Bravo Italia

The tournament’s largest viewing audience was treated to a dramatic match on Sunday, with Alessandro Diamanti scoring the decisive penalty kick to send Italy through with a 4-2 win in the shootout following a 0-0 tie with England. Italy will meet Germany next in the semifinals on Thursday in Warsaw, Poland, while defending champion Spain plays Portugal on Wednesday in Donetsk, Ukraine.

“We deserved this victory,” Diamanti said. “The penalties rewarded our dominance during the match. It’s only fair, we played a great match and battled from the first to the last minute.” But not until penalties by Mario Balotelli, Andrea Pirlo – with an audacious slow chip-shot down the middle of the goal – and Antonio Nocerino did the Azzurri find the net. Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney scored England’s penalties. The difference: Ashley Young hit the crossbar with England’s third, and Ashley Cole’s attempt was saved by Gianluigi Buffon. For England, it was yet another exit from a major tournament in the quarterfinals after a penalty shootout. England lost to Portugal in the same manner at Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup. “It’s obviously a hard way to go out,” England striker Wayne Rooney said. “And it’s maybe happened too many times now.”

The match ended 0-0 after 120 minutes of play, but the first scoreless match at Euro 2012 was neither dull nor lacking good soccer. The Italians twice hit the post, but were also let down by poor composure in front of the net by danger man Mario Balotelli. Daniele De Rossi hit the post in the third minute and Buffon saved a point blank shot from Glen Johnson in the fifth. Diamanti clipped the post with a curling cross in the 101st minute, and swept a shot wide in the clearest chance of the second period of extra time. Nocerino, another substitute, thought he had scored from Diamanti’s cross in the 115th but was offside.

Italy’s attacking desire and creativity under coach Cesare Prandelli had playmaker Andrea Pirlo at its heart. Pirlo had a commanding presence in the middle of the field, orchestrating attacks that kept the English back four under constant pressure. England’s weakness, once again, proved to be in the middle. Parker, Gerrard and Milner were over matched by DeRossi (Nocerino), Pirlo, Diamanti and Marchisio. The only mediocre display on the Italian side came from Montolivo, Prandelli’s pupil at Fiorentina, who missed several opportunities to make an impact, as well as Italy’s second penalty. Cassano and Balotelli created plenty of havoc, but lacked the concentration to finish the match in regular time. Italy had 35 shots, compared to only nine for England.

England coach Roy Hodgson had to react to Italy’s dominance, and sent on substitutes Andy Carroll and Theo Walcott, who both scored in a 3-2 win over Sweden. Carroll’s muscular presence created a shooting chance for Young, but England still failed to convince. Rooney made little impression after an early diving header. In the end, Italy handed its fate to stalwart Gianluigi Buffon. Italy’s goalkeeper made a decisive stop on Ashley Cole’s attempt and Diamanti followed up with the winner to seal Italy’s place in the semis and another date with old nemesis Germany. For England, it’s time to start from scratch in preparation for the 2014 World Cup.