Manager on the spot over penalty worries

Resilient team must be mentally strong if Sunday ends in a shoot-out, writes Sam Wallace

Long past midnight on Tuesday, Roy Hodgson was in a corridor under the Donbass Arena, talking about penalty shoot-outs. It comes to every England manager and as he finally made his farewells and walked to the waiting coach, you could imagine him mentally compiling the list of five men whom he might entrust with the task.

England have revealed their true colours in such high-pressure moments. At the 2006 World Cup, the last time they lost on penalties, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Jamie Carragher missed against Portugal. Those sloppy penalties were symptomatic of Sven Goran Eriksson's failing regime.

Hodgson said his players had been practising. "We'll obviously take it even more seriously now," he said. "But as you well know, you can practise penalty shoot-outs until the cows come home. It's really your composure, your confidence, your ability to really block everything out and forget the occasion that means you score or you don't score."

Penalty shoot-outs – specifically the semi-final eliminations by West Germany at the 1990 World Cup in Italy and then by Germany at home in Euro 96 – have burrowed deep into the English psyche.

"When you are working with the England national team the past is always going to weigh heavily because everything we do today is being compared with something that happened in the past," Hodgson said. "That's where we are and I presume that's going to be there during all my time as national coach and probably when a national coach comes 20 years hence he will be asked the same question."

Sunday's opponents, Italy, have suffered a defeat by Brazil in the 1994 World Cup final and elimination from Euro 2008, by Spain, in the same way. But they won the 2006 World Cup final on penalties, against France in Berlin.

What will happen if the quarter-final goes to penalties? What character will reveal itself in Hodgson's England, this embattled squad plagued by pre-tournament injuries who have emerged as the unlikely winners of Group D?

With Wayne Rooney back, the most encouraging sign is the mood around the squad. Hodgson has succeeded in taking a group of players who had often looked beset by self-interest and moulding them into a collective. Some relatively simple decisions have helped: the appointment of Gerrard as captain and his deployment in central midfield; the demand to John Terry at Chelsea's Cobham training ground, on 15 May, that he behave himself.

"I don't think there are any words necessarily that have any magic effect," the manager said. "I think it's just making certain that everybody realises – as they do – that if you want to be successful as a team you have to perform to your ability and trust the people around you to perform to theirs.

"I think any national team is going to have players with egos – I think you want that because it's the player with the ego who is often the good player, the player who makes the difference.

"But I've been very happy of course with the way these players have really worked for each other and seeing the way they are after the games, the way they run over to the fans and congratulate each other. That's something I've got to be pleased about and something to keep working on."

England are not the best side at Euro 2012, but for once they look like a tournament team. It is a while since they have been able to say that.