KIEV, Ukraine – England has reached a familiar stumbling block at a major tournament and, this time, captain Steven Gerrard is determined to steer his country into the semifinals.
England hasn't managed the feat in 16 years, since reaching the last four of Euro 96 on home soil, and must now beat Italy at the European Championship on Sunday to make it happen.
Previous attempts failed at the quarterfinal stages of the 2002
and 2006 World Cups, along with Euro 2004, and England has never defeated Italy at a major tournament.
Still, Gerrard is upbeat about England's chances.
“The atmosphere has been superb in the squad and the confidence and the belief is there,” he said Saturday. “It's just important for all the players to seize this moment because from experience they don't come around very often.
“So it's important we leave everything out there and we keep showing everyone - to all our doubters and critics out there - that we are good enough to compete with the top teams at this level.”
Because they haven't been in the past.
No England side has ever beaten a major power such as Italy in the knockout stages of a tournament apart from on home soil in the 1966 World Cup and Euro 96.
While failing to sparkle at Euro 2012, England advanced to the quarterfinals by topping its group with a doggedness that France, Sweden and Ukraine struggled to deal with.
“The level of performance of the team and squad so far in the tournament gives me the confidence and the belief,” Gerrard said. “In previous tournaments I think the reason we have gone out is because the level of performance has been under what we're capable of. I think we've got stronger as the tournament has gone on and hopefully that will be the same tomorrow night.”
England beat Sweden and Ukraine after drawing with France in Group D, while Italy drew twice in Group C - against Spain and Croatia - before defeating Ireland to finish second.
“They've got a lovely mix of youth and experience and they've got a lot athleticism,” England coach Roy Hodgson said. “For us the most important thing ... we've got to do is try to find our best form and we've got to try to play as we have done in the previous games.
“This is very important for us and we need to really control the game if we can, try to take it by the scruff of the neck, because we know if Italy have the chance to control the game, then it could be a very long night for us. Italy are a side with a lot of good technical players.”
Hodgson's reply - in Italian and translated into English in the news conference - took the English media back several months to when the Italian Fabio Capello was at the helm.
Capello's resignation in February threw England's Euro 2012
plans into disarray, but Hodgson has managed to unify the squad in barely a month and instilled a new sense of pride in the team.
“We're not underdogs in any way,” Hodgson said. “We have good quality players who are recognized worldwide and, certainly, would get into a lot of the top European teams. Spain have had a few scares along the way and Italy have been stable in their performances without actually tearing the tournament up.
“It's been a fairly smooth process for us. Things were up in the air because our preparation time was so short and we lost four senior players to injury in the buildup, but we've managed to put that to one side and now it's more a positive feeling.” – Sapa-AP