A Game We Can Win

Unexpectedly given pre-tournament expectations, England have reached the quarter finals of the European Championships for the first time since 2004.

Or to put it another way, we’ve reached the quarter finals for only the third time since the competition started just over half a century ago.

If that seems a rare feat, consider this. We’ve not played a competitive game against the Italians since the epic goalless draw in the Olympic Stadium in Rome which ensured qualification for the 1998 World Cup. Even more surprising is that fact that we’ve never played the Italians at a neutral site in a major tournament. Considering we first played them in 1933 and between us we’ve qualified for almost every World Cup and European Championships, it almost looks like we’ve gone out of our way to avoid each other. Ironically, we next them in a friendly in August.

Before I continue, it’s worth chucking in some facts about the quarter finals in the recent Euro tournaments, basically so you can start planning what to say when you turn up bleary eyed for work tomorrow morning. In the European Championships Since 1996:

* On average, at least one quarter final per tournament has gone to extra time, although none did in 2000.

* In the games that went to extra time, all but one were eventually decided on penalties

* Most of the quarter finals have been won by countries that won their groups: victories for Spain and Germany over the last two days took those numbers to eleven wins in 19 games for group winners in quarter finals

If we apply those statistics to today’s game there’s the possibility that England might actually win a penalty shoot out in the latter stages of the European Championship since Stuart Pearce dramatically made amends for his miss in the 1990 World Cup Semi Final when he scored in the shoot out against Spain in 1996.

However, before getting carried away there are some numbers that you should be aware of. We’ve only beaten Italy twice in our last ten meetings – the last win was at Le Tournoi in 1997 – and we’ve failed to score in half of those games. Not only that, the fact that we’re currently ranked higher in the FIFA rankings could count against us. Since 1996, at least one quarter final has seen a lower ranked side beat a higher ranked team – that hasn’t happened yet in Euro 2012.

Overall, these statistics point to something that we’ve all been expecting. This is going to be a tight, low scoring game – there may only be one goal in it – that could easily go to extra time and penalties. And whoever wins will probably be beaten by Germany in the semi finals.

So who have we got to look out for? Remarkably, Cesare Prandelli has already used 20 players in three games although the midfield of De Rossi, Marchisio, Pirlo and Thiago Motta played in all three group games: it should be remembered that Pirlo and De Rossi are also more than capable of getting on the scoresheet. Antonio Cassano of Milan normally starts up front but hasn’t finished a game yet and it wouldn’t come as a huge surprise if he wasn’t on the pitch after 70 minutes today: it’ll be interesting to see who plays up front with him. Mario Balotelli started against both Spain and Croatia but was substituted in both games; although he came off the bench to score in the last minute against Ireland I’m wondering if he might be used to replace Cassano and the more experienced- and potentially more lethal – Antonio Di Natale will be alongside Cassano for Italy. The other question is which formation the Italians could use – they lined up in 3-5-2 against Spain and Croatia but changed to a 4-1-3-2 against Ireland and could use that again against us, largely because we don’t really play Mediterranean style football.

Apart from the enforced changes upfront due to Wayne Rooney’s suspension, Roy Hodgson has been fairly consistent in his team selection. Nine players started all three group games and both Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have made cameo appearances in all of the games so far: arguably the biggest surprise has been Danny Welbeck. However if you’re going to base your attacking options around making Wayne Rooney comfortable then attempting to copy Manchester United’s style puts selecting Welbeck and Ashley Young ahead of arguably better players into context. Much has been made of the lack of Young’s defensive qualities at this level and if he starts today he needs to have the game of his life in that respect.

If we beat Italy, the old nemesis lies in wait in the semi finals. Germany took a while to get going against the Greeks on Friday night but once they hit their stride they look fantastic. I ‘watched’ Spain v France last night but my wife and I saw ‘The Woman In Black’ before it and that was more tense and dramatic than the game: my opinion is that ‘tiki taka’ is about as thrilling as ‘catenaccio’ used to be in so far as it’ll bore you into submission before striking when you probably expect it. Croatia and France learned that lesson the hard way.

Let’s not get too carried away if we win tonight. A bit carried away will be perfectly acceptable though.

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