England take on Italy in the Euro 2012 quarter-finals on Sunday night and, in the words of Steven Gerrard, "cannot afford to underestimate" Cesare Prandelli's side. Here are five key areas where England need to be on top …

1 Make sure Pirlo does not get the ball

Andrea Pirlo is by far the most important player in this Italian team. He is the one who makes them tick. Thiago Motta may be il trequartista but Pirlo is il regista. The 33-year-old, who seemed to have peaked a few years ago, has been rejuvenated by last summer's move to Juventus after 10 years at Milan. Most of Italy's moves start with Pirlo. He never looks hurried on the ball (mainly because he is never hurried) with his vision and technique enabling him to pass his way out of most situations. There was a beautiful moment less than five minutes into Italy's opening game against Spain at this tournament when Pirlo had to pick up a sloppy pass from Thiago Motta with Xabi Alonso and Cesc Fábregas closing in on him quickly. What did Pirlo do? He swivelled and backheeled the ball to Daniele De Rossi, who was then able to get Italy out of trouble. England need to put pressure on Pirlo from the outset, but one player may not be enough. They may need two or three players with Wayne Rooney or Danny Welbeck dropping deep.

2 Get at the full-backs

Cesare Prandelli's Italy are not as defensive-minded as previous Azzurri teams and both Ignazio Abate and Federico Balzaretti are not only allowed to go forward, but encouraged to do so. Right-back Abate may play for Milan but he is no Paolo Maldini, having been loaned out to four clubs and then sold before returning to San Siro in 2009. He can be suspect defensively and did not play in the first two games of the tournament, when Prandelli opted for a 3-5-2 formation. Against Ireland, he was solid but England will hope to test him more than the interchanging Damien Duff and Aidan McGeady did. The Palermo left-back Balzaretti has come on to the international scene late, having had spells at Torino, Juventus and Fiorentina before finally settling down in Sicily. He is 30 now but attacks as if he were 10 years younger. He, too, did not play in the opening two games and started poorly against Ireland, being booked early on, and needing the assistance of Daniele De Rossi on several occasions. In fact, Italy's expected 4-3-1-2 is an extremely narrow formation and the full-backs are often exposed. If England are able to put pressure on Abate and Balzaretti with James Milner, Glen Johnson and Ashley Young and Ashley Cole, then they will create chances.

3 Exploit the absence of Chiellini

The central defence, for so long an Italian strength, has been troubling Prandelli for some time with the 3-0 friendly defeat against Russia just before the tournament a new low. The Italians were in disarray without their linchpin, Giorgio Chiellini, the rugged Juventus defender who will now miss the England game with a thigh injury. Chiellini, whose Juventus side did not lose a single game on their way to the title last season, is the most experienced defender in Italy's squad with 53 caps, and will be sorely missed. However, Chiellini's Juve team-mates Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli are likely to be Prandelli's central pairing on Sunday and they played a lot together at Juve last season with Chiellini out at left-back. Barzagli carried a calf injury into the tournament and did not play against Spain and Croatia while Bonucci, 25, can be erratic. Rooney and Welbeck will be delighted that Chiellini is out.

4 Stop Motta

What this Italian team lacks is a proper playmaker. For a country which has produced players such as Roberto Mancini, Roberto Baggio and Alessandro Del Piero, having to choose between Thiago Motta, Riccardo Montolivo and Antonio Nocerino is not an enviable position. Motta has played all three of Italy's games but has not impressed and may lose his place. As the Italian newspaper Il Libero wrote after the game against Croatia: "He didn't play as a holding midfielder, he didn't play as a playmaker and he didn't play as a box-to-box midfielder. Or rather, he tried to do a little bit of all of those things." England – and particularly Scott Parker – will need to keep a close eye on the Brazilian-born player if he is selected, but the main danger will come from the Italian forwards.

5 Mark Balotelli and Cassano tightly

The Italian forward line is arguably the most explosive in the history of Gli Azzurri but they are working well together and can score goals out of nothing. Antonio Cassano is a certain starter and the feeling in Italy is that Mario Balotelli will regain his place after being dropped in favour of Antonio Di Natale for the final group game against Ireland. Cassano is deceptively quick and could trouble John Terry with his technique. Italy are unlikely to attempt to beat Terry and Joleon Lescott in the air – unless they swap to 3-5-2 at some stage of the game with Christian Maggio and Emanuele Giaccherini putting in crosses from wing-back positions. It will be extremely important for Terry and Lescott to mark the Italian forwards tightly and not give them any space to manoeuvre but at the same time they must avoid giving away free-kicks on the edge of the box. Pirlo can be deadly from set pieces.