When the former Inter and England midfield ace, Paul Ince inanely uttered “Andrea Pirlo is good for his age,” it came as a quite a surprise. It was a bit like finding your favourite pureed tomatoes stamped ‘Made in Italy’ actually come from China. I had always felt that Incey was unique amongst Englishmen with a respectful insight when talking about Italian football. Yet sadly today it seems he has lost it and in doing so underestimated one of the world’s true greats.
In the build up to big games like tonight’s Italy-England clash, at least in England, there is always crazy talk and tonight someone else will also try to look insightful by trotting out the old phrase “the battle will be won or lost in midfield.” Yet for once they will be right as two of the best midfielders on the planet face each other, the Azzurri’s Pirlo and England and Liverpool captain Steve Gerrard, both world class and both the inspirational players of their respective sides.
Pirlo is not nicknamed the Metronome for nothing and after coming off an unbeaten season with champions Juve, has all the ability in the world to take charge and dictate the rhythm of the game from the crux of the midfield. And although some say the Azzurri are too dependent on the 33-year-old and need a plan B, if Plan A is working why change it? Okay he looked a tad tired against Ireland, but most every team looked weary in the third set of games and he still set up the opener.
You only have to recall his precision passes, like the incisive cuts of a brain surgeon’s knife that can split open defences at will, to see that he is much too valuable to substitute. Could anyone on the bench open up World Cup holders Spain like he did? Is there anyone that could make the inch-perfect pass that led to Antonio Di Natale’s goal? It was a living footballing jewel that is perhaps only rivalled by his breathtaking goal against Croatia. Let’s not forget his countless dangerous set pieces, free-kicks and corners, especially the near-post delivery from one in particular that left Antonio Cassano with the simple task of directing the ball into the net against Ireland.
Yet perhaps there is one who could possibly take his place, but unfortunately for those who underestimate Coach Cesare Prandelli, Italy’s plan B dreamers, he plays for England. In his own English way the inimitable 32-year-old Gerrard has been equally as breathtaking as Andrea and as we have seen, his three assists have come from Pirlo-like precision passing. His cross field balls, corner taking and capacity to ping perfect passes to Ashley Young, especially in the win over Ukraine, have been sublime. Factor in his dynamic cross that led to Wayne Rooney’s goal, which let’s face it, thanks to Gerrard’s accuracy even Stephen Hawking could have put away in a power surge.
Yet all this talk about Gerrard and Pirlo fails to take into account the others in their respective midfields. In Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi, Claudio Marchisio and Thiago Motta, Italy have one of the most talented midfields at Euro 2012. On the other side Gerrard has the pragmatic Scott Parker and the pair fit together like a pair of Gucci gloves. Yet notwithstanding their discipline, England could find themselves outnumbered and it’s possible Roy Hodgson will ask Rooney to drop back in front of the “Metronome” to help out. A lot will depend on these individual battles in the centre of the pitch, but it still all comes down Pirlo and Gerrard as the main providers for goals and inspiration - and it will be the winner of their duel that will dictate the result of the game.
Both players represent the archetypal ideal of their footballing nations’ style and one or the other will win out. Will it be the tactical awareness and technical subtleties of one of Italy’s best ever playmakers, whose intelligence and silky football represents the Azzurri at their historically finest? Or will it be the dynamic never-say-die attitude and tireless running of Gerrard, which symbolises the best of the English style? Who knows? All I know, along with my colleague Susy Campanale, is that 33 is not old and Ince needs to get back on the ball and stop being ridiculous.