At Kiev's Olympic stadium yesterday, Roy Hodgson was sporting a pair of Aviator-style sunglasses that gave him the air of one of those well-turned out Italian gents of a certain vintage who are suavely comfortable with the occasional smart accessory that might otherwise be considered the exclusive preserve of a younger man.
Some of Hodgson's predecessors would have felt a bit self-conscious or taken them off once they spotted the cameras but walking among his players, with their over-sized headphones round their necks and their hands shoved in tracksuit pockets, the England manager breezed out to inspect the pitch.
There is a bit of the Italian in Hodgson from the days when he was Inter Milan manager between 1995 and 1997 and then again for a few months two years later, as well as the six months at Udinese in 2001. He gave one answer during his press conference in fluent Italian that so impressed Steven Gerrard alongside him that the England captain picked up his translation ear phones to listen to the answer.
Not only does he know the Italian psyche, Hodgson has beaten Italy before. By contrast, the England team has not won against tonight's Euro 2012 quarter-final opponents since June 1997 in a Tournoi game in Nantes. They last beat them in a competitive game in 1977 and on the two occasions that the two nations have met in major tournaments – the 1980 European championships and the 1990 World Cup finals – Italy have won both.
Hodgson, however, has beaten Italy with a very humble Switzerland team. Not just any Italy side either, the Italy of Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Roberto Mancini and Roberto Baggio in May 1993, little more than a year before the same side would go all the way to the World Cup final in Pasadena. It was a result like that in qualifying – as well as the 2-2 draw away in Cagliari – that brought him to the attention of Inter Milan. So Hodgson understands as well as anyone the nature of Italian football: its priceless find-a-way-to-win attitude; the skill and also the sheer bloody-mindedness to get through. England, Hodgson pointed out yesterday, need a bit of that too.
"I would like to think they do have a lot of qualities and that they are qualities we have in England," Hodgson said yesterday. "What they have over us is that they actually use those qualities and one of them is finding a way to win even when at times they haven't looked anything like doing so.
"You take the 1982 World Cup. Up until the last couple of games they looked anything other than winners and they came home with the cup. That was because their players seemed to find a way to get the job done when it was necessary.
"I think what we have to try to do is to break the hoodoo. They have been lucky enough to break their hoodoo a lot more recently than we have been able to do. 1966 is a long time ago. They can point to much more recent successes."
The word "hoodoo" is one that Hodgson has returned to more than once since the Ukraine game. Many times in his career he has gone to less celebrated football nations and tried to break down the old belief in what was possible and challenge the limitations that national teams and clubs have placed upon themselves. Now, at the age of 64, he is attempting to do the same with his country of birth.
No current player embodies the talent, and also the burden that playing for England involves, than Gerrard. He of the furrowed brow and introspective nature was talking yesterday of the "hurt and pain" of past failures with England, and the dreams of what might be achieved. There is no reason Gerrard's career should not have included at least one appearance in an international tournament final – he is certainly good enough – other than England's habitual failure to perform on the big stage. Hodgson admitted yesterday that his team had to expect some rocky moments in tonight's game. They would be on the back foot. They would have to come through those difficult times, just as they did in the first half against Ukraine last Monday, without conceding.
"I don't think at this level of competition there is ever going to be a match when you are always in the ascendancy," Hodgson said. "Maybe the opponents are having a good spell and you have to survive that spell."
That is a more mature approach than England have been accustomed to in the past and one that speaks a little of Hodgson's experience of the Italian mentality. "My players know there is a lot of pressure on them," he said, "but there is a lot of pressure on the Italians as well." The difference is they know they can cope with it. Until England beat a major football nation in the knockout stages of a tournament away from Wembley for the first time, as they could tonight, their ability to do so remains unproven.
Five ways in which Roy's boys can cause the Azzurri pain
1. Exploit the absence of the injured Giorgio Chiellini
Without the domineering Juventus defender, who was injured against Ireland, Italy look more susceptible to quick or high balls played into the box. Pummelling them in may well prove profitable.
2. Don't panic if Italy score first
In each of their three games so far, the Italians have scored first. In two of them, they then surrendered so much territory that they eventually conceded. Even against Ireland, they never looked fully comfortable.
3. Overload the flanks
Italy have had to play 3-5-2 in Euro 2012 because of a lack of true wide men. So, even if they adjust to 4-2-3-1 today, they still haven't got players fully comfortable on the flanks and can be outmanoeuvred
4. Pin Andrea Pirlo down
As the source of every Italian attack and the vast majority of possession, Pirlo simply must be obstructed. Croatia ordered Luka Modric to do just that after a first half of feeling the full force of the Italian's influence. It did prove successful.
5. Rile Mario Balotelli
It's become a cliché but there's truth in it. If Balotelli is on the pitch, England will very likely try to needle him. A red card could well follow.Reuse content