Roy Hodgson on the spot over England's fear of penalties
Manager has moulded a resilient side but they must be mentally strong if Sunday ends in a shoot-out, writes Sam Wallace
Long past midnight in Donetsk on Tuesday, Roy Hodgson was in a corridor under the Donbass Arena, talking about penalty shoot-outs. It comes to every England manager who reaches a tournament and as he finally made his farewells and walked to the waiting coach, you could imagine Hodgson mentally compiling the list of five men whom he might entrust with the task.
If penalty shoot-outs are a distillation of a team's character then England have revealed their true colours in such high-pressure moments. At the 2006 World Cup, the last time they lost on penalties, it was Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Jamie Carragher who missed against Portugal – three individuals on whom you would normally bet the house that they would hold their nerve. In the dying embers of the Sven Goran Eriksson years those sloppy penalties were symptomatic of a failing regime.
Hodgson said his players had been practising penalties and now that the prospect of a shoot-out is that much more real, they will step up preparation.
"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.
"Having said that, you do practise them and you do hope one day it will make a big difference. But in my experience in penalty shoot-outs it's really the composure, the confidence and strength of mind of the individual. And sometimes we've seen the best players miss and the best players you think are not penalty takers are the ones that smash them in."
There is no doubt that 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 themselves deep into the English psyche.
"It's because we've lost important matches on penalties so it's going to be that way," Hodgson said. "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.
"That's where we are and unfortunately we have lost two very, very important semi-finals on penalties so 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."
In terms of Sunday's opponents, Italy, and their history with penalties, the Azzurri have suffered a defeat by Brazil in the 1994 World Cup final and elimination from Euro 2008, by Spain, in the same way. On the flipside, they won the 2006 World Cup final on penalties, against France in Berlin. More to the point, though, in a country that has four world champions' stars on its badge and expects to do well, the embarrassment of finishing last in a 2010 World Cup group that contained Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand has not yet passed.
What will happen if, on Sunday, 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 the same number of points – seven – as the defending champions, Spain, collected in Group C?
England have been resilient, which is certainly an improvement on the dismal 2010 World Cup. With Wayne Rooney back in harness, the most encouraging sign is the mood around the squad. Hodgson has succeeded in taking a group of players who had, to put it mildly, often looked beset by self-interest and moulded them into a collective. It is perhaps not the most richly talented group of players of the last decade, but nonetheless it is a group that looks unified.
Some relatively simple decisions have helped: the appointment of Gerrard as captain and his deployment in his best position, in central midfield; the demand to John Terry during a meeting at Chelsea's Cobham training ground, on 15 May, that the former captain behave himself. Nevertheless, you get the impression that even Hodgson has been surprised at how smoothly the process has gone.
"I don't think there are any words necessarily that have any magic effect [on creating unity]," 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 – that's normal and I think you want that as well 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."
At times the football has been of the backs-to-the-wall variety, especially against Ukraine in the first half of Tuesday's 1-0 win. It has not always been composed but it has been resilient and successful. There have been few square pegs in round holes, which has been a problem in the past, especially in Gerrard's case.
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.
Spot the difference: England in penalty shoot-outs and why there's hope this time
v West Germany, 1990
At 3-3 in a World Cup semi-final shoot-out, two of England's sweetest strikers of a ball (Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle) both missed.
v Germany, 1996
England again came unstuck against the Germans, this time at Euro 96. A nervous Gareth Southgate was the guilty party.
v Argentina, 1998
Non-regular penalty-takers Paul Ince and then David Batty were denied from the spot.
v Portugal, 2004
David Beckham ballooned over the bar, Darius Vassell had his kick saved. Keeper Ricardo sent the hosts through.
v Portugal, 2006
10-man England battled through extra-time but Ricardo was again the hero – saving three penalties.
v Spain, 1996
Fernando Hierro missed and David Seaman denied Miguel Nadal in a Euro 96 quarter-final remembered for Pearce's "psycho" celebration.
Why it could be different this time (No 1)
Italy also have an indifferent record in penalty shoot-outs. They lost on penalties to Argentina in the home 1990 World Cup semi-final; Roberto Baggio blazed over the bar to gift Brazil the 1994 World Cup, and they lost to Spain in 2008.
Why it could be different this time (No 2)
England have Joe Hart between the sticks, who has a handy record saving penalties. He saved two FC Midtjylland kicks in the Europa League and has also thwarted Robin van Persie from 12 yards.
The manager has suffered abysmal luck in shoot-outs, losing to Northampton and Bristol Rovers at Liverpool and Fulham respectively. He also lost the 1997 Uefa Cup final against Schalke while at Inter.
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