England and Italy, two teams packed with experience, but spiced by youth and some volatility, meet in Kiev today in probably the most intriguing of the Euro 2012 quarter-final ties.
Clashing for the first time in more than a decade, England have met Italy only twice at major tournaments, with the Italians winning a 1980 European Championship group game 1-0 in Turin and a 1990 World Cup third-place playoff 2-1 in Bari.
Both teams, enjoying unbeaten runs in competitive fixtures lasting 11 and 13 games respectively, are built on sound defense and counter-attack.
Both use flexible versions of 4-4-2 and have thoughtful and pragmatic managers in Roy Hodgson and Cesare Prandelli.
For England, where the Premier League has ushered in a financial boom, cosmopolitan coaching and many world-class players, it is a chance to prove their game has progressed since they lost 2-1 to Italy at Leeds, in March 2002.
Italian coaches have heavily influenced the English domestic boom.
Men like Gianluca Vialli, Carlo Ancelotti and Roberto Di Matteo at Chelsea and Manchester City’s Roberto Mancini have stamped their style on their teams and have been successful, with Di Matteo this year winning the Champions League and Mancini the Premier League title.
Yet, as English soccer has embraced the Italian way, Italy has moved in the other direction, seeking to instill more dynamic and open attacking play into a tradition of slow, defensive asphyxiation.
This sense of flux will be embodied today by teams with sound defenses and outstanding goalkeepers — a relative newcomer for England in Joe Hart, 25, and a seasoned veteran for Italy in Gianluigi Buffon, 34, set to make his 118th international appearance.
Both teams have Manchester-based potential firecrackers in Wayne Rooney, of United, who came back from suspension to score England’s winner against Ukraine, and Mario Balotelli, of City, who scored as a substitute against Ireland.
Rooney’s return has added threat to England’s attack without disturbing a smothering system that has earned Hodgson — whose peripatetic career has included two spells at Inter Milan — the soubriquet “the English Italian,” after he was praised as “intelligent, clever, experienced and cunning” by Mancini in La Gazzetta dello Sport.
Prandelli, like Hodgson, has kept his cards close to his chest on whether he would retain the 4-3-1-2 system used to defeat Ireland, or revert to a three-man defense adopted in the previous group games.
He must also decide whether to continue with Antonio Di Natale as the main striker, or recall Balotelli to face his club-mates Joleon Lescott and Hart. Midfielder Thiago Motta is a slight doubt with a hamstring strain.
Fullbacks Ignazio Abate and Federico Balzaretti are expected to keep their places, while central defender Leonardo Bonucci is set to start in place of the injured Giorgio Chiellini.
England are expected to be unchanged.
“From our point of view, there is an understanding that we are a good team,” Bonucci said. “But we know that to go all the way, we also need luck. We’ve got to be careful against this England, who are increasingly playing like Italy, focusing on details in defense.”
In the only previous meeting of the two teams at a Euro finals, Italy won 1-0 on home soil in Turin in 1980. Like many of their confrontations, it was cagey, dramatic and physical. This should be no different.