Italy v England, June 24, 7.45pm
24 June ~ If England fans were relieved to have avoided world and European champions Spain in the Euro 2012 quarter-finals, the Italians were just as happy to have drawn the English rather than France in the last eight. The day after Roy Hodgson's side beat Ukraine to clinch the Group D top spot, the Italian media presented facts and figures to show that, since claiming their first win over the maestri of the game in 1973, the Azzurri have pretty much ruled the roost. England haven't won a competitive game against Italy for 35 years.
The Italians are superstitious about being too boastful about their chances of winning a game beforehand, for fear of tempting fate, and they know that the Premier League is now well ahead of Serie A in terms of prestige. But when it comes to the national team, it is possible to perceive a superiority complex acquired by them frequently making it to the sharp end of big tournaments.
State broadcaster Rai's commentators enjoyed highlighting the technical shortcomings of England players in the group games. At one point viewers were told that Roberto Mancini had pulled off a "miracle" by winning the Premier League title given the quality of the Manchester City contingent in the squad, with Joe Hart's sluggish response to Samir Nasri's shot for the equaliser in the opener against France cited as an example.
An editorial in Wednesday's La Gazzetta dello Sport described the style of play used by Hodgson's side as "primordial. That day's paper also carried an interview in which Marcello Lippi failed to mention England, commenting only that the Azzurri had to up their game because Germany were "on the horizon" in the semi-finals. Another piece said that "France scared us more", but also conceded that "England command more respect from us", claiming that, in addition to being a game of football, Sunday's match will also be a "challenge between men".
Italians have been fascinated by the role reversal, with England using catenaccio to good effect and Cesare Prandelli trying to adopt a more positive style than than that usually associated with the national team. There is a sense of pride that, even if Fabio Capello is no longer in charge, his influence and that of the other Italian managers who have worked in England can be seen in the way football is being played in the game's homeland. "After importing so many Italian coaches into England, the English have realised that you have to defend well to win," Gianfranco Zola told Gazzetta.
Hodgson is also seen as having picked up some Italian tricks during his stints at Inter and Udinese. Midfielder Daniele De Rossi said this week that this England side had an Italian "stamp" on it and associated that with them no longer being tactically "naive".
Italians know their current national team is not up the standard of Italy sides of the past and they had low expectations of winning Euro 2012 before the tournament. After labouring through Group C, they are aware that Prandelli's men must make big improvements. But the impression is that most of them still fancy the Azzurri's chances against England this weekend. Paul Virgo