Kive, Ukraine: With the tension at its highest, thousands of fans jeering you and elimination staring you in the face, it takes a special type of player to keep his cool and stroke home a game-changing penalty.
And if that penalty is in a shootout and the way it’s struck is a cheeky little dink down the middle — known as a cucchiaio, or spoon in Italian — then the sang-froid is even more impressive.
And that is exactly what Andrea Pirlo did in the pressure-cooker cauldron of the Olympic Stadium here on Sunday.
Italy were one down in the shootout due to Riccardo Montolivo’s miss but Pirlo’s cool, calculated gamble paid off, not just because he scored but because it changed the whole ambiance of the shoot-out — a fitting piece of magic from a man once nicknamed ‘Tinker Bell’ after the magical fairy in Peter Pan.
England did not score another penalty with Ashley Young and Ashley Cole both missing, meaning further successful strikes from Antonio Nocerino and Alessandro Diamanti sent Italy into the Euro 2012 semi-final following a 0-0 draw in normal time.
But what really changed the momentum of that shoot-out was Pirlo’s brazen confidence, something the Italians have witnessed before when former striker Francesco Totti scored with a similar dink against Holland in the semi-finals of this competition in 2000.
And for Totti’s club team mate at Roma Daniele De Rossi, his fellow 2006 World Cup winner’s penalty left a lasting impression. “If I had to choose a lasting image from the game I’d say Pirlo’s penalty,” he said.
“I’d not seen such a crazy shot as that since the days of Totti.” Pirlo himself took the plaudits in his stride, insisting that it just seemed the right thing to do at the time, not least because of the fired up and imposing figure of Joe Hart in front of him.
“I saw that the goalkeeper was really fired up and I thought about doing that,” he said. “It was easier to shoot that way and it put a bit of pressure on the goalkeeper.” Hart, a reknowned penalty stopper, didn’t manage to save any of Italy’s spot-kicks, with Montolivo’s missed effort the only blip for the Azzurri.
But as Pirlo himself said, it changed the perception of who was under pressure a little bit and thereafter it was his team-mates who held their nerve, not least goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who saved Cole’s penalty.
Although the image of the match was Pirlo’s “spoon”, it was his overall performance that most impressed. Pirlo is a vital cog in coach Cesare Prandelli’s system, which sees Antonio Cassano dropping deep from a forward position and his striker-partner — Mario Balotelli against England — and the midfielders breaking from deep, trying to get behind the defence.
But that is made possible mostly by Pirlo’s unerring accuracy with the boot. The conductor of the Italy team, he sets the tempo, dictates what happens around him and provides the fulcrum from which everything else pivots.
In the first half he picked out Balotelli with a raking through ball and the Manchester City striker probably should have done better than delay long enough for John Terry to recover. Another delightful chip over the top freed Cassano behind Cole and his header back into the danger zone looked set to be buried by Balotelli until Joleon Lescott’s desperate intervention.
Such was Pirlo’s importance to Italy that England ended up covering him with their strikers rather than the overworked midfield, meaning the forwards dropped too deep and then failed to provide much of an outlet once England eventually won the ball back. Losing the ball so quickly after regaining it was a major reason Roy Hodgson’s team saw only 36 percent of possession.
Angry British Press
Britain’s newspapers yesterday lamented England’s defeat — but agreed that the better side had won. “A beginning, a muddle and an end: an ordinary team bows out,” said the Times’ Simon Barnes.
Barnes bemoaned the “dreadful inevitability” of England’s departure on penalties — they have now lost six out of seven shoot-outs at major tournaments — and the gulf in class between the two teams.
The Daily Telegraph argued that for all their endeavour, England’s players would be acutely aware of how far they remain behind the world’s elite. “Italy, and Andrea Pirlo in particular, were vastly superior,” said the broadsheet.
And The Guardian wrote: “There will be many regrets at what might have been after the resilient, disciplined and very occasionally exuberant victories against Sweden and Ukraine.”
However, the unity shown in qualifying from a tough group meant fans could feel better about the tournament than the disastrous World Cup 2010.
Popular tabloid The Sun meanwhile hoped humour would ease the Monday- morning blues. “Anyone for Tennis?”, it asked: as Wimbledon started.