Alan Pardew's Euro Zone: Hodgson's back five are best in the tournament
The column with the most currency
Italian football traditionally has great defenders but I believe England's back four plus the goalkeeper are the best at Euro 2012, which is one of the reasons I'm taking Roy Hodgson's team to reach the semi-finals this evening.
It will be tight but I think we will do it, and in 90 minutes. Sure, we made hard work in the final group match of beating Ukraine, who I felt were a better side than they were given credit for. England's back five came into their own and gave us a platform, which bodes well against Italy. John Terry has been excellent and you would have to say over the three games so far that Roy's decision to take him rather than Rio Ferdinand has been justified.
I can see it would have been difficult to take both of them – I remember a situation at West Ham where we had two players who simply didn't get on and it made life difficult – but with Joleon Lescott and Phil Jagielka available, Roy wasn't forced to confront the issue and it has all worked out very well, with Lescott doing a fine job too.
The defence have also been helped by having Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker in front of them, a pair of central midfielders who complement each other perfectly.
There is now a familiar decision to be made about sticking with James Milner or bringing back Theo Walcott down the right. I had a lively discussion with Lee Dixon about it before the Ukraine game in the Match of the Day studio, when he went for Theo but I thought Roy's conservative approach meant he would stick with Milner, and I expect him to do so again.
Wayne Rooney looked a little rusty, which is understandable because he has had a long time out, but I don't think it is an ongoing concern. Great players, even when rusty, can produce one of those special moments. He didn't really have one against Ukraine, although it was good for him to get on the scoresheet with a simple goal. We cannot expect him to be at his very best against Italy but I would not be surprised if we saw one of those moments – or even two.
For England's sake I hope Balotelli starts
From an English point of view I honestly hope Mario Balotelli starts for Italy and I think our defenders will feel the same way, because although he can be a match-winner, he can also cost his team the game. To do that he need not be sent off, although you feel that is always a possibility, but it can be just a bad feeling he gives to the group or something he says at half-time. I think it will be the same throughout his career – he is just one of those people.
How do you handle them as a manager or coach? I've had one or two like it and you have to be hard with them in the dressing room. They can have their bits of individualism but you cannot let them step over the line into confrontation. Other players can accept a little outburst in the heat of the moment as long as it is not directed at one individual or goes over the top. Then the coach really needs to act fast.
I think Balotelli's team-mate Leonardo Bonucci did him a favour by clamping a hand over his mouth when he scored that goal against Ireland after coming on as a substitute and seemed ready to have a few words, probably with the Italian coach. For me the other striker, Antonio Cassano, is more of a dangerman.
Italy have used two different systems so far, playing 3-5-2 in the first two games against Spain and Croatia, then going back to more of a 4-3-1-2 against Ireland. Daniele De Rossi was a sweeper in the first system, then moved into midfield, but a key man in every game has been Andrea Pirlo, a creative player just in front of the defence.
I think Rooney will have an important role there when Italy have the ball, getting round Pirlo and harassing him to stop him dictating. If we can do that and the two centre-halves look after Cassano, I think we should have a lot more possession ourselves than we have had against the other sides and will win the game.
Enjoy but don't expect thriller
There will be a huge TV audience tonight, including many who are probably not regular football-watchers, all hoping for a thrilling game. A word of caution: neither team will want to give anything away, especially in the early stages.
I always say to my team that if the other side let us have the initiative, then we should take it. That's what England should do, and I hope they will, because I think we are better than Italy.
My secret to the shoot-out
I don't think penalties will be required this evening but of course England have been practising them and it is insulting to think we wouldn't have. Glenn Hoddle at the 1998 World Cup famously didn't do so because he thought you could not replicate the atmosphere, but you do what you can to ensure that when the pressure is on in front of 60,000 people, a player knows where he is going to put the ball and has practised that hit over and over. It's no different from practising crossing or finishing.
Before any games that might go to penalties, I've always trained at the stadium and made the players walk from the halfway line in front of the whole squad to take them. At the 2006 FA Cup final with West Ham all ours were on target but Liverpool's Pepe Reina made a couple of great saves. I don't think Joe Hart will need to do so tonight.
Hidden plus to Fifa magic men
Sepp Blatter was immediately on Twitter saying we must have goalline technology. It seems inevitable that it will be implemented sooner rather than later, with a key meeting in two weeks' time. Can a system then be introduced for issues such as diving and penalties? I think that will depend on how successful the goalline technology is.
People criticise the extra assistants for not doing much and I'm not sure quite what those magic wands they hold are for, but their presence may well have contributed to a decrease in the amount of holding and pulling in the penalty area. If I was a defender, seeing them there might put me off doing it. Let's see what effect it has on the Italians tonight.
Be heroes and beat Germany
The old cliché says you should take one game at a time, but sometimes as a manager you can set up the next match too. If I was in the England dressing-room tonight I'd be whetting everyone's appetite for a semi-final against Germany. Remind them of what is on offer, the chance to become heroes by beating the Germans. I couldn't see any way that Germany would slip up against Greece. They have always seemed to have an extra gear and when the Greeks equalised it only took them five minutes to get back into the lead, then finish off the game. I know they won every previous match by a single goal but they always looked to have something in hand. It is a great feeling to know your side can do that when they're stretched, as I think they will be by Italy or, let's hope, by England.
Latest in Sport
New day (slowly) rising – As Brasileirão gets underway, Brazilian football stumbles, rather than leaps into the future
The average Serie A crowd last year was 13,000 - comparable to Australia’s A-League.
by James Young
24 May 2013 04:31 PM
Monaco is a street circuit where driver ability is more important than anywhere else and if we take ...
by Gareth Purnell
24 May 2013 02:00 AM
Three weeks ago as I drove off the Eurostar, I remember thinking what a very long time it was until ...
by Martin Ayres
23 May 2013 05:29 PM
Why Manchester City were willing to fork out $500m on stake in MLS
Manchester City coach in waiting Manuel Pellegrini: Inside the mind of anti-Mancini
Champions League final: Biggest German invasion since the fifth century as Bayern Munich face Borussia Dortmund
Borussia Dortmund v Bayern Munich: 50 things you need to know about the Champions League final
Champions League Final: Can Jürgen Klopp's Borussia Dortmund stop the Bayern Munich machine?
- 1 What, let gays get married? We must be bonkers
- 2 'Something passed underneath us, quite close': Airbus A320 has close encounter with UFO
- 3 Rocky Horror star Tim Curry 'suffers major stroke'
- 4 Exclusive: How MI5 blackmails British Muslims
- 5 Lord of the Sings: Sir Christopher Lee, 91, to release heavy metal album
BMF is the UK’s biggest and best loved outdoor fitness classes
Get the latest on The Evening Standard's campaign to get London's children reading.
Win anything from gadgets to five-star holidays on our competitions and offers page.