England and Italy are locking horns for the final spot in the EURO 2012 semifinals. Both teams will feel the weight of their soccer history when they clash on Sunday evening.
The last Euro 2012 quarterfinal match will be between two teams with a lot of baggage.
Italian football is yet again mired in corruption with another betting scandal. But since the last two Italian World Cup wins in 1982 and 2006 were down to players who were on the prosecutors' most wanted list at the time, it has only stoked the optimism of superstitious Italian fans.
Pressure has always served the Italian team well, and its defense - along with goalie Gianluigi Buffon - are a hard nut to crack at any rate. Coach Cesare Prandelli's team has made quite an impact - gone is the typically Italian defensive football.
Tactically, the Italian game, with superstar Andrea Pirlo of Juventus Turin at its heart, is very varied, and they usually attack quickly. For that to work, they rely on two strikers who don't always live up to their full potential. Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano don't make the most of their chances in a game, and they seem to make more headlines off than on the pitch. That said, Prandelli keeps singing Balotelli's praises: "Deep down, Mario is a golden boy."
A good goalie at last
England came top of Group D, ahead of Ukraine, Sweden and France. In the first two group matches they had to do without key player Wayne Rooney. The highly talented but often hot-headed Manchester United star will be essential in the match against Italy. Apart from young hopeful Danny Welbeck and keeper Joe Hart, England rarely deliver anything but standard soccer fare.
Hart is a refreshing surprise in the Three Lions team, which has English coach Roy Hodgson at the helm after years of being led by Swede Sven-Goran Eriksson and Italian Fabio Capello. For decades, the English had average goalkeepers at best, and they were often ridiculed in the press. Manchester City's Hart, however, has good ball-handling skills, and he knows how to play so that his teammates can rely on him and pass the ball in tricky situations.
Preparing for the dreaded penalty shootout
England's footballing history will be weighing heavily on players' minds on Sunday evening. The 1966 World Cup win on home soil provided the only bit of silverware for the national team. The performance of subsequent English teams is a story of tragedy and failure to triumph over underestimated opponents and their own nerves.
Hodgson is determined to end England's losing streak. "Like every English person, I dream of the semifinal. When we bow out in a few years' time, we'd like to do that with medals round our necks," he said. And keeper Joe Hart has set an example - he has practiced penalty shootouts - as a goalkeeper and a player.
Author: Dirk Kaufmann / ng
Editor: Nancy Isenson