Italy and England square off in the last of Euro 2012's quarterfinal matches, each eager to take on the Germans in the next round. It's an odd match up in many ways, namely England and Italy are two of the most storied nations in the history of the beautiful game, yet the actual history between them is relatively uneventful. The most recent meeting of note was the third place match in the 1990 World Cup, which Italy won 2-1 on the legs of Roberto Baggio and Salvatore Schillaci.
In many ways, the battle for supremacy between Italy and England has not been fought in European or World Cups, but rather in the hearts and minds of football fans worldwide, ceaselessly debating which is the better league, Serie A or the English Premier League?
It's a strange phenomenon, both nations are lauded for their historical footballing prowess, the English touted as the creators and protectors of the game, in the midst of a nearly 50 year trophy drought, still beat their drum claiming theirs is the most successful and entertaining brand of football. Meanwhile, Italy, they of four world championships, are slighted as being too pragmatic, too boring and their domestic league a relic of the past, a wannabe, desperately nipping at the heels of the Premiership for a shred of respect and recognition.
English media saturation notwithstanding, the race, at least in terms of Champions League winners, has been remarkably close since the formation of the Premier League in 1992, with Italian clubs winning five times to the English club's four victories. With respect to the financial values of the clubs, the most recent Deloitte Football Money League saw six English clubs and five Italian clubs among the world's wealthiest; again, closer than much of the main stream media would lead you to believe. In terms of total revenue, some estimates calculate the Premier League's 2010-2011 haul at €2.5B, making Serie A's €1.5B look relatively paltry, which makes sense given the relatively small amount of the world's population that speaks Italian compared to English, leaving a sizeable gulf between their prospective television and internet markets, Chiesa Di Totti notwithstanding, of course.
So what does this all have to do with the quarter final match-up between the Azzuri and the Three Lions?
I have received many offers from English football," De Rossi told reporters. "And I must say that I feel attraction for it...I like English football very much. I think now it's probably more interesting than Italian football...There are lots of outstanding and talented players, as is the case for Spain as well.
Pretty standard answer to what is assuredly a commonly asked question; any fears of Daniele heading to the British Isles were put to rest when he penned his extension. Further expounding on the English, De Rossi had some kind words for Steven Gerrard. "Gerrard has always been my idol, he has been playing at a high level for years...England are very strong, they have an Italian approach, with a good defence. We would rather face Ukraine, but it is okay"
Both fair points, Gerrard has had an outstanding career so far, winning a Champions League title with Liverpool, as well as several individual international recognitions. England, meanwhile, have had a similarly strong defensive record in the qualifying rounds for Euro 2012; conceding five goals in qualification to Italy's two.
Taking a look at their respective stats from the group stages, we see more similarities; both clubs advanced with a +2 goal differential. England put five in the back of the net during group play, of which Gerrard assisted on 3, while Italy tallied four goals, with Pirlo assisting on two and scoring one.
So aside from the gulf in total league revenue, of which TV contracts play a large role, the current incarnations of English and Italian football are remarkably similar, both on and off the pitch. All of this points towards an incredibly even and tense match, which are sometimes broken by the most enigmatic of players at the most opportune of times. Enter Mario Balotelli.
Balotelli, you may remember, had to be restrained after his stunning volley against Ireland when he began to gesture towards Cesare Prandelli, presumably upset at his absence from the starting XI. As has been the case with Super Mario, the awesome comes hand-in-hand with the absurd. De Rossi, once a prodigy on the national team himself, recently proffered a bit of insight about the Azzuri's wunderkind
He has to accept the coach's decisions," the midfielder told reporters.
"But he's at the age now where he should start to take responsibility to make sure he's treated like the others.
Bravo to Daniele for admitting his own youthful misgivings. It is a great parallel and we can only hope Balotelli matures as he ages. After all, as De Rossi readily admits, Balotelli can hurt any team on the planet at any moment. In a game as seemingly even as this quarterfinal, Balotelli might be the straw that breaks the camel's back.
Speaking of prolific strikers prone to fits of immaturity, Wayne Rooney, fresh off his return from suspension, is brimming with confidence ahead of Sunday's match, claiming the English are fit, well organized, and ready to "do a job" on Italy
That "job" became a little bit harder for Italy, following the news that Giorgio Chiellini will miss the quarterfinal with a thigh strain. Injuries to the defensive corps at the start of the tournament forced Prandelli's hand, as he opted for the 3-5-2 in Italys first two matches. Now with Chiellini's absence, will the 3-5-2 rear its head once again?
When you dig deeper, the parity between the two domestic leagues is a lot closer than the English speaking media would have you believe. At the same time, the current incarnations of their national teams, despite what their respective media imply, are shockingly similar in their approach and results.
Its hard to shake the feeling, given how little is between these two squads, that this match will turn on either a moment of bruising brilliance from Wayne Rooney or the scattered sublimity of Mario Balotelli.