Will the Italians triumph once again?

Offshore drilling, Euro 2012: Italy 0 (4-2 on kicks), England 0

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Man of the Match: The week off must have done him good, because Andrea Pirlo looked anything but a old, tiring playmaker. The 33-year-old midfielder gave his best performance of the tournament, and although none of this efforts bore fruit, it wasn’t for a lack of quality. His diagonal passes from deep midfield defined Italy’s play in their attacking phase, while long passes from his own half frequently made England’s high defensive line look misguided.

NBC Sports: Italy beats England in shootout in quarterfinal

Packaged for takeaway:

  • Remember all the doom and gloom I conjured before the match? For half the match, they looked utterly idiotic, the teams giving us the tournament’s best game. The second half of the match (the last hour) was pretty terrible. We got our dramatic ending, but boy did we have to sit through a lot of England passivity before we got it.
  • Formation paralysis: 3-5-2? 4-3-1-2? 4-4-2? 1-2-3-2-1-1-1? Italy’s formation was the talking point coming into the match. Would they start four at the back? And would Mario Balotelli return to the starting XI? Yes to both of those questions.
    • Balotelli returned to the lineup after being benched for Ireland while
    • Leonardo Bonucci and Ricardo Montolivo got starts for the injured Giorgio Chiellini and the reportedly hobbled Thiago Motta.
  • England started strong. That ponderous team that seemed reluctant to attack through group stage? They didn’t show up until later. At the onset, England attacked decisively, their best chance coming when Glen Johnson ran through the middle of the box and onto a James Milner cross. It should have been a goal, but Johnson overran the pass, let the ball get caught in his feet, and ended up pushing a shot at Gianluigi Buffon.
  • It was the second goal scare of the match. In the third minute, out of nowhere, Montolivo spun a ball from 25-yards into Joe Hart’s right post.
  • After  being on the back foot for 15 minutes, Italy starting coming into the match. They took another 10 minutes to assert themselves, but over the first half’s final 20 minutes, they were the better side.
  • By then, Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck, who had been so diligently monitoring Andrea Pirlo at the beginning, were giving the Italian regista more room. Part of that may have been Italian adjustments. Throughout the tournament, Pirlo had been the main provider for Antonio Cassano, who’d been the team’s driving force in the final third. In the first half, Italy had better success playing directly to Cassano and then, after the defense collapsed, playing back to Pirlo, who could then target Italian attackers.
  • Once that was established, the game opened up for Italy, who had a much more direct presence about them when the halftime whistle blew. Going into the locker rooms, Italy had held 60 percent of the match’s possession.
  • No changes in the second half meant Italy could pick up where they left off. Soon, Pirlo was picking up the ball deep, playing as he would against a team that had no intention of stopping him. This led to a number of long balls played over the top for Balotelli, the striker’s speed constantly beating England’s curiously high line.
  • Over the half’s first eight minutes, Italy missed three great chances. Daniele de Rossi was delivered a sitter on the second ball in from a corner. Balotelli couldn’t covert a ball blocked in front of goal by Hart, while Montolivo was a step too slow getting to the rebound of Balotelli’s shot.
  • Hodgson had to make the first move, though judging by the timing, there was no “had to” about it, in his mind. At the hour mark, Andy Carroll and Theo Walcott came on for Danny Welbeck and James Milner, substitutions that seemed planned prior to kickoff. Both players had done good work, particularly Milner, who gave his best performance of the tournament. If that substitution was pre-ordained, Hodgson should have reconsidered.
  • Carroll nearly paid off within six minutes, backing Andrea Barzagli down to the edge of the six before knocking down a ball for Ashley Young. It was England’s best chance since the fifth minute, but Young scuffed it wide.
  • Still, England had a slightly better presence in the match after the changes, perhaps spurring Cesare Prandelli’s first changes. Antonio Cassano, playing 18 minutes more than his customary hour, gave way for Alessandro Diamanti. One minute later, Antonio Nocerino came on for De Rossi.
  • It wasn’t long until Italy regained control of the match, dominating possession as England started playing like a team that was either conserving their energy or coming to grips with their status as second best. Were they playing for extra time? Penalties? Hodgson’s subs had fail to restore England’s drive.
  • Just before full time, Claudio Marchisio chipped a ball over the defense for Nocerino, whose fine first touch set up a volley from 13 yards. Glen Johnson (also putting in his best match of the tournament) tracked the run and got a foot to the shot.
  • England’s entire defense played well, as did Joe Hart. The high line was a problem, but that was the coach’s tactic. Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker were strong in midfield, but up top, Rooney gave another performance covered in rust. England would have probably been better without him.
  • England had a final chance before full time, a Rooney overhead kick sent into the stands, but after 90 minutes, the match had started to become what we’d expected: Lots of Italy possession; England not really caring; few good chances. Where England’s speed, six, strength and athleticism had given Italy problems in the first half, they neglected to use those qualities in the second. Instead, they sat deep, waited, hoping for something to happen, just as they’d done against France and Ukraine.
  • Thirty extra minutes were useless. Italy controlled extra time, generating a slew of half chances and a Nocerino goal that was called off for offside. England provided the periodic scare. It wasn’t much different than we saw over the last 30 minutes of regulation. Italy were clearly the better side but lacked the know how in the final third to take it.
  • Bemoan penalty kicks if you want, but they’re better than a coin flip. At least they test a few soccer skills. They were also the only way this match was going to end. Without them, these teams would still be playing, and after two hours of seeing England siphon off their own will, this one needed to end.
  • The kicks:
    • Italy went first and chose Mario Balotelli. Hesitating before hitting it, Balotelli nuzzled it into the lower left corner. 1-0, Italy.
    • Steven Gerrard went first for England and hit it in the same spot. 1-1.
    • Ricardo Montolivo was next and, trying for the same spot, pulled it wide, leaving it 1-1.
    • Wayne Rooney went high and into the middle of goal, he put the Three Lions up 2-1.
    • Andrea Pirlo was third for Italy, putting a beautifully “cheeky chip” into the middle of goal as Joe Hart dove left. 2-2.
    • Ashley Young was next and had a chance to restore England’s lead, but his high shot into the middle of goal nailed the crossbar. 2-2.
    • Antonio Nocerino showed Hart right and went left, putting Italy up 3-2.
    • Ashley Cole, a constant in his teams’ shootouts, was fourth for England. He went right and saw his shot swallowed up by Buffon, giving Italy a chance to close it out with their fourth kick.
    • Alessandro Diamanti, who flamed out at West Ham two years ago, got the chance to put Italy into the semifinals. Again Hart went right, and again the shot went left. Italy won the shootout, 4-2.
  • England fans will lament their country’s poor luck in penalty shootouts, but it’s difficult to have too much sympathy for a team that put no effort into winning the match. Except for the game’s first 15 minutes, Italy were clearly the better side, finishing with 64 percent possession and almost all of the dangerous moments. They played like semifinalists. England didn’t.
  • More numbers: Total shots: 35-9, Italy; Totals on target: 20-4, Italy. They’re Barcelona-esque numbers, even if the performance’s style wasn’t very Barça at all. England let them dominate.
  • And after two hours, it seems like a very English performance. Solid at the back with a certain strength and athleticism throughout their team, England had little else. They lacked the tactical nous to break the Italians.
  • And for Italy, it was a very Italian performance. This week, Buffon mentioned Italy has always kept matches close. This was no different, though not for lack of trying. Italy was the better team throughout, and although they go into the semifinals having only beaten Ireland, they are still in the final four.
  • Next up is Germany, a team that has the tactical nous to complement their speed and technical quality. The Azzurri will be decided underdogs, but starting to embody the spirit of champions’ past, anything seems possible.

