Can England beat Italy? Of Course. Can Italy beat England? Certainly. For this is plainly a tournament in which anyone can beat anybody. A tournament which is if you prefer it essentially democratic or if you are of a sceptical disposition, surprisingly mediocre.
Supposedly strong teams have foundered. We have seen the demise of the Dutch, thrice humiliated, the astonishing defeat of Russia by the ever surprising Greeks, the fading lucky Spain against a Croatian team which deserved to beat them and indeed would have done had it not been for a couple of splendid saves by the keeper Iker Casillas. The collapse of France.
Italy failed to beat England for 40 years but once they at last did so at Wembley in 1973, with Fabio Capello very much in evidence and condemnatory afterwards when one spoke to him about the English tactics, the bubble at last had burst.
The current Italian side is probably more talented than England’s. Who dares wins and all that and at least the manager of the Italians Cesare Prandelli, has had the guts to choose the two so called fantasisti as these players are known in Italy for their unpredictable skills, in Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano. Had Marcello Lippi as manager, taken them to the last World Cup in South Africa, instead of preferring excessive caution, they might have given Italy the surprise and invention which the azzurri so pitifully lacked.
Of course as we know fantasisti are unpredictable. Ever since he emerged from the back streets of Bari, to move expensively and unpredictably about the peninsula, Cassano has been by turns brilliant and hopelessly undisciplined. As an Under-21 player for Italy, he fell out with the then manager Claudio Gentile – yes the same one renowned for his defensive thuggery on the field, not least at the expense of Diego Maradona in Spain in 1982 – and has rejoiced in his various excesses. Notable among them his success, while in training camp with the azzurri at Trigoria, the Roma training grounds, when, at night, he sneaked his girlfriend in through the wire. He headed that clever goal against the Irish.
Balotelli, who missed badly against Spain, added the second against the Irish with the glorious volley. When, as a teenager, he first played for Inter, his then manager, Roberto Mancini, was able to handle him; gave him and his deadly right foot all the free kicks he could have asked for. But at Manchester City, not even Mancini could keep the ever-volatile Mario on an even keel.
Perhaps his temperament and temperamental outbursts are not really surprising given his unusual background. Born in Palermo the capital of Sicily to an immigrant Ghanaian couple, whisked all the way north to deeply different Brescia to be adopted by Italians. On his day he is capable of extraordinary feats but equally is liable to explosions of temper which can rule him off the field.
Note, meanwhile, that the Italy team plays without wingers. These two mavericks can move to the flanks, the full backs can overlap, though not quite as effectively as those who helped Italy to the 2006 World Cup Final.
England? Rooney? Roy Hodgson has worked hard and effectively to make the best of a largely moderate squad, though luck has shone on him at times. Who would have thought that Steven Gerrard against a largely superior Ukraine, would suddenly have turned into a right winger worthy of Walcott, who must surely be used against Italy, superbly beating his man and firing in the cross which gave Rooney, a dull figure on the day, misser of that fine first half chance, his headed winner?
Yes, the ball had crossed England’s line before John Terry so resourcefully cleared it, but should the whistle have gone for offside before that happened? Oh, meanwhile, for a Modric in midfield, but the ever-expanding Premiership salaries produce no one but the injured Wilshere.