David writes for Forza Italian Football an Italian football website were you can find the latest news, match highlights and analysis covering every part of the game in the peninsula. You can also keep up to date with Calcio via their weekly podcast.
On to the questions:
1. As expected Italy finished second in their group behind Spain. Have you been happy with how Italy has played in the first three games?
Earl: While the Italians did come out with an expected 2nd place result in Group C, hindsight could leave you feeling that Italy had a good shot at conquering the Group given the often wasteful play of Spain in the final third. The addition of a libero helped their cause against Spain, but the continued pragmatism likely cost them first in the group against Croatia. The Azzurri have a dangerous attack when they are in full form, but have yet to fully show what they can do.
David: I have, in part. I think the performance against Spain was excellent until the final 20 minutes when Italy tired, but all in all they contained the Spanish and created some good chances. The same was true against Croatia, for 45 minutes at least. But the second half of that match and against Ireland, Italy seemed disjointed and tired. I would say with expectation going into the tournament at a real low, Italy have really performed above expectations.
2. Who has been Italy’s best player so far?
Earl: I think Andrea Pirlo has again shown his importance to his country – scoring on a set piece against Croatia and setting up two other goals in the group stages. With a midfielder dropping deep to sweep in the first two matches, Pirlo’s ability to take control going forward in the midfield was key to getting Italy through to the knockouts.
David: It would be easy to say Andrea Pirlo with his two assists and goal, but I am going to go for Daniele De Rossi. Against Spain he was man of the match, whilst playing as a centre-back. Again against Croatia, out of position he was excellent and against Ireland I also thought he was Italy’s best player. He moved into midfield in that game and bossed it.
3. Who has been the biggest disappointment for Italy so far?
Earl: Mario Balotelli was a wild card coming into Euro 2012. His flighty behavior at Manchester City led most to wonder if Prandelli could rely upon him in this tournament. While he did seal the victory in the Ireland match with a brilliant move, most will remember the shot he failed to take against Spain – another crucial decision point which cost Italy first. Balotelli continues to cause observers to scratch their heads, as he is just as capable of the amazing as he is the inexplicable.
David: I would probably say Emanuele Giacchierini. Although he only made his Azzurri debut against Spain, he was at fault for their equaliser as he never tracked Fabregas, and again I think he should have been the other side of Mandžukić as he could see Chiellini was out of position, but he failed to react.
4. Everyone was expecting Italy to play France in the quarter finals and instead they get England . Is England an easier or harder opponent than France?
Earl: I believe England will be a slightly tougher opponent, mostly because Roy Hodgson has the Three Lions playing a strong, defensively organized tactic. I think France was exposed a bit in the Sweden game, but they will certainly be looking to turn that around against Spain. The one thing that Italy may have going for them is that they’ve just defeated Ireland, another team that prides itself on defending stoutly. England’s attackers are more potent than the Irish though, and Italy will have to respect that aspect of England’s game.
David: I would have preferred to play France. I think they match up better, whereas England have now gone ultra defensive, almost willing the opposition to attack them before hitting on the counter. Something I feel Italy are vulnerable to, especially since Chiellini will be absent. Also the physical nature of England is something Italians in general don’t like much.
5. What England player do you worry most about?
Earl: While Hodgson will have the team organized, I do think that their weak spot would be the backline. Specifically I think that Joleon Lescott could find it tough against the two strikers Prandelli chooses. Lescott has also been prone to a mistake or two in crucial moments (his gaffe against Queens Park Rangers comes to mind).
David: The obvious one would be Rooney, but I think Gerrard will be a real threat. Italy will need to keep a close eye on him – possibly a job for De Rossi – as he is the initiator of the attacks. It was shown against Ukraine that he is the player who pings the long balls out to the wing, whilst also being able to get out there as will and fire over extremely accurate crosses too.
6. What sort of game do you expect Sunday? Will Prandelli go 3-5-3 or 4-4-2?
Earl: I think both teams will feel the match out from the start. In my mind, the question will be: which team comes out of its shell to be the aggressor? I think Italy learned its lesson from the Croatia match, and will continue to use a four-man defense to allow for a stronger midfield presence in the center, which could allow them to be the dominant possession team. That should force England to the edges to counterattack. This leaves Hodgson with a decision: does he continue with James Milner as a traditional right midfield presence, or does he start Theo Walcott opposite Ashley Young and put pressure on Italy down both flanks? While I think Walcott should get the start against Italy, my gut senses that Hodgson will continue with what has worked and play the more defensively certain Milner.
David: I think given Chiellini’s injury he will go with a 4-3-1-2 as playing three at the back could result in a lack of options if injury, or a sending off should occur. Ogbonna is the only fit centre-back if Barzagli, Bonucci and De Rossi were to start in a three man defence and Prandelli clearly doesnt trust him in that role as he would have played in the earlier matche, but the coach chose to drop a midfielder back. The midfield will be key, and having three players to protect Pirlo will be key.
7. What will the final score be?
Earl: England advances 2-1 After Extra Time.
David: I think it will be tight. Both will concede so I’m going with 2-1 Italy.
My thanks to Earl and David for taking the time to answer my questions.