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.

Xavi backs Dybala, Verratti to succeed at Barcelona over Pogba

TURIN, ITALY - JANUARY 24:  Paulo Dybala (R) of Juventus FC celebrates after scoring the opening goal with team mate Paul Pogba during the Serie A match between Juventus FC and AS Roma at Juventus Arena on January 24, 2016 in Turin, Italy.  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
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With Paul Pogba linked with a possible summer move to Barcelona worth more than $100 million, one legend at Camp Nou believes Pogba may not be the right signing.

[ MORE: Top 5 PL storylines ]

After making more than 700 appearances for Barcelona, Xavi knows the club as well as anyone, and he prefers Pogba’s Juventus teammate Paulo Dybala for a move to the Catalan giants.

Xavi also praised the play of Paris Saint-Germain’s Marco Verratti, saying that while Pogba is a star player, Dybala and Verratti have “Barca DNA.”

There’s two players I really like, both of whom I think have Barca’s DNA. They are Marco Verratti and Paulo Dybala.

They are amazing and, thanks to their quality and style of play, would easily integrate into the [Barca] machine. I see them as future stars at the club.

[Pogba] is a great player. He’ll be a star for France as he is for Juve, but I see him with a different game to ours.

Both Pogba and Dybala are 22-years-old, while Verratti is 23. All three players have been among the elite young talents in the world, with Pogba earning the most praise of the group and always linked with a big-money move to Europe’s top clubs.

[ RELATED: Messi named La Liga Player of the Month for first time in career ]

Dybala is enjoying a breakout season at Juventus, currently with 13 goals and eight assists in Serie A play. In Paris, Verratti is part of a PSG side that hasn’t lost in 25 matches and holds a 24-point lead at the top of the table.

