England-Italy figures to be highlight

So, the Euro 2012 tournament awaits its final semifinalist, and Sunday’s battle between England and Italy for that last spot should be one of the highlights of the monthlong championship. England, the Motherland of the sport, against Italy, the four-time World Cup champion. The gray, reserved, unflappable English vs. the colorful, stylish, emotional Italians.

Both teams have rich soccer tradition, and despite their long history, this is only the third time they have met in a major championship. Italy beat England 1-0 in the 1980 European championship, and again 2-1 in the third-place playoff in the 1990 World Cup. The two nations have faced each other nine times in total since 1977, with Italy winning eight of those matches.

But this England squad is feeling quite confident after a five-match unbeaten streak under coach Roy Hodgson, who has a good grasp of the Italian ways after coaching Inter Milan in the late 1990s. He knows the Italians play great defense, as do the English, who rely on the long ball rather than Spanish-style dribbling to push the ball forward.

“If we can go about the job in the way we are doing at the moment we will make a game of it and who knows what will happen?” Hodgson said.”It will be another even encounter, another game that will swing either way. The good thing is we are there, we are taking part and still in the competition and we want to be in the competition because we have really enjoyed it.”

Fox TV analyst Warren Barton, who was born in England and played there, said fans in his country are “hopeful” the team can reach its first major semifinal in 16 years. If England wins win, its semifinal opponent is Germany, which beat Greece 4-2 on Friday.

“This English team has already exceeded expectations by winning its group over France,” Barton said. “ Wayne Rooney was waiting to come into the spotlight, he got his goal against Ukraine, and we hope this is his time to shine. Both teams are doing well and think they can win, which makes it fascinating. Of all the quarterfinals, this is the toughest to call.”

English fans who complain that their team has underachieved “need a reality check,” Barton said.

“We have to be realistic,” he said. “People talk about [England’s World Cup title in] 1966. Italy and Germany have won multiple titles since then, and now Spain is winning, too. But we are very proud and passionate about our team, and soccer is our No. 1 sport. The expectations can suffocate players, as [tennis player] Andy Murray and LeBron James know.

“But we’re very optimistic with Roy Hodgson, and in a good mood with the Queen’s Jubilee and the Euros and the Olympics coming up. Maybe it’s our turn.”

The English might play a bit cautious because Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole, Ashley Young, James Milner and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are all just one card away from missing a potential semifinal.

Italy coach Cesare Prandelli has to make changes on his back line following the injury to Giorgio Chiellini, who is likely to be replaced by Leonardo Bonucci.

“We all know the English character, they never hold anything back but they also have some good creative players,” Prandelli said.

Italian midfielder Daniele De Rossi said England still exhibits some of the Italian style of former coach Fabio Capello.

“England are a very Italian team,” De Rossi said. “You can see the signs, from Fabio Capello to now, with Hodgson. One is Italian, one worked in Italian football. Hodgson was managing in Italy with Inter Milan, so his teams know how to play defensively and then attack. They will have very good players on the flanks but also be a really compact team.

“It won’t be easy.”

TV ratings soar

U.S. viewership for Euro 2012 is up 82 percent from the 2008 tournament. Through the group round, ESPN was drawing an average of just over 1 million viewers per match, which is comparable to the ratings for PGA third round (1.4) and the Detroit Tigers vs. Cincinnati Reds (1.6). The Spain-Italy match drew a 2.1 rating, better than all 2008 Euro matches except the final.

The top market for Euro 2012 has been New York City (1.9), followed by Miami-Ft. Lauderdale (1.8), Los Angeles (1.3) and Providence, R.I. (1.3).