England fall at the quarter-final stage of a tournament once again, but this time, getting there in the first place has been an overachievement

With most recent exits to a major tournament with England, there is often either a sense of injustice or that in the ever-so fine margins between victory and defeat, the Three Lions often feel that fate never shines upon them. In the defeats to Portugal in Euro 2004 and in the World Cup in 2006 in Germany, a 2-2 and 0-0 draw was followed by the usual penalty shootout defeat for England. Even in the humiliating and clinical 4-1 defeat against Germany in South Africa in 2010, some still even now point to the ‘goal’ scored by Frank Lampard in Bloemfontein just before half-time, stating that it could have been a completely different game going into the break at 2-2 rather than 2-1. With these incidents, there has often been a persuasive and sometimes agreeable argument that England deserved to go through on countless occasions throughout the international tournaments of the nineties and the noughties.  

Last night against Italy, although the menace of penalties reared its ugly head once more to the English, there can be no claims of injustice or that the motherland of football was hard done by. As 0-0 thrashings go, this was one of the most convincing and comprehensive I have ever seen in a European Championship quarter-final. The fact that England managed to hold the Italians to a goal-less draw in normal time and indeed in extra time too, was testament enough to the impact that Roy Hodgson has had in a relatively short spell in charge of his national team. 

Against Italy, the same old problems surfaced for England, ones that have almost come to be expected. Chief among these are a lack of impetus to get forward and take on teams, probably due to fear of getting hit on the counter-attacks, a seemingly solid defence that still gets frequently exposed by opposition attacks, and a frustrating inability to keep the ball for a sustained period of play. The passing statistics of this game illustrate just how good the Italians were. The magnificent playmaker Andrea Pirlo, by far the best player on the pitch, made 131 passes, nearly three time more than England’s best passer of the ball, left-back Ashley Cole with 44. After Cole comes Wayne Rooney with 41 passes, then the trio of Scott Parker, Ashley Young and Andy Carroll barely getting into the mid-thirties with their passing statistics.    

Realistically, had the Italians been more clinical with the chances they created, they ought to have comfortably won this game about 3-0 in normal time. Chances were spurned by Mario Balotelli, Daniele De Rossi and Ricardo Montolivo, creating an atmosphere of disbelief that the Italians might not get what they rightly deserved: a passage through to a semi-final against Germany. 

Fortunately for the Italians at least, justice was done from their perspective and, had England somehow managed to beat ‘Gli Azzurri’ – be that on penalties or scoring a goal either on the counter-attack or from a set-piece – they would have been the overwhelming underdogs in a clash with the much vaunted Germans, the favourites for this tournament in this writer’s opinion, and would probably have been the recipients of a 4-0 hammering or something along those lines.

What the defeat against Italy has once again illustrated is just how far behind the best teams in Europe England currently are at this stage. The build-up to this tournament was not the best for a variety of reasons, chief among which include Roy Hodgson only taking up his position of England manager on 14 May, meaning he has been in the job for less than seven weeks at time of writing, and the controversy surrounding the much-maligned figure of John Terry, who is to face charges for allegations of racism directed against Anton Ferdinand in court next month. 

In Hodgson’s short reign in charge of the national team, he has managed six games, presiding over four victories and two draws. He has instilled a rigid and disciplined system in the team, one that has the principal attribute of defensive solidity and can threaten in bursts, but is not enterprising or flamboyant enough to take on the superpowers of European and World football. This is the England side that we saw in Euro 2012 and there is little indication that, for the foreseeable future at least, that this approach should or will change. England had correctly grounded expectations going into this tournament and, save for certain pundits believing that this was a 50-50 game or the most even of the quarter-final meetings, the evidence of the night still showed a gulf in class between England and the best that the continent can offer, an Italy side that is by no means the greatest to have the worn the Royal Blue of the Savoy dynasty. 

Hard work now begins in earnest with the start of the World Cup qualifying campaign in September against Moldova and, in terms of players, there may not be too many differences from those who made the trip to Poland and the Ukraine. Rio Ferdinand’s international career may well now be over with his omission from the squad altogether. John Terry’s future England career may well indeed hang in the balance in the coming weeks with his upcoming court appearance which, if found guilty of racism, one struggles to comprehend Roy Hodgson picking him for the national team again. The other members of the so-called ‘Golden Generation’ look to continue to have more certain international careers. Despite his penalty miss, Ashley Cole remains arguably the best left-back in the world, captain Steven Gerrard was by far England’s best player at Euro 2012 and, given that Frank Lampard was originally included in the squad for this tournament, it can be assumed that the Chelsea midfielder still has a place in the international set-up. When the quality of these players is put up against emerging talents, such as Jack Wilshere, Jordan Henderson, Tom Cleverley, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Alex Oxlae-Chamberlain, it could be said that the majority of these players are still not quite good enough in their youthful careers to assume the mantle just yet from the old guard.

The path to Brazil in 2014 starts now, with a mixture of both youth and experience likely to light the road to South America.