Alessandro Diamanti struck the decisive penalty as Italy edged past England 4-2 on penalties to set up a UEFA EURO 2012 semi-final meeting with Germany in Warsaw on Thursday.
After an electrifying opening in Kyiv, the imperious Andrea Pirlo took the baton and much of the game took place at his sumptuous tempo. Yet Italy were never quite able to crown his regal approach play. The threat of the counterpunch was always there, and remained even after the end of the 120 minutes when Riccardo Montolivo missed his spot kick. Ashley Young hit the bar, however, and Gianluigi Buffon denied Ashley Cole, allowing Diamanti to calmly slot in.
This was a quarter-final that began as it ended – with heart in mouth. Either side could have been ahead inside five minutes. First Daniele De Rossi rattled the upright from all of 30 metres with a vicious, sliced half-volley that was always arcing beyond the scrambling Joe Hart's hopeful hands.
Back came England, and Glen Johnson ought to have broken the deadlock when James Milner's deflected cross perfectly intersected his run. The ball got caught under his feet, though, and his weak shot was in the end comfortably clawed away by Buffon. The pace was not about to relent just yet, either.
Italy's forward forays were studied, full of elegance and elan as Antonio Cassano and Pirlo picked at England's defensive line, looking for a chink in the armour. Roy Hodgson's men embraced a more direct approach, with Johnson their battering ram down the right. The manoeuvre was no less effective – Leonardo Bonucci, starting in place of the injured Giorgio Chiellini, and the excellent Ignazio Abate both made key interventions.
Gradually Johnson was put back in his place, at right-back, as the Azzurri found their rhythm. They also discovered a new attacking ploy: rather than try to blast a hole through England's defensive wall, they sought to scale it. It so nearly brought rich reward. The tactical master Pirlo was the brains behind it, releasing Mario Balotelli with a fine lifted ball and it took a brilliant block from the vigilant John Terry to keep it 0-0.
Cassano almost released his strike partner in similar style before he and Pirlo combined to fashion the chance of the half as the interval approached. Pirlo's raking cross to the far post found Cassano, whose header back into the box landed perfectly for Balotelli – only for Manchester City FC club-mate Joleon Lescott to get there first, superbly spearing the ball over the bar. The Italy assault resumed after the restart, however.
De Rossi lashed wastefully wide, Hart denied Balotelli and Montolivo fired over with the goal at his mercy. The majestic Pirlo was at the heart of Italy's ascendancy, beating even substitute Andy Carroll in aerial duels and simply unstoppable with the ball at his sage feet. The breakthrough seemed only a matter of time – it never came, more heroic defending from Johnson denying Antonio Nocerino at the death to force extra time.
The additional half-hour came and went with relatively little incident, save for an Diamanti cross that evaded everyone before hitting the upright and a Nocerino header that found the net but also the assistant's flag. Penalties had no lack of incident, including an audacious chipped Pirlo effort. And then it ended as it now has six of the seven times England have endured a major tournament shoot-out – with their defeat. Italy go on, though they will be without the suspended Christian Maggio against Germany.