this quarter‑final there was a sense that they were already so heavily in credit that even elimination could not destroy the new esteem.
That may still be true, but the size of the job needing to be done has seldom been more apparent than it was as they attempted to console each other after Alessandro Diamanti, the most surprising of executioners, struck the winning penalty. At least space will now be cleared for a thorough rebuilding.
For England, the match had a disconcerting opening when Italy took the kick‑off and rolled the ball around the length and width of the pitch with perfectly lubricated ease and precision until, after two minutes and 50 seconds of virtually unbroken interplay, Daniele De Rossi suddenly took aim from almost 30 yards out and sent in a fierce shot which smacked off the left-hand post. Surprisingly it turned out to be a prelude to a purple passage from England, who maintained their composure and responded with some useful passing of their own, culminating less that two minutes later in the clever move which ended with Glen Johnson improvising a scooped shot that Gigi Buffon managed to claw down from close range.
Although both sides jabbed away enterprisingly enough for the remainder of the first half, neither could land a proper punch. Most of the chances fell to Mario Balotelli, who turned out to be in one of his more opaque moods – until the shoot-out, of course, in which he set Italy on their way. England's other good opportunity came from a quick-witted combination between Rooney and Welbeck, the younger man hitting a side‑footed shot just over the bar. After half-time the overall quality of the match declined slowly, with the balance shifting inexorably in Italy's favour. Pirlo's influence increased and the substitution of Welbeck felt like a turning point, depriving England of a player who might have produced a moment of inspiration.
Johnson and Joe Hart were England's outstanding defenders. Along with Welbeck, Walcott and other members of a younger generation, they now have a chance to establish themselves as the team's new core. For all the diligence of the senior figures in the earlier games, this match will surely be seen as their last failure to impose themselves. There is an opportunity here for Hodgson, and he must not pass it up.