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Although England and Italy played against each other in the World Cup semifinals six years ago, the England team of that time was completely different from the current England team, and that Italian team was not the current one too. Especially for the team that Twain led, it required them to feel it out properly. How else would they know what kind of trap he had waiting for them?
After five minutes of trying out, Italy began to adopt a steady defensive counterattack stance. They were not in a hurry to attack, but first solidified their defense and stationed players in the midfield and backfield. This did not come as a surprise to everyone. Lippi had led the Italian team thrice and his most favored tactics had long been figured out by everyone. He himself was also aware of it. In this regard, it was more difficult to be surprising. It was better to play a tactic to the extreme.
It was not that he had not tried to make the Italian play better and more actively. For example, he had used the attacking style of 4-3-3, which resulted in being humiliated by Brazil with three goals in the FIFA Confederations Cup. That game also caused him to completely break off the idea of playing beautiful football. He thought it was more secure and easier to obtain victories by playing defensive football.
From this point of view, he and Twain fell in the same category.
Everyone obviously saw it this way, so they also thought that in the final, Twain would not choose conservative tactics without hesitation, and strive to not make mistakes or at least make fewer mistakes, in order not to concede the goal as a prerequisite to fight for victory in the game.
In that case, the final would be a dreary showdown between extremely conservative players. The compet.i.tion between the two teams would not be which one was more capable of breaking each other's goals, but rather which team would make fewer mistakes. The outcome of a game played to a full 120 minutes would not come as a surprise. The probability of finally using a penalty shootout to determine the champion and runner-up was more than 50 percent ... In short, it was best for everyone to prepare for a protracted game. Those football fans from non-European areas staying up late to watch the game would be unlucky. They would have to wake up late in the night, yawning and feeling drowsy as they looked forward to a thrilling match. However, they did not expect to watch a game that would make them drowsier. How many people would stare at a pair of "panda eyes" during the day and curse the two conservative managers?
Twain looked at his watch in the technical area and it was already five minutes into the game. The probing phase was basically over. It was time to carry out his tactics.
So, he got up from his seat and walked slowly to the sidelines. He did not make any hand gestures. He did not whistle nor shout the name of a certain player. The England players on the pitch knew what to do when they saw him on the sidelines.
Everyone remembered what Twain said to them at the tactical meeting the day before the game. But even if the boss did not say it, they could guess what tactics the team would use in the game, because the training sessions for the last three days had been revealing that kind of information.
During last night's tactical meeting, Twain told his players not to play too conservatively in the first half. They had to attack aggressively and try to score a goal first so that the game would turn advantageous to themselves. If they could not score in the first half, it still would not be too late to play conservatively in the second half.
"... They're going to think we will adopt more conservative tactics to deal with them. If they think so, we'll seize the decisive opportunity to exploit this point to catch them off guard!"
As the Italians wanted to withdraw their defensive line and not give the England team too many chances to get near the goal, their control of the midfield was slightly weaker. It was easier for George Wood to take the ball further in the back, and no one came up to tackle and interfere.
After his teammates pa.s.sed the ball to him, England's offensive relied on him.
As England's metronome, he controlled the rhythm of the team's attack. It was up to him to determine when it was time to speed up or slow down. If he controlled the wrong pace, not only would he not bring a goal to the team, he would put the team in a dangerous situation. It was up to the metronome how well a team played.
After Wood got the ball, he had initially wanted to send a long pa.s.s to Rooney in front. He had seen the empty spot before he took the ball. But when the football was pa.s.sed over, things changed again on the pitch. The previously glimpsed gap was filled in by the Italian defenders. Rooney had also been noticed by Criscito. If the ball had been pa.s.sed as planned, the ball would most likely have fallen into the hands of the Italians and allowed them to fight back. This was not the result that Wood wanted.
He made a feint to attack and left the football in place. Then he looked around and found that his teammates were some distance away from him. This would not do... He made a hand signal for them to come up and receive.
Gerrard saw Wood in the front and ran back to support. The Italian midfielder, Aquilani also followed him as well.
Wood saw Aquilani following behind Gerrard and did not really want to pa.s.s the ball over. Instead, he suddenly dribbled the ball forward!
