England: Gerrard, Rooney,
Sometimes there is justice in the universe. Also, don't name your male children "Ashley."
Negative football doesn't get punished often enough. And Italy, for all its possession and passing supremacy, were unable to punish England through 120 minutes. But, as usual, penalties punish England.
England made this Italy side – better than expected, decent but unimpressive – look like Spain. The first 15 minutes ended up an aberration, with England surprisingly attacking after De Rossi's early left-footed thunderbolt hit the post. Buffon somehow prevented Johnson from opening the scoring in the 5th minute, palming away the close-range effort after a nice move down England's right, Parker shot narrowly wide from the top of the box, and stellar defending from Barzagli and Abate prevented Welbeck and Rooney from getting off decent efforts. After that, it was pure HodgeBall.
Two deep lines of four coupled with a complete refusal to press the ball outside the final third. By half-time, Italy had 235 touches in the middle of the pitch to England's 79.
The most galling feature was how much license England gave Andrea Pirlo. Already one of the players of the tournament and, at age 33, a man whose abilities are well-documented, handed all the time in the world to create whatever he pleased.
Meanwhile, Gerrard couldn't make anywhere near the same impact for England, whether due to Hodgson's tactics or an inability to play four matches in 13 days. Or a combination of both.
I'm well aware he's the captain, and he'd have to be dragged from the pitch kicking and screaming, but it's criminal that Gerrard's played all 300 of England's minutes, including 120 today. To be fair, it's not as if England had many other options. And Hodgson had used all three substitutions by the 94th minute – even though Gerrard began showing signs of cramp in the 70th – first replacing Welbeck and Milner with Carroll and Walcott, then Henderson for Parker soon into extra-time, due to that player's long-standing injury. Carroll's entrance helped, more influential than the peripheral Welbeck, but removing Milner – whose stamina is his best attribute – was questionable at best.
So, how did England even stay in this match?
Last ditch defending. 13 blocks is the most from any side so far this tournament. Pack the penalty area, and make sure nothing comes cheap or easy. Which is Hodgson's trademark.
Last ditch defending and wasteful Italian shooting. Italy seemed satisfied to fire from long distance, unable to penetrate England's parked bus. Balotelli and Cassano's radars were off all match long, while England got reprieves as Balotelli (multiple times) and Montolivo missed clear cut chances. Diamanti hit the post in extra time, while Nocerino had the ball in the net in the 115th minute but was rightfully ruled offside.
Which meant that Hodgson's tactics "worked," with England making it to the penalty lottery. And it initially looked likely to pay dividends, as Gerrard and Rooney both tallied while Montolivo missed Italy's second. Then Pirlo stepped forward. His Panenka was a back-breaker, a psychological death knell, and a wonderful capstone for a wonderful player's wonderful match. Young and Cole missed England's next two penalties – the former off the crossbar, the latter easily smothered by Buffon. Nocerino, then Diamanti sealed qualification to the semi-final, yet another crushing penalty defeat for England – their seventh in the last eight attempts.
It's tempting to say "we told you so," but we told you so. This is Hodgson, for good and evil. It's ugly, it's dismal, it's overly defensive. But sometimes it works, and it also led to a better-than-expected result, a result England haven't bettered since the 1996 Euros on home soil.
Is it a long-term solution? Absolutely not. And it's indescribably painful when done without any improvement in results, as Liverpool learned. But sometimes you need your short-term medicine.
Still, I'd recommend it remain nothing more than short-term medicine.