At the ripe old age of 33, you might be forgiven for thinking that Andrea Pirlo was no more than a fringe-player, a bastion of experience on the periphery of the Italian squad; however, the Azzuri’s three games at this year’s European Championships have proven quite the opposite. Pirlo is still the central figure for the Italian national squad.
Having moved from AC Milan to Juventus on a free transfer last summer, Pirlo enjoyed an outstanding season for his new club, starting 37 league games (a career best), scoring three goals, providing 13 assists and adding a touch of class to the Juventus midfield.
Juve finished the season unbeaten, adding another Scudetto medal to Pirlo’s collection. Fuelled by his club season, Pirlo has stamped his authority on the Italian squad, making him their key man for the quarter-final clash with England. Its all a far cry from Italy’s performance in their last major tournament appearance, when they finished below New Zealand and recorded just two points at the 2010 World Cup.
Striker-less, reigning world champions Spain awaited Italy in their opening Group C game and, faced with an opposing midfield of Xavi, Andreas Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets and David Silva, Pirlo still managed to turn in a performance of high quality and composure. The Italian playmaker completed a respectable 82% of his passes, whilst providing a defence-splitting through-ball for the opening goal of the game, putting the ball on a plate for substitute striker Antonio Di Natale.
After their 1-1 draw with Spain, Pirlo provided a man-of-the-match performance in Italy’s second game against Croatia. On 39 minutes, the Italian maestro put his side ahead with a pearler of a free-kick. As in the first game, Pirlo enjoyed a pass-completion rate of 82%, whilst creating two further chances for his teammates that were squandered. Having completed another full 90 minutes, Pirlo was awarded the UEFA Man of the Match award.
With his county needing a victory in their final game to ensure progression to the quarter-finals, Pirlo was yet again the leader and inspiration for the Italians against Ireland. Once more, Pirlo provided an assist for the opening goal, as Antonio Cassano met his exquisite corner in the first-half. The former AC Milan captain went on to provide another four key passes, achieving an excellent completion rate of 92%. Although Cassano was awarded the official Man of the Match award, many believed the accolade should again have been handed to Pirlo. Alongside Roma anchorman Daniele De Rossi, the veteran has been the key man for Italy and should he perform well on Sunday, he could provide real problems for England.
Although Sunday’s clash will not be a showcase of expansive, fast-paced football, it will be an interesting tactical affair nonetheless. Italy, whilst not the defensive machine they once were, prefer a disciplined and regimented set-up, attacking selectively, much like Roy Hodgson’s England side. Likewise, Italy are unlikely to be able to tear England to shreds with blistering wing play. In such a game, a player like Pirlo is integral. Italy will look to get him on the ball at every opportunity in the hope that he can find a killer through-ball between the English defence. It will be Italy’s aim to allow their experienced playmaker to dictate the tempo of the game. Scott Parker and in-form Steven Gerrard will have to work hard to prevent Pirlo taking a hold of the game, allowing him little time to pick the killer ball. If they are successful, not only will they frustrate the midfielder, but they will also frustrate the notoriously temperamental strikers Cassano and Mario Balotelli (should they start, of course).
Naturally, Pirlo is not the only threat in the Italian team. The Azzuri are blessed with the likes of De Rossi, Cassano, Di Natale and the enigmatic Balotelli. However, on Sunday night, England will certainly need to stifle the pass-master because, although he is not the box-to-box, engine-type midfielder, Pirlo needs just one chance to find the killer pass. And, in a game that looks set to be tight and of few chances, one killer pass is all it might take to secure a berth in the semi-finals.
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