He and Gerrard pa.s.sed each other by. Aquilani was so astounded that he threw Gerrard aside to pounce toward Wood while Wood had waited for him to make a move like this. He watched as Aquilani left Gerrard's side before he used the outer instep of his foot to knock the football to Gerrard, obliquely at the back while he lured Aquilani away.
Once Gerrard picked up the ball, he turned around and moved forward. When Lanzafame rushed toward him, he did not keep the ball, but pa.s.sed the ball to Downing on the sideline where Lanzafame was.
It was what Twain had specifically asked for. He wanted the team to hold the ball as little as possible when it was going through the midfield and to maneuver the opponent's defensive line through quick pa.s.ses. This approach was particularly important in dealing with a defensively tight team like Italy, as it was difficult to find a breakthrough point in a catenaccio style defense solely based on individual skills. Only quick pa.s.ses could rip it apart.
Downing had just received the ball and Joe Mattock, who was behind him, suddenly charged past the center line.
The scene stunned the commentators in the press box – a full back's a.s.sists were quite "symbolic" in a football game. It suggested that the team's tactical thinking was not conservative, but an aggressive pursuit of attacking opportunities. Otherwise the manager would not have let the full back plug in so boldly to a.s.sist. In today's game, for example, the Italian team's two full backs had not crossed the center line once.
"Joe Mattock suddenly plugs in and partic.i.p.ates in the attack! Can this be a signal that they are going to be more active?"
Lippi's eyebrows were raised. He had also noticed it. It was clear that Downing did not go along the sideline to break through after receiving the ball. Instead, he suddenly cut inside as if he wanted to go in the middle. Italy's De Rossi soon came up to block his way, but it appeared that his real purpose was not here...
Sure enough, in the next second, Lippi saw Mattock overtake at a high speed from behind Downing. His move also caught the attention of De Rossi and the Italian right back, Santon - an a.s.sist from the full back? Although it was an old trick from the book, it was still very useful and could be described as a cla.s.sic routine.
Now Santon was trapped in an impossible situation. Previously, Rooney had pulled to the side and Criscito did not follow, out of consideration for the stability of the overall defense. Instead, he let Santon guard the other party. Now there was also Joe Mattock on this side and there were three players within the small area, which suddenly kept him a little busy. In fact, Santon's qualities were in offense. He was fast, nimble, powerful break out ability and was excellent in crosses from the byline. He was average in defense. He mainly relied on his overall strength. It was unrealistic to let him face three players alone now. De Rossi noticed it, too, and he decided to help Santon.
These things were just flashes of thoughts.
Just as Mattock was plugging in from behind Downing, who acted like he was going to pa.s.s. But he suddenly zipped into the penalty area at a diagonal line!
De Rossi, who had changed his focus, did not expect Downing to break through so determinedly. He watched helplessly as his opponent broke through in front of his side and had no way of stopping it at all.
Before he broke through, Agbonlahor had pulled out and positioned at the penalty area line to receive. While the Italian defense also tacitly pressed forward and maintained along the same line as him. They knew that this man was fast and an effective way to deal with a speedy striker was to make him fall into the trap of being in an offside position.
Downing saw Agbonlahor being marked by Chiellini and pa.s.sed the football over.
The Italian defenders' personal skill level was quite high, especially for someone who was the team captain. Chiellini's defense was impenetrable. Agbonlahor felt that he could not guarantee that he could turn around while dribbling the football. Perhaps it could only be intercepted. Fortunately, he saw Downing continue to plug in after he pa.s.sed the ball and he knew what to do.
He immediately pa.s.sed the football over!
"A beautifully executed one-two combination!" Motson cried.
But he called it a little too early.
Criscito, Juventus' main full back, apparently had antic.i.p.ated that England would play such a combination. He locked in his position early and shoveled the ball out before Downing!
"Ah ha! A brilliant defense!" This time it was the Italian commentator's turn to cheer.
However, he called it too soon as well...
The football that was shoveled out by Criscito did not fall at the feet of the other Italian players such as Aquilani, but it was picked up by George Wood...
Wood did not stop the ball and then seek to continue the attack. Instead, while the Italian defense had not yet reacted, he directly kicked a powerful shot when the ball came!
The football flew out after a brush with the goalpost, hitting the billboard behind it and emitted a m.u.f.fled noise. It was as if it had hit the Italians in the heart, startling them.
The goalkeeper, Amelia tried his hardest to pounce over, but it was not enough to get to the ball. Wood's shot was very fast, and he was too late. If the ball had been shot within the frame of the goalpost, then it would be hard to say what the outcome would be...
