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Italy-England Preview

By SANTOSH VENKATARAMAN

STATS Senior Writer

(AP) -- LONDON (SE) - Another clash of powerhouses will determine the final semi-final berth at the European Championships on Sunday night when England and Italy renew acquaintances in Kiev.

Making their competitive debut under Roy Hodgson, England topped Group D with seven points. Wayne Rooney returned from a two-match ban to score the winner in Tuesday's 1-0 victory over Ukraine that buoyed the Three Lions' hopes.

"I am sure we can keep it going," midfielder Scott Parker said. "It's been a tough few games, but like anything when you come into a major tournament and are playing against the best teams in Europe, it's always going to be pretty tough."

Italy have shaken off the embarrassment of failing to win a match as reigning champions at World Cup 2010 with five points to finish second in Group C behind holders Spain. The Azzurri also have helped restore pride after a match-fixing scandal back home.

"We don't really take it as extra motivation - this team always has great professionals and great players," midfielder Daniele De Rossi said. "It's just a characteristic that Italians carry. Overcoming difficulties is in our DNA."

A major part of the spotlight will fall on strikers Rooney and Mario Balotelli, Premier League rivals at Manchester United and Manchester City, respectively.

"Wayne's a fantastic footballer and obviously I've worked closely with Mario and I think he's an exceptional footballer, too," England and City goalkeeper Joe Hart said. "It will be good for everyone to watch those two players doing their thing on Sunday."

Rooney is up to 29 international goals after his latest tally, and will face an Italian defence missing Giorgio Chiellini - out with a left leg muscle injury.

Andrea Barzagli returned from a calf injury in Monday's 2-0 victory over Ireland, and could be part of a three-man back line Cesare Prandelli has been employing with Leonardo Bonucci deputising for Chiellini.

"We've started to study him, although England isn't just Rooney," Bonucci said. "He's very skilled, but we need to play as a collective to negate their excellent quality up front."

The enigmatic Balotelli scored one of the goals of the tournament as a substitute against the Irish after tamer efforts in starts in the first two matches. England's City players are well aware of what he is capable of.

"He is a danger," England and City midfielder James Milner said. "There are two Marios. There is one who turns up sometimes in training and it is a bit cold and he is not too interested.

"The other time he really wants it, as I'm sure he will against England, and he is a special talent."

Another mouth-watering matchup is set in the midfield between England captain Steven Gerrard and Italy's Andrea Pirlo.

Gerrard, who has three assists, was outstanding in the win over the Ukraine while partnering well with Parker.

Pirlo has been talismanic throughout including a spectacular freekick goal against Croatia after proving many doubters wrong in leading Juventus to a title-winning unbeaten campaign in Serie A. He's part of a midfield that includes the dangerous Claudio Marchisio and Thiago Motta.

"The particular challenge with Italy is in the midfield area where they have a lot of very gifted and experienced players," said Hodgson, a former manager in Italy with Inter Milan and Udinese. "Players who are technically good on the ball."

The Italians appear to have an advantage with their deep stable of strikers that includes Antonio Cassano and Antonio Di Natale.

These sides haven't met since Italy won 2-1 in a 2001 friendly in Leeds. The Azzurri also won 1-0 in the only meeting at the Euros in 1980 in the group phase.

The winner will meet Germany next Thursday in Warsaw.

Updated June 22, 2012

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