And so history repeated itself. Just like the 1990 World Cup and 1996 Euro semi-finals, England exit another major tournament thanks to their inability to put the ball in the back of the net when it matters the most – a penalty shoot-out.
The nail-biting conclusion came after over 120 minutes of tense football, with England's opponents Italy coming dangerously close to cutting the Lions' dreams short via a thunderous shot on goal from De Rossi and multiple through balls forward, all of which Balotelli was incapable of capitalising upon.
England apppeared to have lost some of the determination and cohesiveness displayed in the group stages, crumbling up front several times and appearing dejected as more time passed. Great defensive work, spearheaded by an impressive John Terry, saved England multiple times, but an underwhelming attacking performance eventually left us at the whim of the Italian midfield, with Pirlo being allowed to run riot with passes through the English back line.
As the full-time whistle was blown and both teams readied themselves for extra time, it looked increasingly likely that England would find themselves in a dreaded penalty shootout. This was unfortunately the case, as the game remained a goalless draw and both teams readied themselves for the spot-kicks.
Balotelli was the first to take one for Italy, confidently striding up to the ball and slotting it into the back of the net as if the previous 120 minutes of missed opportunities had never happened. Gerrard stepped up for England, finding no trouble with making it 1-1 despite the cramp he had suffered in his right leg throughout the match. Montolivo then looked to put it into the bottom left corner for Italy, but his shot went wide and, as Rooney hurtled the ball into the back of the net with a thunderous shot, instantly contradicting his frankly shambolic performance in front of goal during the rest of the match, for a minute or so it seemed as though England had finally been rewarded with some good fortune and that Euro 2012 may have finally been the tournament where they mastered the art of the penalty shootout.
Unfortunately, that was not to be the case. As Pirlo expertly delivered a confident penalty past the defiant Joe Hart, who spent the shootout attempting to physically intimidate his opponents with his movement and facial expressions, it was Ashley Young's turn to bring England one step closer to that semi-final with Germany. But history dictates that Young hit the crossbar, followed by a soft shot from Ashley Cole which Buffon easily saved to send England back home.
When all is said and done, England's performance in the tournament was an admirable and encouraging one. Roy Hodgson, who lest we forget raised the ire of many a fan mere months ago, has suddenly found himself to be one of the rarest of things – a popular England coach. His work with this inexperienced squad in such a short amount of time has proven his credentials as a manager and, under his guidance, the disappointment of exiting another major tournament should soon be outweighed by optimism for the future of this national team.
Header Image: Mirror, Inset Image: The Sun