Despite not scoring, Twain still stood on the sidelines to applaud England's attack just now.
He had not forgotten to glance at Lippi next door. The other man was sitting in a chair. But looking at him, it was as if he had been meaning to get up. Apparently Lippi could not sit still.
This is my gift to you for our first meeting. I hope you like it, wily old fox.
For the rest of the game, England had no intention of relenting, but it became more and more aggressive. Not only did Joe Mattock plug in frequently, even the defensively strong right back, Richards also tried to come up and coordinate with Walcott.
Wood was in charge of dispatching and diverting the ball in the middle while Gerrard was more of a shadow striker, threatening the goal guarded by Amelia with his long shots.
Rooney also used his strong body several times to look for opportunities in front of the goal and grab points of landing to shoot.
Only Agbonlahor's performance was mediocre. On the one hand, he was marked by Chiellini. On the other hand, his special feature was speedy attacks, rather than a target-man type of center forward. The Italian team withdrew its defense and compressed the s.p.a.ce in front of the goal, leaving him little room to play ...
Seeing his performance, the commentators expressed their views one by one on why Twain did not let Vaughan start, and brought on Agbonlahor whose performance was mediocre and consistently sluggish. Was is it because he was a Nottingham Forest player?
"If the England team ends up losing the final, I think this starting lineup position has to bear a lot of responsibility. Tony Twain has pushed himself and Agbonlahor into the fire pit."
"Agbonlahor's performance has made the England team play on the pitch as if there were only ten men fighting!"
"One of his best performances so far was just to coordinate a wall pa.s.s with Downing and kicked a pa.s.s. Tsk tsk, it's really an 'excellent' performance..."
Commentators from all over the world displayed their linguistic talents as they mocked Agbonlahor's performance.
In fact, Agbonlahor was really under great pressure. Although he was keen to play in the final, he did not expect to receive a chance in this way - James Vaughn was more qualified than he was but could only sit on the subst.i.tutes' bench. Was he really here on the basis that he was a "Nottingham Forest player?" It made him feel like a thief, stealing the starting lineup qualification from Vaughn.
There was always this idea in his head. How could he play well?
Maybe Twain had made a mistake in letting him start.
While Agbonlahor was playing like a sleepwalker over there, James Vaughn sat here on the subst.i.tutes' bench, staring at Twain's back with flames shooting out of his eyes. He had already planned in his mind that if they failed in the final, he would bombard this obstinate and self-opinionated man in front of the media.
He simply felt so aggrieved. Previously, he did not get any decent opportunities in the tournament. During his unexpected debut in the semifinal, he tried hard to save a desperate crisis by scoring two goals on his own. He had wanted to continue to be in the starting lineup with such a fine performance and make his mark in the history of English football. Unexpectedly, the manager's completely unreliable adjustment continued to put him out on the cold. However warm his b.u.t.tocks were, it would not warm the bench.
However, much he searched his brains, he could not figure out why Twain had made such a decision. Now as he watched Agbonlahor's poor performance on the pitch, he did not know whether he should be worried about the England team or show a little thrill for the success of revenge.
Twain did not have the energy to think about what Vaughn thought of being cold shouldered by him. He was taking advantage of a dead-ball opportunity on the field, shouting Agbonlahor's name.
"You better f**king act like a professional player! Do you want me to bring you off?! This is the final! The final of the UEFA European Championship! Do you know how many people want to be in your position, a**hole!"
Agbonlahor's performance somewhat startled Twain, infuriating him. His sleepwalking performance was entirely ruining his own arrangements. If he did not play properly, England's offense would be hampered in the first half. Then he would probably be forced to use defense to fight against Italy in the second half and drag the game to a penalty shootout.
Twain's words roused Agbonlahor. He suddenly understood his situation – Indeed, how could he think about whether he should be standing here in a game like this? The important thing was that he was already standing here, so he should consider his mission here.
He took a deep breath and tried to calm his emotions again.
Even if I have stolen the right to be in the starting lineup, so what? Am I not part of the England team? Am I not eligible to make my appearance in the starting lineup? Don't tell me that I can't score a goal?
If you all think I'm just playing an insignificant role and that only James Vaughan can save the team, that's good. I'd love to show you where you're wrong.