Roy Hodgson tried to sound matter-of-fact, even suggesting English players boast the same underlying qualities as their Italian counterparts, but he could not quite snuff out his thrilled admiration for all things Azzurri. "What they have over us is they use their qualities," he said as he confronted the challenge that awaits on Sunday evening. "Take the World Cup in 1982. Up until the last couple of games they looked anything but winners, and yet they came home with the cup. Their players seemed to find a way to get the job done when necessary."
The message was clear. If England are to force passage into their first semi-final of a major tournament since Euro 96 – and in the same breath eliminate a major footballing power from a knockout stage outside Wembley for the first time – they must adopt some of those Italian characteristics. Where the English have too often arrived at this stage trumpeting a fanfare of ambition, all giddy talk of ending trophy droughts and reclaiming the national game, now Hodgson's team will confront canny and classy opponents who have made a habit of creeping up on the latter stages of major finals. Their methods must be admired, adopted and end up inspiring.
It is a challenge Hodgson will attack with relish. England strode around the turf in Kiev on Saturday night, on a pre-match "walkabout", a side buoyed after topping a tricky group and with conviction swelling that something remarkable can be achieved at Euro 2012. They will be unchanged on Sunday night, Hodgson resisting the temptation to fling Andy Carroll into the fray to unsettle opponents denied the injured Giorgio Chiellini at the heart of their defence, and with their tactical approach maintained from the section. Possession may be surrendered for periods –"possibly lengthy spells" – but the feverish work-rate will remain. Too many within the travelling party have recognised this as an opportunity not to be passed up for the commitment to waver now.
The manager has recognised the signs, the talk drifting inexorably to "breaking hoodoos", "togetherness" and maintaining momentum. "My players have a big appetite for the game and for playing for their country," said Hodgson. "They are very much together and ready for this game. Sure, they know there's pressure on them, but there'll be pressure on the Italians as well. So far we have succeeded in showing our qualities. Now we must show them again in a game a little bit bigger than those we've played up to now. We have to try and break the hoodoo. Italy have been lucky enough to break their hoodoo a lot more recently than we have: 1966 is a long time ago and they can point to much more recent successes."
Hodgson knows what to expect and can draw encouragement from his own brushes with the Azzurri. The 64-year-old has worked in Italy with Internazionale and Udinese, and confronted the four-time World Cup winners as manager of Switzerland. In qualifying for USA 94, his unfancied team drew in Cagliari, conceding two goals in the last seven minutes, but exacted some kind of revenge by prevailing in the return in Berne. An Italian team containing Paolo Maldini, Roberto Baggio, Roberto Mancini and Franco Baresi were defeated by a goal from Marc Hottiger, a full-back briefly of Newcastle and Everton.
If that was a win plucked from Italian possession, England can ill afford to be entirely passive and will hope to impose themselves on the occasion. "We must take it by the scruff of the neck," said Hodgson, with Danny Welbeck's slippery running and Wayne Rooney's incision cause for optimism against Cesare Prandelli's revamped defence. Yet there will inevitably be periods, as there were against the French and even Ukraine, when English mettle will be hugely scrutinised.
Italy's only victory at these finals to date may have been something of a grind against the Irish, but they retain class, can be slick in possession and unpredictable in attack. "They have that in-built resilience and belief," said Gary Neville. "They're compact and don't concede many, and yet they actually play more football than a lot Italian teams of the past. They offer more intricate passing, and Thiago Motta, Daniele De Rossi and Andrea Pirlo are excellent footballers. You would usually think of Italian teams playing in stops and starts, being very cynical and creating fouls. But this team play out from the back to a rhythm."
The onus will be on Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard to disrupt their tempo, with Rooney dropping back in support if the pair are outnumbered in midfield. Ill-discipline could kibosh a campaign.
"If they control the game in there, we're in trouble," conceded Gerrard, though the captain need not lead alone. He offered praise, too, for John Terry, a player back to his rugged best against Ukraine who must excel again. "We have got a lot of leaders and fantastic people around the setup, and the reason we're doing so well is everyone is pulling in the right direction and leading by example. John has been a big part of that. His performances have been superb and we'll certainly need another one now."
"He has been very good off the field as well," added Hodgson. "Like Steven, he has done an awfully good job helping me and my coaching staff get messages across to the players because he cottoned on quickly to what we wanted to do."
The immediate desire is to break with recent tradition and oust a contender. An opportunity awaits.