The great thing about watching England at the European Championships has been the lack of hype and the lack of expectation. It's as if all the inflated talk of winning previous championships and World Cups has been put to bed. The 'golden generation' fluffed it's lines and the new generation has very little pressure from the media or fans regarding how far they can progress.
Of course all this has changed slightly as the competition has moved from group to knockout stages but the reaction has been restrained and in some cases focusing on potential opponents weaknesses rather than on our own. Spain apparently aren't the team they were and Germany have shown weakness at the back, both comments deflecting from the overwhelming feeling that, the match against Croatia aside, both teams are only playing as well as they need to. England on the other hand don't appear to have many 'gears' left and just as it was in Portugal in 2004, Germany in 2006 and South Africa in 2010 the boy Rooney has been that peculiar object of desire, the manchild who will carry England to the final.
Watching England has been a strange experience because there have been as many weaknesses as there have been strengths but the old adage of a side needing seven players to be at their best for that side to prevail has come true. Hart, Terry, Lescott, Cole and Gerrard have been good throughout. In the three games so far they have been supplemented by good performances from Young, Wellbeck, Carroll, Oxlade Chamberlain and Rooney. Parker, Johnson and Walcott have had their moments too.
The match against Italy tonight will be a good test of how far England have progressed, not since Roy Hodgson took over but since South Africa in 2010. Italy were so poor then that they finished below New Zealand in their group whilst England were just poor - even leaving aside the Frank Lampard 'goal' that wasn't and both teams have moved on in terms of management and personnel. The key to how well England do is how Parker and Gerrard deal with the De Rossi, Pirlo, Motta, Marchiso diamond and how well Italy deal with Johnson and Cole moving down either wing. James Milner's role in the side, apart from missing that open goal against France, seems to be restricted to protecting Glenn Johnson from opponents running down England's right and I imagine that will be his role tonight.
England can beat Italy of that I'm in no doubt, the area beyond Pirlo and in front of the Italian back four needs to be exploited and that is a role for Wayne Rooney. If Rooney has recovered that yard of pace he was so clearly lacking in the match against Ukraine and get close to Wellbeck then I think we can win. If however Pirlo and Motta are given the space behind Parker and in front of Lescott and Terry it could be a long night for England fans.