Vincent Kompany set to make Manchester City return this weekend

during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Arsenal at Etihad Stadium on January 18, 2015 in Manchester, England.
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Vincent Kompany is set to make his first appearance for Manchester City since Boxing Day as the defender has returned from injury.

City’s captain and center-back missed more than six weeks with a calf injury before Christmas, and then reaggravated the injury just minutes into his return at the end of December.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

However, Kompany has been back in training and manager Manuel Pellegrini said he is fit to play this weekend when City host Tottenham in a huge top-four matchup.

We’ll see what the starting XI is tomorrow – we’re not just thinking about one player and one game, we’re involved in a lot of competitions. Maybe we have a lot of criticism when we don’t play well but I’m happy with the squad over the whole season.

Every player must play a game when they’re 100%. Vincent has worked for three weeks with no problems. He played 45 minutes in a friendly game against the under-21s and I think he’s ready to play.

Kompany’s presence in the City back-line has been pivotal this season. In the eight Premier League games Kompany has started, City have kept seven clean sheets. In the 18 matches without the big Belgian in the starting lineup, City have kept just five.

[ RELATED: Diego Costa suffers broken nose in Chelsea training ]

With City just a point behind Tottenham, Kompany returns from injury just in time for one of the biggest matches of the season. Tasked with slowing down Harry Kane and Spurs’ high-flying attack, Kompany’s play could prove crucial to the Citizens getting a result.

Premier League Preview: Chelsea vs. Newcastle United

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  • CFC unbeaten under Hiddink (W5, D6)
  • Newcastle have just 6 away goals all season
  • Diego Costa: 6 goals in his last 7 PL matches

Chelsea look to extend their unbeaten streak under Guus Hiddink to 12 matches on Saturday when the Blues host relegation-threatened Newcastle (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra).

The Blues’ last loss came under Jose Mourinho in December.

[ WATCH LIVE: Stream every PL game via Live Extra ]

Chelsea are up to 13th on the table, currently riding a run of 11 matches unbeaten in all competitions. Guus Hiddink is yet to suffer a loss after taking over for his second stint at Stamford Bridge in December, although draws have kept Chelsea from climbing further up the table. Diego Costa has had the hot-hand with six goals in his last seven appearances, but the Spanish striker will be forced to play with a mask after suffering a broken nose in training.

[ MORE: Hiddink has “no fear” of playing youngsters in Zouma’s absence ]

For Newcastle, the Magpies sit 17th on the table just one point above the drop. Their away form has hurt the club all season, as Steve McClaren‘s men have scored a league-low six goals on the road this year. The Magpies are coming off of a win over West Brom, and supporters will be hoping the club’s new January signings continue to produce. Seydou Doumbia could make his Premier League debut on Saturday, which would be a massive boost to the attack.

What they’re saying

Chelsea manager Guus Hiddink: “The status of being unbeaten sounds good but realistically we would have wished to have more victories, especially at home. And we have an opportunity to do so against Newcastle. They improved their squad with substance, some good signings, and they are more competitive now.”

Newcastle boss Steve McClaren: “In our home games we are starting to get a consistency in our performance and the way we play. We need to start transferring that to our away games and picking up points away from home – we owe it to the fans.”

Prediction

Newcastle have just two wins in their last 18 league matches away from home, and I don’t see that trend changing this weekend. Chelsea have looked a new team with Guus Hiddink in charge, and they stay unbeaten under the Dutchman. Chelsea 2-1 Newcastle United.

Pochettino enjoying best spell of career ahead of massive clash at Man City

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 23:  Mauricio Pochettino (R) Manager of Tottenham Hotspur is seen on arrival at the stadium prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Tottenham Hotspur at Selhurst Park on January 23, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Mauricio Pochettino is getting ready for one of his biggest matches in charge at Tottenham, but he’s not letting the pressure get to him.

The Spurs’ boss talked down the importance of Sunday’s match against Manchester City (Watch live, 11:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra), and went on to say he is currently having the most enjoyable time of his career.

[ WATCH: Full PL match replays ]

Pochettino has Tottenham sitting second on the table, and they travel to the Etihad this weekend for a clash against fourth-placed Manchester City, who sit one point behind Spurs.

When asked if this weekend’s match could be a decisive result in the title race, Pochettino was unwilling to admit it was anything more than three points in a long campaign. However, when asked about the season as a whole, the Argentinian manager said he was having great fun at White Hart Lane, responding “Is it my most enjoyable time of career? Yes, maybe yes if I’m honest.”

[ MORE: Who are the Premier League title favorites? ]

Pochettino’s work at Tottenham has made him one of the most well-respected managers in the Premier League, with some reports tabbing him as the potential future boss of Manchester United.

Spurs have won six on the spin in all competitions, and will be confident facing a City side they smashed 4-1 earlier this season. With leaders Leicester facing Arsenal on Sunday, Tottenham could see themselves just two points off the pace if results go their way.