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Wayne Rooney, flash points, and England-Italy: Sunday’s Euro 2012 playlist

Soccer Euro 2012 England Ukraine

England’s Wayne Rooney celebrates after scoring a goal during the Euro 2012 soccer championship Group D match between England and Ukraine in Donetsk, Ukraine, Tuesday, June 19, 2012. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)


England's soccer players Gerrard and Rooney attend a training session at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev

England’s soccer players Steven Gerrard (R) and Wayne Rooney attend a training session at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev, June 23, 2012. England will play its quarter-final of the Euro 2012 soccer championships against Italy in Kiev on June 24. REUTERS/Tony Gentile (UKRAINE - Tags: SPORT SOCCER)


Saturday afternoon I opened my mailbox to find a notice from a former employer. My retirement plan had no declared beneficiary. The message I, a Euro-obsessed man, inferred: Sunday’s England-Italy match may kill you.

That’s also when it hit me: I’ve become far too obsessed with England-Italy. To verify, I looked back at all the hyperbole I’ve spewed since Tuesday:

  • “We’re probably in for one of the worst matches of the tournament, ..."[source][/source]
  • “England and Italy is a dream matchup … for people who are having trouble dreaming."[source][/source]
  • “If you know anybody with an untreatable sleeping disorder, prop them up in front of a television at 2:45 p.m. Eastern on Sunday. The national teams of England and Italy will put forth their best attempt to cure world insomnia. It should be a banner day for the sleep disorder community."[source][/source]
  • “I’d suggest brewing a lot of coffee for Sunday’s game, as you’re going to need help staying awake."[source][/source]
  • “I hope they start with penalty kicks and save us two hours of ennui."[source][/source]
  • "[R]eprobate fans like myself will reflexively watch Sunday’s quarterfinal, thereby meeting most DSM-IV criteria for addiction and dependence."[source][/source]

Somebody call Dr. Drew.

It’s a stupid list, one that makes me feel bad because even if we do get a stoic match between two teams whose styles merge with the dissonance of microphone feedback (add that to the list), we’ll still have two fabled nations meeting in the knockout stage of a major international tournament. How excited would we have been at the beginning of the tournament if somebody told us this would be a quarterfinal?

That this should be a really, really close, well-played game should be enough to justify our excitement. Here I could be all cliché-y and talk about why we love sports, but we don’t really love sports just for the competition. I can’t remember the last time I watched AYSO soccer, but I sure remember some of those games being close. Sunday’s match is going to be close, the stakes will be huge, and we’ll have 22 of the world’s best athletes playing it out.

It may be one of the tournament’s worst matches (who knows), but it’s still a Euro 2012 quarterfinal, and I don’t know about you, but my life isn’t so all-fire important that I can’t sit down and see if the thing can’t exceed my expectations. What else am I going to do? Live out my life in 120 character bursts?

And with that, here’s the playlist for Sunday’s quarterfinal, the 2:45 p.m. Eastern kickoff deciding who moves on to face Germany on Thursday.

Soccer Euro 2012 Italy Ireland

Italy’s Andrea Pirlo, left, and Ireland’s Aiden McGeady vie for the ball during the Euro 2012 soccer championship Group C match between Italy and the Republic of Ireland in Poznan, Poland, Monday, June 18, 2012. (AP Photo/Sergey Ponomarev)


1. (Didn’t used to be an) Empty tin

After one match, Italy midfielder Andrea Pirlo looked like the tournaments best player. Then a slowed down a little versus Croatia, and when he didn’t recover against Ireland, it was obvious. The short turn around time is taking its toll.

Pirlo isn’t especially old. He’s only 33, but he has accumulated a tone of miles. Only once in the last decade has he failed to play at least 40 matches in a season (counting club and country appearances). For a four year stretch between 2003-04 and 2007-08, he played over 50 matches in every year. It’s not quite Lampardian, but it’s still a lot of wear and tear.

Between Italy’s last group game and Sunday’s quarterfinal, the Juventus regista has had five days off. Hopefully, Pirlo will be recharged, because in a match that looks to even on paper, one small sway could tilt the scales.

2.Volatile pair (Volatile game)

It’s a bit strange that Mario Balotelli’s antics have been singled out ahead of a game that will feature John Terry. Balotelli’s portrayed as an impulsive, immature talent that exercises poor judgement, but compared to Terry’s knee to Alexei Sanchez’s back ahead of the Champions League final (which Terry had to miss, serving a red card suspension), Balotelli looks more quixotic than malicious.

Teams with Antonio Cassano, Balotelli forms one of the most volatile attacking tandems in tournament memory, but they’re not the only sparks in Sunday’s potential tinder box. Wayne Rooney entered this match serving a red card suspension, Ashley Cole’s off-field behavior has had it’s Balotellian turns, Thiago Motta (perhaps unfairly) has seen red in a Champions League semifinal, while no U.S. Men’s National Team fan need be reminded what Daniele de Rossi did to Brian McBride.

There are a number of flash points in Sunday’s game. Thankfully, none of them are truly likely to spark.

England's national soccer player Young arrives for a news conference in Krakow

England’s national soccer player Ashley Young arrives for a news conference in Krakow June 9, 2012, ahead of their Euro 2012 soccer match against France. England will play its opening Group D fixture against France in Donetsk on Monday. REUTERS/Nigel Roddis (POLAND - Tags: SPORT SOCCER)


3. Wide open spaces

As similar as these teams are, one has wide play, and the other does not. Seems like a big difference, right? It will be, if England exploit it.

Italy provides no real help for their fullbacks (or wingbacks, if they play 3-5-2). The narrow midfield invites the opposition’s wide players onto Ignacio Abate and Federico Balzaretti, though none of their Group C opposition exploited it. Ireland doesn’t exploit anything, Spain play too narrow, while both Croatia fullbacks (Darijo Srna, Ivan Strnic) had good games against the Italians.

England should provide more of a challenge. On Italy’s right, the threat of the two Ashleys (Cole and Young) should be clear. Claudio Marchisio is going to have to help Abate. On the other flank, James Milner’s nowhere near as dangerous, but somebody’s going to have to get out and contest his crosses. And if Milner’s not out there, it’s going to be Theo Walcott - an even more dangerous proposition.

4. A small wish for Wayne Rooney

It’s rare that a great player has such a glaring chance to define a match. Is Wayne Rooney a great player? I don’t really know. A lot of that depends on how you define great, but on Sunday he’s going to the be one, glaring, meaningful difference between two teams that couldn’t be more evenly matched.

Perhaps it’s an unfair expectation, but players who have blessed places in the starting XI are usually those who’ve shown they can do special things. And so when an England fan looks at Italy and looks at the Three Lions, it’s not without reason that they look at Rooney and think they can win. Italy’s just like us, except we have Wayne Rooney. They don’t.

And if England’s eliminated? How did that happen? We have Wayne Rooney. They don’t.

I don’t know if Wayne Rooney’s a great player, but some people might make their decisions tomorrow.
ProSoccerTalk is doing its best to keep you up to date on what’s going on in Poland and Ukraine. Check out the site’s Euro 2012 page and look at the site’s previews, predictions, and coverage of all the events defining UEFA’s championship.