Penalty heartache strikes again for England
England last night exited the European Championships beset with regret, their ambitions halted by a penalty shoot-out in Kiev. They had reached the quarter-finals having surprisingly topped Group D but there was little unexpected about the manner of their departure. It was over as soon as the ball was placed on the spot.
There is a growing roll call of English players to falter from 12 yards. It is an inauspicious club; Ashley Young and Ashley Cole both last night adding their names to a list which includes Gareth Southgate, Chris Waddle, David Batty and David Beckham.
England had overcome perceived limitations in each of their group matches but were undone by the Italians last night. Cesare Prandelli's side belie expectation around about the time they get started. A 1-1 draw with Spain in their opening game seemed to enhance their prospects in the competition but they are not a side replete with masterful talent. Their main threat against England was also the most untrustworthy.
Mario Balotelli has proven repeatedly that he cannot be left alone with his own car keys, a box of fireworks, or the ball. He is temperamental presence – the forward attempted to celebrate his adroit goal against the Republic of Ireland by remonstrating with his coach – yet his starting berth is retained due to his proclivity to interrupt his petulance and indulge his talents. Last night proved a convenient vignette; Balotelli showing flashes of his ability but failing to profit fully.
His first chance came after 25 minutes. It was also his best. The Manchester City striker eased himself into space between England's centre-back pairing of Joleon Lescott and John Terry and collected a raking pass from the effervescent Andrea Pirlo. His hesistation in trying to nudge a shot over Hart allowed Terry to scud the ball clear.
Balotelli proved similarly profligate when he snatched at a volley following a delectable flicked pass from Claudio Marchisio a few minutes later. The midfielder acknowledged the attempt, having already saluted a swerving drive from Daniele De Rossi just three minutes into the match which struck a post.
The Italians were allowed to become more assured after the break; England instead retreating to their own half and waiting to absorb the pressure. Pirlo was invited to thread balls forward, Balotelli tested Hart and De Rossi nudged a shot wide after 48 minutes having been found in space at the back post. It was an inexcusable miss but was one he was allowed by England's lack of adventure.
James Milner – whose modest ability has been brought into sharp focus by his presence at these finals – was replaced by Theo Walcott midway through the second half as Roy Hodgson looked to inject greater impetus into his side. It didn't work. England remained reluctant to venture out of their own half, instead closing ranks and daring Italy to break them down. They did. Yet Hart's goal remained undisturbed; Antonio Nocerino squandering a chance after 89 minutes, the Italian substitute galloping into the penalty area only to have the ball nudged off his toe by Johnson.
It seemed only a matter of time until England's resistance was breached and they were offering a friendly nod to a better side. That came closest to fruition early in extra time – substitute Alessandro Diamanti sending a cross drifting into the penalty area, the ball evading everything except the far post. The former West Ham United forward's next cross did result in the ball nestling in the net, only for the assistant referee's flag to render it void, Nocerino having strayed marginally offside before stooping to beat Hart.
Given the engrossing nature of the game, penalties held a certain appeal. They were a certainty after Marchiso upended Rooney to afford England a belated reprieve. But it was England. And it was penalties. Balotelli and Steven Gerrard both converted with aplomb before Riccardo Montolivo planted his spot-kick past a post. Rooney drove his past Buffon, while Pirlo opted for a delectable chip. If the Italians were perturbed by their miss then they weren't showing it.
When Young struck the bar with England's third penalty Buffon saluted Montolivo, Nocerino restoring Italy's advantage with a cool finish. England feared they were out when Buffon clutched Cole's poorly-struck penalty and that was realised when Diamanti stroked the ball beyond Hart.
Italy win 4-2 after penalties
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