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England, Italy exceeding expectations at Euro 2012

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KRAKOW, Poland — Italy is restoring pride in a tarnished national game while England is shaking off past inhibitions.

The European Championship is turning out better than expected for the English and Italians, who meet on Sunday in the quarterfinals.

The Italians are providing a welcome distraction from another match-fixing scandal at home after setting out in the tournament under siege from fans — and the police.

England also entered Euro 2012 at a low ebb after a hastily appointed new coach was given the task of putting together a team which could just compete credibly.

But they've already managed to register a first competitive victory over Sweden and triumph over the host of a European Championship when they beat Ukraine to advance as group winners.

In Kiev on Sunday, England's task will be to chalk up a more significant first — beating a major footballing power in the knockout rounds of a tournament away from home soil.

Not surprisingly, coach Roy Hodgson believes that victory would give England "a bit of an extra glow.

"It would put one of those nasty statistics for a team of England's stature to rest," he said.

Previous knockout victories outside England have been restricted to the World Cups against Paraguay (1986), Belgium and Cameroon (1990), Denmark (2002) and Ecuador (2006).

England's last meeting with Italy in a tournament saw the hosts win the third-place match at the 1990 World Cup. Italy also defeated England 1-0 in the Euro 1980 group stage.

While England is battling the weight of history, the Azzurri are progressing at Euro 2012 despite Italian football being immersed in police investigations. It's not unfamiliar territory for the Italians, who won the 2006 World Cup after a domestic footballing scandal.

Defender Leonardo Bonucci remains in the squad despite being investigated for allegedly helping fix matches while he played for Bari in Serie B in 2009-10.

Keeping the Euro 2012 run going is helping to restore some pride in Italian football, though the side plays down the trouble 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."

Pride appears to have been restored in the England team for very different reasons.

Fabio Capello's sudden resignation in February threw the side's Euro 2012 plans into turmoil. But like Italy, the English progressed through the group stage unbeaten and even the public back home appears to be falling back in love with the team.

"There's definitely a spirit there," midfielder Scott Parker said. "People say spirit doesn't win you tournaments, but ... ultimately, that's our base. I'd like to think we have that base back."

"Trust me," he added. "It goes a very long way. You don't want to be surrounded by negativity, or reading things that aren't nice about yourselves or the team."

The team has been immersed in Italian influences since 2008 due to Capello.

And the man set to lead the Italian strike force is also very familiar to them: Manchester City's Mario Balotelli.

England players will also know just how easily the hotheaded striker is prone to losing his cool on the pitch. So will they try to rattle him?

"I'm too much the purist coach to go along that line ... I'm sure if he misbehaves they'll have a word in his ear," Hodgson said.

Wayne Rooney up front for England is every bit as prone to allowing his fiery side to boil over. After all, he was forced to sit out the first two group stage matches after being suspended for kicking an opponent in the last qualifier.

But Italy captain Gianluigi Buffon said: "He's the driving force of their team."

To stifle Italy's flair, Hodgson has stressed the need to remained disciplined just like in the previous five unbeaten matches since he took charge.

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

Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker could have a busy night in the Ukrainian capital shackling Andrea Pirlo, the passing and set piece maestro.

"We'll make certain the wide players won't get themselves too wide to leave gaps to the side of our central midfield players, and one of the two front players will drop a bit deeper to avoid the two central ones being dragged forward," said Hodgson, who worked with Pirlo at Inter Milan.

While England has no injury problems, Italy on Sunday could sorely miss top defender Giorgio Chiellini, whose tournament could be over due to a leg injury.

That isn't concerning another defender, Leonardo Bonucci, too much.

"From the play shown thus far we can say that Italy is stronger than England," he said. "But other factors come into play on the pitch, such as ruthlessness and the desire to win, which we don't lack."

Rob Harris can be reached at http://twitter.com/RobHarris

AP Sports Writer Andrew Dampf contributed to this report.