“Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it” so the saying goes and ignoring its wisdom has led to some of the greatest calamaties in history. If you are French or German do not invade Russia in the winter. If you are Spanish do not send your Armadas out when the weather forecast is unfavourable. And if you are an English football team never play decent opposition in the knockout rounds of an international tournament away from Wembley. This is where the wheels always come off, the house of cards collapses and my stock of rubbish cliches is exhausted.
But, though neither France nor Germany have invaded Russia for ages and Spain have given up launching armadas, England still stubbornly refuse to stop banging their heads against their own footballing brick wall (turns out my stock of cliches wasn't quite exhausted after all). And so Steven Gerrard led England out to face Italy in Kiev hoping his team wouldn't find themselves ninety minutes later metaphorically washed up on the West Coast of Ireland with a broken mast and a soggy Spanish/Gaelic dictionary.
The build-up had featured very little of consequence. Wayne Rooney had attempted to distract everyone from mocking his hair by skillfully revealing his appalling taste in music and getting them to mock that instead. Roy Hodgson had told the English players who were on yellow cards to play without thinking about them which as managerial advice goes ranks one rung above “Try not to score too many own goals!” or “Remember to wear shorts!” And Steven Gerrard had come over all Carpe Diem and urged his teammates to Seize the Moment. Which is admittedly somewhat less ambitious than seizing a whole day but perhaps he perhaps he knows something we don't about their attention spans.
The Italian build-up meanwhile seemed to have mainly concentrated on speculating about what goes on in Mario Ballotelli's head. Hodgson had expressly denied that anyone from England would try and deliberately wind the combustible young Italian up and was immediately followed by James Milner telling the media that Mario sulked when it got cold and was lazy in training. So no contradiction there then.
Nevertheless as the teams walked out many an English chap and, in the interests of sexual equality, many an English chick in Kiev (BOOM!) couldn't help but cast their dusty history tomes to one side and wonder if this could be the dawning of a brave new world...
For the first five minutes it didn’t look that way. Italy took early control and camped out in the English half. Memories of their earlier performances in the tournament meant England watchers feared that ceding the initiative time after time was going to get you into trouble sooner or later. This was almost confirmed when the ball broke to De Rossi outside the penalty area and he hit a volley with his outside foot so sweetly that no goalkeeper on earth could have stopped it. Fortunately, the post did.
This early shock seemed to shake England out of their defensive mindset and the next ten minutes witnessed their best play of the tournament. Glen Johnson was the suprising catalyst surging down the right, laying off the ball and continuing his run. The resulting cross fell to him perfectly in the centre-forward position and his shot though too close to Buffon nevertheless required an outstanding save from the Italian goalkeeper.
England continued to surge forward. Johnson again made ground and put in an excellent cross which Rooney should have done better with. Crucially, England had finally found the rapid tempo that they needed if they were to be successful and the Italians were stretched and rattled as England strived for a breakthrough/
Unfortunately this brief excellent spell didn’t yield a goal and Italy gradually began to reassert control over the match. England allowed the dangerous Pirlo far too much space and he responded by picking out a superb pass for Baliotelli who dithered just long enough before shooting to allow John Terry to block.
But it was a harbinger of things to come. With Cassano picking up the ball in the inside left channel and prepared to shoot from distance and Baliotelli constantly trying and often succeeding to get behind the defence it was England who were now under sustained pressure. With a little luck they made it to half-time level but there was no question as the referees whistle blew for the interval who was the most likely winner.
If there was any doubt who the better team was it disappeared in the opening minutes of the second half when Italy created a number of good chances. First after a corner was half-cleared Lescott was slow to clear the six yard area and a looping ball from the edge of the 18 yard box found De Rossi in on goal with only Hart to beat. Luckily his rushed shot went wide. Next a fierce Italian shot from outside the area could only be parried forward by Hart. Baliotelli brilliantly controlled the rebound and fired on goal. Hart parried but the ball bounced invitingly from his save only for the next Italian to hook it over the bar with the goal at his mercy.
Hodgson reacted to the pressure by sending on Carroll and Walcott when an extra midfielder and leaving Rooney alone up front seemed a better option from where I was sitting as England were still giving Pirlo far too much time and space. In fact, proving me completely wrong, Carroll had an immediate impact winning balls in the air and giving the beleagured English defence a target to hit and some relief from the relentless Italian pressure.
There was still no question who the better team were and eventually a clever run around the English defence by Nocerino was picked out by the peerless Pirlo. The Italian left back’s control and shot were perfect but Glen Johnson who has had a sensational tournament had tracked him every step of the way and produced a crucial block.
As the clock ticked into injury time, England even had the opportunity to nick it. Cole was picked out by Young on an overlapping run, his cross was headed back across the goal by Carroll only for Rooney to send his attempted bicycle kick over the bar.
Extra time was one way traffic. Henderson replaced Parker and with his introduction England ceased entirely to compete in midfield. Wave after wave of Italian attacks followed but somehow the amazingly resolute English defence held. The Italians finally breached it only for the goal to be rightly ruled offside. The referee blew for penalties.
England! A penalty shootout in a knockout round of a tournament against a top team away from Wembley. There could only be one result.
And sadly there was as England’s luck eventually ran out and the two Ashelys joined Gareth Southgate and Chris Waddle in the growing pantheon of famous English penalty missers and the Italians delightedly and deservedly advanced to the semi-finals to face the Germany.
England head home outplayed but not outfought. One day they will have to learn to keep the ball and not to rely on defensive grit and determination to see them through because when the opposition gets too good it never will. Nevertheless for a tournament that promised so little they had acquitted themselves much better than anyone expected and could leave with their heads held high.