Another fine mess?

Well it happened again.  As one of my friends wrote on facebook, that’s the sixth time in my life that I’ve seen England lose at penalties.  We all know the drill, relatively gallant performance, solid defending and at the end of it all a loss that brings us crashing to the ground.  We wake up the next morning, flags lie on the street, the fetid smell of beer still lingers and we are out, it’s another couple of years until we get the chance to lose on penalties once more.

Yes that happened again tonight.  It was clear before the game that this was going to be the most even of all the quarter finals.  Two teams with good defences and a sprinkling of quality performers in between, two teams with a stand out attacker (Rooney and Balotelli), two teams with a talismanic midfielder (Pirlo and Gerrard) and two teams with great goalkeepers (Hart and Buffon).  Nothing had to give in this game, and it didn’t.

So we headed into the Warsaw fanzone for the match.  This was my second visit there, the first time was Poland Greece which had a great initial atmosphere but as Poland started to play worse and worse all that was left was the boiling day, the packed crowd and far too many drunk people.  This time was completely different, there must have been around 10,000 or so people, lightly spread across the fanzone’s massive space.  You could wander about, sit down calmly and basically enjoy the midsomer’s night sky in the environs of the monumental Palace of Culture and Science.  It was a pleasure to watch the game here and the atmosphere was great with way more people cheering for England than the Italians.

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Palace of Culture and Science

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Warsaw’s fanzone looking resplendent

As to the game itself.  It was as even as even could be.  First England stretched the Italian defence, then the Italians stretched that of the English.  As the game settled down the pattern was established, Italy would have more of the ball, and would aim for Balotelli, who led the line well but was pretty profligate in terms of putting the finishing touches to the number of chances that fell his way.  England on the other hand seemed to have a lot more of the ball than in our previous games, and Rooney’s presence up front helped us to build attacks more regularly than we had during the group stage.  Still it was clear, as it has been throughout the tournament, that we lack a creative midfielder who could hold it all together.

As the match wore on, England started to look increasingly tired, as their chasing and harrowing of the Italians started to get the better of them.  First Milner, then Parker were substituted as Hodgson looked for fresh legs to keep England going.  In extra-time especially Italy looked the stronger team and nearly won it with a header from Nocerino which was rightly ruled out for offside.

And then it was down to our lovely friends penalties and it was all a blur.  Rooney and Gerrard’s well-placed kicks, Pirlo’s beautiful little chip.  England being one penalty up and the scared eyes and defeatist body language of Young and Cole which saw them join the pantheon of English penalty kick villains.  It was all over as quick as it had begun.

So what have we learned from England’s performances at the tournament?  Firstly there is no shame to have gone out in the quarter finals, we defended very well during the Euros, and probably would have been beaten by the Germans had we have gone through.  Secondly Hodgson has to be applauded for his management, he got the best out of a relatively weak squad and I hope he gets the chance to continue in the job, he deserves it.  In fact, no matter how unpleasant it was to lose, and I don’t know if this is just me but I think there are quite a lot of positives to be taken from what was a valiant effort on the whole.  It’s restored a little bit of my faith in the England team, it certainly was a hell of a lot more interesting than under that dullard Capello.

As for Warsaw, well it’s not the dream semi-final of Germany-England on Thursday, Germany-Italy should be a relatively drab affair.  I hope Germany come through that and then beat the Spanish.  That would be the best ending to a tournament which the Poles have loved, and hopefully you guys have enjoyed as well.

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