After 120 minutes of scoreless domination, Italy finally secured their place in the last four at Euro 2012 with a 4-2 penalty shootout victory over England.
Alessandro Diamanti scored the decisive spot kick after Gianluigi Buffon pulled off the only save of the shootout from Ashley Cole. Riccardo Montolivo had given England an early advantage with his miss, but Ashley Young then struck the cross bar before Buffon grasped Cole's effort low to his left. Former West Ham man Diamanti showed little pressure as he sent his side through with a low left-footed shot that sent Joe Hart the wrong way.
England will mourn yet another major finals ended by penalties, but this time there could be little complaint about the outcome. Roy Hodgson deserves credit for getting the side this far with such little preparation, but England had rode their luck throughout the compeition and spent much of it on the back foot.
After the initial euphoria, Italian coach Cesare Prandelli may lament his side's inability to put England to the sword earlier, with the Azzurri now facing the challenge of taking on Germany on just three days rest after a grueling night in Kiev.
Italy controlled the match with Andrea Pirlo imperious in midfield and contributing heavily to his side making more than twice the number of passes as England. Despite failing to score, Italy's ball retention was far from aimless as they created a number of chances. But time and again opportunities came and went.
Mario Balotelli spurned several in the opening 45 minutes, while Daniele De Rossi and Riccardo Montolivo failed to test Joe Hart when well positioned after the break. After a bright early period, England had showed little ambition, with talisman Wayne Rooney looking desperately short of match sharpness in attack.
Featuring two closely-matched sides on paper, with a defensively-minded England, a tight encounter was expected. In drastic contrast, though, each side came inches away from taking the lead in a frenetic first five minutes.
Italy took the early ascendancy as they pressed high up the pitch and caught England cold. The spell culminated with Daniele De Rossi cutting across a bouncing ball from fully 30 yards that swerved away from Joe Hart but came back off the inside of the post.
The near-escape appeared to temporarily shock England out of their slumber. Roy Hodgson's side had a spell of 10 minutes where they played with far more ambition than the conservative game plan that has predominated for much of the tournament.
It was so close to paying immediate dividends. England worked it neatly down the right to create space for a deflected low cross from James Milner that fell to Glen Johnson, but with the ball stuck under his feet, the right back's poked shot was too close to Buffon who instinctively stuck out a hand to block the ball away.
Johnson, often a liability at the back, was having a fine spell giving a narrow Italian side all kinds of problems going forward. The Liverpool man produced a curled ball into Rooney, who couldn't control his diving header.
After the initial excitement, the match began to settle into a pattern many expected. Italy's progressive midfield started to control the middle of the pitch with Pirlo and Montolivo, making his first start of the competition, having a growing impact.
Pirlo produced two balls of the highest quality to demonstrate once more why he remains one of the best midfielders in the world. First he hit a long pass over the top to find Mario Balotelli being played onside by John Terry, but with Balotelli unable to take the ball comfortably in his stride, the former England captain got in a fine block. The Juventus playmaker caused further havoc with an angled ball to find Cassano at the back post, but Joleon Lescott did well to prevent Balotelli from getting onto the end of his striker partner's header.
Italy's domination only increased after the break as England became increasingly reactionary.
The chances kept going the way of Italy, with De Rossi having one of the clearest of the lot as he volleyed wide from point-blank range following a half-cleared corner. The pained expression on the Roma midfielder's face said it all.
Just minutes later Cassano struck a long-range effort that Hart parried straight to Balotelli who could only scuff his shot on the turn straight at the legs of the England goalkeeper and from the next rebound Montolivo volleyed over under challenge from Johnson.
The pressure was coming thick and fast from Italy and an Italian goal was beginning to look a matter of when and not if.
Hodgson responded by bringing on Theo Walcott to add a more attacking threat down the right and Andy Carroll to provide more of a physical presence in attack. The change almost paid immediate dividends as Walcott crossed in, Carroll caused a nuisance in the box and Young almost profited but his shot deflected just wide of the post.
Cesare Prandelli waited longer to make his first changes as Alessandro Diamanti came on, followed shortly after by Milan midfielder Antonio Nocerino. The pace of the game suffered in the closing stages, however, despite Italy and Pirlo's persistent probing.
The game briefly regained its excitement in the closing minutes of regulation time as first Nocerino was denied by a desperate lunging block from Johnson, before Rooney skied an ambitious overhead kick.
With Carroll now leading the line, England's play became even more divergent from the short passing style of Italy. Long balls were constantly fired toward to the Liverpool striker, who in fairness was doing a good job of holding it up.
Diamanti was proving an even more astute substitution at the other end, however. The Bologna attacking midfielder twice came close to preventing the need for penalties in the closing stages of extra time. First his in-swinging cross traveled all the way through to flick off the outside of the post, before he produced a chipped ball to the far post where an offside Nocerino headed the ball past Hart.
Italian celebrations had proved short lived on that occasion, but they would burst into full voice just minutes later as Diamanti etched himself into Italian history.