Peerless Pirlo keeps Italy a step ahead

England certainly had heart — they had it in abundance — and they certainly had defensive grit and a determination in midfield to make life difficult for Italy.

But what they didn’t have was a Pirlo — and even his penalty in a dramatic and decisive shoot-out proved it.

Before this match, critics were making comparisons between England’s defensive and well-organised team with an Italian side of the 1980s; but even the most defensive side needs a creator in midfield to turn defence into attack every now then.

In Andrea Pirlo, Italy have one of the very best — as he showed in Kiev even at the age of 33. Some of his passes were simply sublime. And if you analyse last night’s match closely then he is the reason Italy deserve to be in the semi-finals and England don’t.

Even the Juventus man’s penalty in the shoot-out smacked of class; chipping it cheekily, ludicrously, past a motionless Joe Hart as Italy secured victory in the end. But his performance throughout the night was wonderful; he always had time on the ball, he always ran the match, he was always technically and literally one step of anything England could offer.

One stunning chipped pass that looped slow and high and dropped quick and dramatically right onto the head of De Rossi really should have ended in a goal for the Italians, only for Mario Balotelli — and this was a much-repeated story — to waste it.

But to pick out that pass when there were so many — all of them effortless, most of them imperious and all of them wonderful to watch — seems almost cruel. This is a player who plays the game in a way no Englishman has ever done (although maybe Glenn Hoddle may argue differently) and he is going to be seriously missed when he eventually hangs up his boots.

England, by contrast, relied on the workrate of Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker, so no wonder Pirlo scoffed at pre-match suggestions that England were ready to win the tournament the Italian way.

“People talk about England playing the Italian way, but that’s rubbish. Only Italy can play the Italian way. And we do not care for anyone who tries to impersonate us,” he said.

Pirlo also described Roy Hodgson’s men as ‘predictable’, which in truth they were because they were relying on unsung heroes rather than super-heroes to win the day.

In the past it was all about the ‘golden generation’ — or more often than not about ‘goldenballs’, David Beckham, who had an entire nation kissing pictures of his right boot in 2002 and who was lambasted for his performances in 2006 even though in truth he was still one of England’s better players in Germany.

Even in Poland and Ukraine, the pre-tournament headlines were all about golden boy Wayne Rooney; but against Italy he was nowhere near as influential and the glittering performances came from some very unglamorous teammates. Men like Glen Johnson and Joleon Lescott.

Neither of those names do much to get England fans excited or tabloid newspaper editors enthused; but their contribution in Kiev was remarkable; and it’s fair to say their careers moved to a new level under intense pressure from the Italians.

It is harsh on England’s hard-working defence that their team are heading home; but in a football sense justice was done because Italy deserved to make it through and in Pirlo they had a man who the world needs to be watching in a Euro semi-final.

There was so much enthusiasm in England for the sheer honesty and hard work of this Hodgson team and for the way they have battled against the odds to reach the quarter-finals. But in the end they found there is no substitute for quality; and until England find their own Pirlo it will always be difficult to go any further.

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