Former France captain Patrick Vieira has admitted he thought Italy were heading for a premature Euro 2012 elimination.
Cesare Prandelli’s men recorded a victory against the Republic of Ireland and credible draws with both Spain and Croatia to advance from Group C and set up a quarter-final tie with England.
However, Vieira confessed he has been pleasantly surprised with the showing Italy have put in thus far, and feels the last-eight clash with Roy Hodgson’s side is too close to call.
“I’ll admit it: I thought Italy would go out in the first round,” he told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “Instead, I saw a team with character and mentality that can play together. That’s what it takes to win tournaments like this.
“That, and the quality of people like (Gianluigi) Buffon, (Andrea) Pirlo, (Daniele) De Rossi. I even had doubts about (Mario) Balotelli before the tournament.
“The England v Italy watch will be very balanced. And perhaps it will be a long game – I’m not ruling out penalties.”
Speaking about England, Vieira believes Hodgson’s team are improving, and that they have benefitted tactically from Fabio Capello’s time in charge.
“Against France, they were so afraid that they almost gave up playing. Without (the injured Frank) Lampard and (Gareth) Barry, and with (Wayne) Rooney suspended, they were very restrained,” Vieira said.
“The turning point was against Sweden when they grew in confidence by winning. They’re a physically strong team. They learnt a lot tactically from (Fabio) Capello.
“They have Rooney and especially (Steven) Gerrard. Whoever wants to beat England needs to stop him because he’s in great form.
“England have Rooney, (Danny) Welbeck and (Andy) Carroll up front, and are very strong. But if Prandelli says that he plays three or four at the back depending on the type of opponent, it’s because he knows his team as well as anyone.
“Traditionally, Italian teams almost always find a way to limit the strengths of their opponents.”
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