James Lawton: Swordsman Pirlo has class to cut a swathe through England
Azzurri's celebrated playmaker's dead-ball kicking is one of the wonders of the modern game
Many feel that England's fate here tomorrow in their quarter-final against Italy will be decided by an anarchist with a crazy haircut once publicly dismissed as a world-class prospect by Jose Mourinho and who has a disciplinary record that says you simply do not know what he is going to do next. But then enough of Wayne Rooney.
Mario Balotelli, who, quite some time after Mourinho said he preferred the potential of his Chelsea signing Mateja Kezman to that of Manchester United arrival Rooney, was also discounted by the Special One, is, of course, the other nominated maverick man of destiny when England attempt to defeat a front-rank football nation for the first time in major tournament knock-out action away from their own shores since they won the 1966 World Cup.
However, as the air hangs here like molten lead, there surely has to be another more persuasive suspicion.
It is that the issue will be shaped most profoundly by the subtleties of mind and feet of the Azzurri's celebrated playmaker Andrea Pirlo or, who knows, the new and rampaging leadership of England's Steven Gerrard. Of course, Rooney, even a version as badly in need of match sharpness as the one who appeared against Ukraine on that taut night in Donetsk, has shown again that he can intrude decisively into the action simply by his innate understanding of where to be on the football field. And yes, Balotelli can emerge from the chaos of his life to do wondrous things, most recently when sending home the Irish with a trademarked, blood-curdling drive.
But it is the veteran Pirlo who carries the most enduring aura against an England whose top-place finish in Group D owed rather more – even a so-far brilliantly pragmatic coach Roy Hodgson might privately admit – to the new spirit engendered by the driving Gerrard than any evidence of sustained tactical coherence.
Everything about Pirlo is coherent. His long, unfettered locks suggest someone who is extremely easy, even maybe languid, in his own skin, but when he goes about his work his weapon of choice is the rapier.
His dead-ball kicking is one of the wonders of the modern game and sometimes it seems no one is better able to split open a defence with a barely perceptible change of pace and direction and the most surgical of passes. It was his opening statement in this tournament, splitting wide, of all people, the Spanish with the pass that sent in Antonio Di Natale. Against Croatia, his free-kick was a breathtaking example of flight and judgement.
It is hardly surprising that a grateful Italian coach Marcello Lippi said, rather like someone admiring a masterpiece in an art gallery: "Pirlo is the silent leader – he speaks with his feet." Lippi said that after Italy won the 2006 World Cup in Berlin – their fourth. Pirlo had been both an engine and a superior brain. He was voted the tournament's third best player behind Zinedine Zidane and Fabio Cannavaro.
Six years on, can he speak with his feet quite so eloquently for Lippi's successor Cesare Prandelli? For Hodgson it is maybe the biggest question of all.
When Gerrard speaks with his feet the sound is quite often of a round of artillery but if he has been inspiring so far – and the author of possibly the finest deep cross in the history of international football when he sent one booming on to the head of Andy Carroll – it cannot be said that he has matched the creativity of the Italian.
In the two players, we have a classic divide between the mentalities of the two football nations – and perhaps an explanation why England have beaten Italy only once in 35 years.
Pirlo has the ferocious football intelligence and the silkiest of touches. Gerrard, especially in his current mode, is simply ferocious and, as ever, capable of the boldest play.
Tomorrow something will have to give and on the current form line – as opposed to the final group placings – it is hard not to give Italy something of an edge. They were superb against the Spanish, balanced, cleverly shutting down the game of La Roja, and striking out quite superbly when Pirlo fashioned the opportunity.
England will present an entirely different threat, not least in sheer physicality and fighting instincts, but soon enough we have to come back to the psychological weight of the Italian game – one that has outstripped England so thoroughly over three and a half decades. There is the iron in it which brought the World Cups of 1982 in Spain and 2006 – to go along with the two acquired in the 1930s – the near miss in the Pasadena shoot-out against Brazil in 1994, and the 1970 final appearance against the sublime Brazilians. If there is iron there is also more than a touch of perversity, a tendency to play not just to beat the world on entirely Italian terms but also damn it.
Some argued that the Italians would come here hang-dog after their latest match-fixing scandal but it was something born more of optimism than reality.
There was a similar shadow over them in Spain 30 years ago, when Paolo Rossi, who would be the great goalscoring hero, had emerged from banishment.
Italy's leading commentators were contemptuous of that team – and their pipe-smoking coach Enzo Bearzot. One of them spat at the coach's feet on a Barcelona pavement shortly before the Azzurri beat the Brazil of Socrates and Zico in the greatest World Cup game many of us are ever likely to see.
When they went on to Madrid to beat Germany in the final, Bearzot had plainly stepped beyond the zone of the spitting. Now it was said he had released the "caged bird of Italian football".
England, in their heart-stopping, improbable way may well have stepped beyond some of their own worst fears under the impressive prompting of Hodgson. They may have in such as Gerrard, a sharper Rooney and Joe Hart the characters to counter and overcome the swordsman Pirlo. This is what the heart says. However, the head cannot be said to be in total agreement.
Ronaldo is just like Ali – without the laughs
The more you see Cristiano Ronaldo in his pomp here the more you are reminded of the young Muhammad Ali.
There is the preening and the pouting but then when you think of how he looks, and the sheer athletic beauty of how he plays, you have to pardon – at least to some degree – the scale of his narcissism.
If Ronaldo wasn't pleased with himself, whoever would be?
However, there is a certain shortfall in his arrogance. It lacks the full-blown authority Ali displayed right from the start. In training once at Madison Square Garden, he told the assembled ringsiders that his sparring partner, and former world champion Jimmy Ellis, had admitted to dreaming he put the great man on the floor. "When he came to work this morning, though," Ali said with satisfaction "the first thing he did was apologise."
Ali also claimed to be so fast that when he switched off the light he was in bed before it was dark.
There has been no such verbal splendour yet from the man who is so riveting at the European Championship, but perhaps we should give him a little time. Ali also said "a rooster crows when it sees the light. Put him in the dark and he'll never crow. I've seen the light and I'm crowing." Maybe we should give Ronaldo another week or so.
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