England v Italy: The Strengths, Weaknesses And Haircuts Of The Azzurri

Tonight's quarter-final will be attritional, nervy and possibly brilliant. Here's everything you need to know about the Italians...
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Tonight's quarter-final will be attritional, nervy and possibly brilliant. Here's everything you need to know about the Italians...

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You and I know them as a bunch of divers with silly hair who only know one way to play, defensively, but what can England expect from a distinctly unfamiliar Italian team tonight? Here are some strengths and weaknesses to give you the low down on England’s next opponents

STRENGTHS

Madness in Attack

Madness? THIS IS ITALY! The Italians have without doubt the most insane strike force at the tournament. A front two of notorious crazy guys Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli promises nothing if not entertainment and, so far, it has delivered on that promise. Cassano, who today claimed to have been “10 times crazier than Mario Balotelli at his age,” has been excellent so far this tournament, finally living up to the potential that once made him the most expensive teenager of all time. His displays through qualifying and so far in the group stages make it obvious why Cesare Prandelli was willing to wait until the very last minute for him to prove his fitness after having heart surgery around Christmas.

Along with the mercurial Cassano, Italy also have domestic goal machine Toto Di Natale. He may not be crazy, but the Udinese man makes up for it with lightening pace and is often unerring in front of goal, as his finish against Spain demonstrated. However, a misfiring performance against the Irish could lead to him returning to the bench in favour of bully-hating-pyrotechnic-loving maverick Mario Balotelli. The Manchester City forward can, on his day, be unstoppable, possessing a potent mix of athleticism, skill and unpredictability, as demonstrated in his goal against Ireland, which explains why his questionable attitude is so often tolerated.

Great Hair in Midfield

It’s hard to argue with the fact that Andrea Pirlo has great, great hair. The Juventus playmaker, (No Roy, not Milan. He moved last summer.), also has one of the best passing ranges in world football. Against Spain, his burst from midfield and perfectly weighted through ball produced the opening goal for Di Natale and he is more than capable of picking teams apart with precision passing from deep. While he had an off day against Ireland, England must have a plan for dealing with Pirlo as, if we allow him space and time on the ball, he will punish us.

The Juventus playmaker, (No Roy, not Milan. He moved last summer.), also has one of the best passing ranges in world football.

Midfield is arguably the strongest area of the Italian side with Pirlo playing alongside the undoubtedly world class Daniele De Rossi, the calm head of Thiago Motta and the dynamic Claudio Marchisio. De Rossi was used to great effect in the centre of a back three in the first two games but returned to midfield against Ireland. He recently stated that Steven Gerrard is his idol and is exceptional in the tackle as well as being able to change the game in an attacking sense with his drive and excellent passing. Motta relies on excellent positioning and good distribution to exert his influence on games while Marchisio, a teammate of Pirlo at Juventus, is full of energy and often appears in goal scoring positions in and around the opposition penalty area.

England will likely surrender the lion’s share of possession to Italy as they look to stifle the opposition, but they must not allow the Italian midfield too much time to play in dangerous areas as they possess more than enough ability to punish us.

Gianluigi Buffon

As any England fan should know, a great goal keeper is of vital importance, the confidence Joe Hart gives the players in front of him is a perfect example of this. As good as Hart is, though, Buffon is better. Arguably one of the best ‘keepers of all time, he remains the most expensive. He has been capped 117 times for la Nazionale and has won virtually everything there is to win as a player. His intelligence and judgement was again on display when he stole the ball off the toes of Fernando Torres to keep Italy in the game against Spain. England will need something special if they are to beat him.

Madness? THIS IS ITALY! The Italians have without doubt the most insane strike force at the tournament.

WEAKNESSES

The Second Half Collapse

Traditionally something we are excellent at, the Italians have, of late, set about making this classic English move their own. Having taken the lead against Spain, they immediately conceded and then had the brilliance of Buffon and the profligacy of Torres to thank for the score remaining 1-1. Against Croatia they dominated the first half, taking the lead through a Pirlo free kick, but were again pegged back having been unable to take any of the raft of chances they created in the first half. Italy again surrendered the initiative in the second half against Ireland when Antonio Cassano was replaced. While the Italian’s blushes were saved by Mario Balotelli’s wonderful overhead kick, less awful opposition would almost certainly have made Italy pay.

Should England go behind, it is vital that they then exert some pressure on the Italians as, if the last three games are anything to go by, they are likely to crack and let us back into the game.

A Chiellini-less Defence

The Juventus man has been a stalwart of the national side for some time now and is an absolute colossus at the back. His injury against Ireland contributed to the panicked end to the game and his absence against England leaves something of a gaping hole in the Italian defence. In his place, Leonardo Bonucci is likely to start alongside Andrea Barzagli. Barzagli is a strong, consistent defender and was part of the World Cup winning squad in 2006, but he is simply not as good a player as Chiellini.

Alongside him, Bonucci was hailed as being part of the next generation of great Italian defenders when he joined Juventus but has failed to progress much since then. Despite generally being excellent against Spain, there were moments of madness, such as a ridiculous knee high lunge on Andres Iniesta, which England could certainly look to take advantage of.

Should England go behind, it is vital that they then exert some pressure on the Italians as, if the last three games are anything to go by, they are likely to crack and let us back into the game.

Both Chiellini’s pace and his ability in the air will be missed as England possess the players to exploit both of these areas through the speed of Danny Welback and Theo Walcott and the aerial threat of Big Andy Carroll.

OVERALL

This should be a really interesting game. Both sides have obvious flaws that the other will look to exploit and the clash of the Italian attempt at a possession based game and the English attempt at counter attacking should make for a riveting 90 minutes.

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