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Gigi’s stoppage time

Italy ‘keeper Buffon the hero as Azzurri beat England 4-2 on penalties to set up semifinal date with Germany

Written by New York Times | Kiev | Published: June 26, 2012 1:54:41 am

Neither team wanted this. Not the caprice of penalty kicks. A soccer goal is eight feet high and eight yards wide,but for England and Italy,it could seem like shooting at a matchbox.

Italy won the 2006 World Cup in a penalty-kick shootout,but it and England had a mostly tortured history at this lottery that is at once unsatisfying and heart-stopping.

It should not have been this hard for Italy,which dominated possession and the quarterfinal match on Sunday but could not win it in 90 minutes of regulation or 30 minutes overtime on an exasperating,scoreless evening. It was the first 0-0 match at this Euro.

Thirty-five attempts had gone wasted for the Azzurri,including 20 on target to 4 for England.

And so the match extended to the vagary of a shootout. And finally at this hazardous,decisive moment of pressure and instinct and nerve,Italy defeated England,4-2 on penalty kicks,advancing to the semifinals to face Germany. For England,things ended badly,as they always seem to do. The Three Lions were 1-6 in shootouts at the World Cup and the European championships. Sunday’s match only validated their misery.

Penalty kicks have become an obsession in English soccer,Coach Roy Hodgson said,but he noted that there was no way to reproduce the pressure and tension of an important match during training. Steven Gerrard,England’s captain,said,“We have done the country proud,but again we go home with heartbreak,and it’s difficult to take.”

Before the shootout,Joe Hart,the English goalkeeper,appeared to study an iPad,apparently to check the tendencies of one or more Italian players.

Old rivalries

The first to shoot for Italy was someone Hart knew well — Mario Balotelli,his teammate at Manchester City,the champion of the EPL. It had been an insistent but particularly frustrating day for Balotelli,who shot in every way he could imagine,even attempting a bicycle kick,but could not put the ball into the net. At one point,he became so frustrated that he kicked a goal post.

Finally,in this most anxious of moments,Balotelli connected. He approached the ball,took a stutter step and drove his shot low and inside the left post,pumping his arms in celebration. Gerrard put the ball in the same place,low and to the left. Then Riccardo Montolivo,who had made some exquisite passes in the Italian midfield,took his turn. But Montolivo appeared uncertain as he set the ball down and backed away. His shot flew wide of the left post. He put his jersey to his face in disbelief and mortification.

According to Reuters,Italy had been 2-7 in penalty shootouts. No one who saw it could forget how Roberto Baggio ballooned his kick in the final of the 1994 World Cup,his head dropping like the blade of a guillotine. Now Italy had drifted into uncertainty again.

Wayne Rooney was next for England. He stamped at the painted penalty spot,as if replacing a divot,then put a powerful shot into the upper left corner,giving his team a 2-1 lead.

Andrea Pirlo,the Italian maestro who conducted Sunday’s game as if directing his own private orchestra,followed with great boldness and audacity. He chipped the ball,and it fluttered into the middle of the net as Hart dived to his right. Now it was 2-2.

Ashley Young hit a throbbing shot for England,but it pounded off the crossbar and bounced nearly to midfield. Now Antonio Nocerino was up for Italy. He had seemed to score in the 115th minute,crouching low on a header,but had been ruled offside. Given another chance in the shootout,Nocerino chopped his steps,did a stutter step and drove the ball inside the left post.

Then England fell into real trouble. Ashley Cole hit the ball without power or assurance. Gianluigi ‘Gigi’ Buffon,the Italian goalkeeper,spotted some giveaway in Cole’s approach and lunged to his left,easily making the save.

Italy was ahead,3-2. Next up was Alessandro Diamanti. He had clipped the post with a cross in the 101st minute and sent the pass from the flank to Nocerino on the disallowed goal. If Diamanti was accurate now,Italy would win. He struck his shot comfortably inside the left and began running in victory and relief. The Italian players mobbed Buffon.

England’s players stood at midfield,stunned but also aware of their futile history. After so many reminders,perhaps they had sensed that defeat was inevitable. “We went down the road we’ve gone so many times before,” Hodgson said.

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