England’s shoot out woes continued as their exit from Euro 2012 ended another major tournament in disappointment, and victory was justice for an Italian side which completely dominated the game.
But the outstanding player in this game was veteran midfielder Andrea Pirlo, who gave England a masterclass in how to play football. Pirlo’s technical attributes and passing ability carved England apart time after time, and he will still be wondering how the Italians didn’t brush aside England in the 90 minutes, let alone the 120 minutes.
Pirlo, 33, was released from his contract at AC Milan after a wonderful ten years at the club, which included two Serie A titles and, more impressively, two Champions League trophies. But last season it was decided that he was ‘too old and slow’ to continue in Milan’s ambitious plans and he penned a three-year deal at Serie A rivals Juventus. Pirlo’s ‘old’ legs had other ideas and he led the Old Lady to the Serie A title and secured himself in the team of the year – quite a feat for someone too old.
He proved his worth for the national team against England with an all-round perfect performance. Despite England sitting deep and employing defensive tactics, Pirlo managed to carve them apart repeatedly. He came deep to collect the ball and led the attack, beating players and setting up clever attacking moves. One of the moments of the match was when he picked it up in his own box, moved forward unchallenged and put Mario Balotelli through on goal with an exquisite 50-yard pass. Then if there was any doubt about the quality he possessed, he showed everyone that he is the man for the big occasion. With Italy already one down in the shootout, Pirlo stepped up and delightfully chipped the ball down the middle, catching Joe Hart completely off-guard and putting Italy back in the shootout.
Pirlo’s array of talent sparked mass debate amongst many English fans as to who could be England’s Pirlo. Roy Hodgson has stated that he will be giving younger players more of an opportunity in the build up to the World Cup, but is there anyone who really stands out? The likes of Jack Wilshere, Jordan Henderson, Tom Cleverley and Jack Rodwell have all had their names chucked into the ring. They are all players who possess a fair amount of potential, but none of them stand out as players that could have made the all important difference.
In fact, the man who the majority of England fans wanted in the team to be England’s talismanic midfielder, was none other than 37-year-old Paul Scholes, who returned to Manchester United in January only months after hanging up his boots. It was understood that Scholes was resigned to provide cover during United’s injury problems, but it didn’t quite work out that way as he soon reinstated himself in United’s starting line up. He had no hesitation showing United exactly what they were missing and his outstanding reading of the game was clear to see. Picking passes short and long while his technical ability allowed him to dictate the flow of the game, Scholes was blossoming in United’s challenge for the title as players nearly 15 years younger were struggling to find decent form.
The likes of Scholes and Pirlo pose difficult questions for any manager. Why try and bring through untried young players at a major tournament when the veterans are still at the top of their game and are a cut above the competition. If Cesare Prandelli had taken a bold move and dropped Pirlo for an up-and-coming youngster, would Italy have made it as far as they did? The answer is simply no. The younger players may be fitter and able to run for longer but they couldn’t make the one decision that could completely change a game. Not because they are technically poor, but because they do not have the knowledge and understanding of the game that more experienced players have. It just proves that if you are technically gifted, there is no limit to how many years you can play at the highest level.