England Euro dream shattered by penalties
Italy held their nerve in a penalty shootout to get the reward their dominance deserved by inflicting more spot-kick misery on England to secure the last Euro 2012 semi-final place.
A match that began in frantic fashion but slowed close to walking pace on a warm Kiev evening ended past midnight when Alessandro Diamanti calmly slotted low past Joe Hart to give the Italians a 4-2 shootout success after 120 minutes of stalemate.
Cesare Prandelli's side, who have confounded expectations with their run to the last four, now meet three-times winners Germany in Warsaw on Thursday, the night after holders Spain take on Iberian neighbours Portugal in Donetsk.
"We played a great game and deserved to win. They (Italy's players) haven't just been great, they've been more than that and then in penalties you always need a bit of luck," said Prandelli.
"We tried to play football we tried to bring them (England) out of their defence but they did not want to come out of their defence," he added after the match finished goalless following almost total Italian dominance in extra time.
Italy, chasing a first European title since their only triumph in 1968, had a tired England on the ropes for long periods.
Orchestrated by the intelligent and tireless work of midfield artist Andrea Pirlo, fresh until the end as younger team mates and opponents wilted, the Azzurri mustered 35 efforts at goal with 20 on target. England, by contrast, had just nine shots in total, but neither side could land a decisive blow.
The teams were meeting for the first time in more than 10 years in a competitive match and it was the Italians who came closest to scoring as they struck the woodwork twice and had a goal disallowed in extra time.
By contrast, England failed to trouble Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon after an early chance for Glen Johnson.
For England, standing only above the Italians as the penalty shootout failures of world football after a long line of spot-kick heartbreak in major tournaments, it was a familiar sorry tale.
"When we took it to penalties I was rather hoping this might be our tournament to win on penalties, certainly the practising didn't help us too much on this occasion," lamented England coach Roy Hodgson, suffering his first reverse since taking charge in May.
"For long periods of time it was an interesting tactical battle, We tried our best, we worked as hard as we could.
"We've gone out I think with our heads held high. I personally think the lads have done a fantastic job for the country and I also think people have appreciated it."
While the semi-finalists rest and regroup, France's tame exit from Euro 2012 at the hands of Spain on Saturday was greeted with unflattering headlines back home.
"Gone without trace" said L'Equipe, describing the team as having "no character" after the 2-0 quarter-final defeat in which the French barely troubled the possession-hungry holders.
France showed "no conviction", Le Journal du Dimanche wrote.
Laurent Blanc's side must now pick up the pieces after a tournament, which began brightly with a draw v England and a win over co-hosts Ukraine, ended with talk of player disharmony and a foul-mouthed rant at a journalist by midfielder Samir Nasri.
France also returned home from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa amid bitter recriminations following a player strike.
While Blanc was left to ponder his future after being linked with a move to the Premier League to replace the sacked Harry Redknapp at Tottenham Hotspur, Germany had the unwanted distraction of trying to track down a mole who has been leaking team lineups to the media hours before the start of games.
Without having the edge of a cold-war spy thriller, coach Joachim Loew is still keen to catch the culprit while captain Philipp Lahm said the person passing on information "has a problem".
Germany are also fretting over a nagging ankle problem for midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger who has missed some training sessions in the past few days.
Portugal will hope former great Eusebio makes a swift recovery in time to cheer the side on against Spain after he was described as being in a stable condition in a Polish hospital following a heart procedure.
"The news is good. Doctors are satisfied that his condition is stable and we will see where we will go from here," a Poznan hospital spokesman said.
The 70-year-old Eusebio, who has been admitted to hospital three times since December, was in the stands for the quarter-final win over the Czech Republic, cheering alongside former Portugal captain Luis Figo.