Andrea Pirlo was wincing. Even worse, he was wayward. With little more than 20 minutes gone in Italy's last group game, the midfielder had been targeted – and hit – by Kevin Doyle.
It was part of a trend. Initially, Ireland's pressing was really getting to an Italian team that were already very evidently anxious about qualifying for the quarter-finals. That was signified, more than anything, by the fact that – startlingly – Pirlo misplaced more than a few passes.
Something needed to be done. So, Prandelli reshaped his midfield and Pirlo was repositioned. Within minutes, he had dangerously released the Italian forwards behind the Irish defence with three of those exquisite passes. The third saw Antonio Di Natale win a corner. And, from that, Pirlo sent over an impossible inswinging set-piece from which Antonio Cassano scored. There, in a matter of minutes, was England's entire game tonight. Stop Pirlo and you stop Italy. Allow him space and allow yourself the prospect of disappointment.
Pirlo, however, does more than set the pace. He effectively personifies the entire difference in approach between the two teams, as well as an interesting reversal of history. Since Prandelli took over Italy, he has very consciously changed the identity and philosophy of the national team. More specifically, Prandelli has attempted to adopt the Barcelona model.
As he sees it, the only way to truly control your own destiny in football is for a team to impose itself on a game. And you only do that by imposing yourself on the ball. "You earn luck by playing attacking football," Prandelli said on the eve of the Ireland game.
For the past two years, Italy have generally controlled around 60 per cent of possession in every game. It's a far cry from the more minimalist percentage-playing of the 60s and 80s. At the centre of all that – in every sense – is Pirlo. Indeed, the only game in that time where Italy have dipped below 50 per cent was – naturally – against Spain. And that, of course, was when Pirlo came up against the player closest to him in the modern game: Xavi.
That afternoon, Italy had to surrender possession because of Spain's general superiority. That, however, doesn't necessarily mean Xavi is superior to Pirlo. Indeed, one predecessor of both players certainly doesn't think so. Luis Suarez Miramontes was the Spanish playmaker when they first won the European Championships in 1964 and, at the time, the tone-setter for Inter's greatest ever team too. "Pirlo is better," he said on the eve of the tournament. "Andrea hits more difficult passes. He takes more risks."
And that's the thing about "the architect" and Italy. Although Pirlo's passing accuracy isn't quite as high as Xavi's, that's simply because he has a greater responsibility to force games. Indeed, he was the most influential midfielder of the entire opening stage with two assists and that divine free-kick against Croatia.
As both Spain and Ireland also found out having felt the force of his through balls, Italy's main attacking threat comes from Pirlo's range-finding. For all the talent of their much talked-about forwards, it's the Juventus midfielder that finds them.
Tonight, though, his effect may go even deeper. It may completely affect how England play too. Roy Hodgson must decide whether to sacrifice either the physique of Andy Carroll, the talent of Wayne Rooney, the trickery of Danny Welbeck or the power of Steven Gerrard will have to be sacrificed. Because, essentially, someone is going to have to pick up and really press Pirlo.
In the Croatia game, Slaven Bilic had to put Luka Modric on him. But it worked. The pattern of the game was completely changed after half-time. It's going to take something away from England's attack. But, against a team that will control much more of the ball, it's the only way to take something out of Italy's.Reuse content