Ukraine, Jun25: For 120 minutes, Andrea Pirlo mesmerized England with his unrivaled passing skills, single-handedly controlling the pace of a European Championship quarterfinal with a uniquely personal rhythm.
Then at a decisive moment in Sunday's penalty shootout, with the adrenaline pumping furiously through the veins of all those involved, Pirlo again set the rhythm, slowing down his spot kick so much that he made goalkeeper Joe Hart look like a fumbling fool.
That's why they call him the midfield maestro.
In an Italy squad filled with skillful players, their playmaker is quite possibly the most skillful of them all.
At 33, Pirlo has proved time and again that he is still in his prime. He led Juventus to an undefeated Serie A season and the Italian title last month, a year after AC Milan gave up on him.
In all, Pirlo hasn't lost a Serie A match since Dec. 18, 2010, having also gone the second half of the 2010-11 season undefeated with Milan. With him in charge, Italy is also undefeated in competitive matches over the past two years—having compiled 10 wins and four draws since its first-round exit from the 2010 World Cup.
Against England on Sunday, Pirlo's expertise was on display from start to finish.
In the 25th minute, his long vertical pass set up Mario Balotelli with only the goalkeeper to beat, although the 21-year-old striker couldn't take advantage.
In the 41st, he found Antonio Cassano deep inside the area, which also almost led to a goal from Balotelli.
Then in the 52nd, Pirlo took his own crack at the target, producing a difficult save, but Balotelli and Riccardo Montolivo couldn't take advantage of the ensuing rebounds.
Still—after scores more of his perfectly executed shorter passes—the lasting image of Pirlo from this match came midway through the shootout. Italy was trailing 2-1 after Montolivo had missed and England star Wayne Rooney had put the Three Lions ahead.
Pirlo stepped up to the spot and kicked a shot so soft that it floated in after Hart had already leaped and hit the ground. Italians call such a delicate chip shot a “cucchiaio”—spoon. Elsewhwere, it's known as a “Panenka”, after Antonin Panenka's pioneering spot-kick for Czechoslovakia decided the 1976 European Championship final against West Germany.
Francesco Totti used the “cucchiaio” with a similar kick in Italy's shootout win over the Netherlands in the semifinals of Euro 2000.
“I saw the goalkeeper was really energized, so that's why I kicked it like that. It was easier that way,” said Pirlo, never one to express himself with too many words. “From that moment on the English were under pressure.”
In fact, England failed to convert its next two penalties. First, Ashley Young banged a shot off the crossbar, then Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon smothered Ashley Cole's effort to set up the winning strike from Alessandro Diamanti.
“The sort of, cool, calculated way that Pirlo had the confidence and chipped the goalkeeper is something you either have as a player or you don't,” England coach Roy Hodgson said. “There is no amount of training or coaching that can teach a player that.”
Hodgson knows Pirlo from when the pair were both at Inter Milan in 1999 -- Hodgson as caretaker coach and Pirlo as a budding talent. Before Sunday's match, they were seen embracing as the squads arrived at the stadium.
Daniele De Rossi knows Pirlo even better. They are Italy's two most experienced midfielders, and two of just four remaining members of the squad that won the 2006 World Cup—along with Buffon and defender Andrea Barzagli.
“If I have to choose one lasting image of the match, I would say Pirlo's penalty,” said De Rossi, who had two excellent scoring chances, hitting the post once.
“I haven't seen a shot as crazy as that since the times of Totti,” added De Rossi, who plays at Roma with Totti—who retired from the national team years ago.
In Italy's second group match vs. Croatia, Pirlo scored with a curving, free kick in the first half of a 1-1 draw—the first goal in the competition scored directly off a free kick since Marek Heinz of the Czech Republic found the target with a set piece against Germany at Euro 2004.
In all, Pirlo has made 87 appearances for Italy, with 10 goals.
In the semifinals Thursday, Italy faces Germany, just like in the 2006 World Cup, when Pirlo's pass set up a goal in extra time for Fabio Grosso that led to a 2-0 win.
Six years later, Pirlo's passes are still perfect—and his timing is impeccable.