While it was a little fanciful of Roy Hodgson to suggest that most people did not believe England would qualify beyond the group stages at Euro 2012, after the 1-0 win over hosts Ukraine it is perhaps fair to say that England did more than expected by winning their group, thus avoiding a clash with Spain on Saturday. Seven points in a four-team group is a strong total for any team, with only Germany managing a 100% record thus far.
England have not yet sparkled but the most impressive element of the team’s progress so far has been their willingness to play the hand as it is dealt. Against France in the opening match there was an acceptance that a draw was good enough. And so we drew. Against Sweden, noting that the opposition had a tendency to concede headers, we played Andy Carroll, who promptly scored. When the match was turned on its head, the directness of Theo Walcott was the immediate solution to England’s problems.
The high point of such a practical approach came in Hodgson’s admission last night that England were happy to soak up the Ukrainian pressure in the second-half as they knew France were a goal down. There was, he told us assuredly, no need to take silly risks. Gone were the platitudes about playing your own game and worrying about other results later. Here was an erudite England manager clearly stating a desire to put aside hyperbole and cliché and simply do whatever is needed to progress. And progress England did, as group winners.
The desire to avoid a quarter-final with Spain is understandable, yet in the clamour to dodge the reigning European and World champions it has been ignored that Italy, whilst not a top quality side, are perhaps the most awkward team for England to face in the competition. Against Spain or Germany we might park the bus, hoping to pick them off with a scrappy goal. Against Greece or Czech Republic we would, one hopes, possess too much class. But how should England line up against Italy?
The odds on the match reflect the obvious reality: there is remarkably little to choose between the two teams. Two great footballing nations, both unfancied coming into the tournament, both, possibly, building up a head of steam at the right time. Both have defensive solidity, though perhaps lack flair. Both, of course, possess a maverick attacker equally capable of scoring a hat-trick as kicking an opponent.
Italy entered the championships in turmoil, a 3-0 defeat against Russia capping a three-match losing streak without scoring a goal. Their profligacy persists – against Ireland the match should have been won 10 minutes after half-time – but at least the stereotypical solidity appears to have returned. The suspended Giorgio Chiellini will be a loss, but Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli - shielded by Daniele De Rossi and ahead of Gigi Buffon - is still one of the tournament’s most formidable defensive lines.
Germany are likely to await the victor a week on Thursday and should not break too much of a sweat against Greece on Friday. England or Italy will have two fewer days to patch up their armours and it would be no surprise to see the match go beyond 10pm on Sunday night. Another one of those nights lies ahead…