Gerrard, Parker key to England's Euro 2012 advance
KRAKOW, Poland (AP)
They are the enforcers who have powered an unheralded England side into the European Championship quarterfinals.
Captain Steven Gerrard, the catalyst in central midfield, has created three goals alongside the combative Scott Parker, who has tirelessly protected the back four.
''Myself and Stevie have clicked really well this tournament,'' Parker said. ''We're well organized. I know his game pretty well now and I'm sure he knows mine. We give the team a good base to work from, and hopefully we can maintain that.''
Despite injury troubles in recent years, their energy and tenacity has been unrelenting as a gritty side went through the group stage unbeaten and is now preparing to face Italy on Sunday in Kiev.
''I am sure we can keep it going,'' 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.''
As Wayne Rooney took the plaudits for making a goal-scoring return from suspension in Tuesday's 1-0 victory over Ukraine, it was Gerrard who set up the header as he sprayed balls into the danger zone while also maintaining English discipline as they faced waves of attacks.
''He's been our man of the match in all three games, playing a captain's innings throughout,'' coach Roy Hodgson said, reverting to cricketing terminology.
The 32-year-old Gerrard, who has won 95 caps, has set up three of England's five goals at Euro 2012 despite playing in a deeper role.
''We have all come to see Stevie in an attacking role playing further up the pitch,'' Parker said. ''But when you have the qualities and the abilities of Steven, you can adapt into it pretty well and I think you are seeing that now.
''He's obviously got a bit more of a defensive role, but in saying that, he has produced some great assists since he's played.''
Gerrard's leadership qualities have shone since the Liverpool skipper also assumed the national captaincy that was removed from John Terry because of the defender's looming racism trial.
''Steven has been a fantastic player for many, many years,'' Liverpool and England teammate Glen Johnson said. ''But with the armband I think he feels he needs to step up just that tiny bit more, and I think he's done it more than anyone so far.''
A tournament-ending thigh injury for Frank Lampard meant Hodgson didn't have to solve the conundrum that has vexed England coaches over the years: how to fit Lampard and Gerrard in the same team.
But Parker was an injury doubt after missing the last four matches of Tottenham's season with an Achilles' injury, and a painkilling injection was required to hasten the recovery, ensuring the holding midfielder would make the Euros.
''We lost some big players who had to drop out through injury like Frank and Gareth (Barry), which was disappointing,'' Parker said. ''But myself and Stevie have taken on the challenge and hopefully we can carry on.''
After winning his first four caps under four different managers, the 31-year-old Parker only established himself as an England regular during qualifying for Euro 2012.
The key role given to him by former coach Fabio Capello has remained under Hodgson, enabling Parker to make his tournament debut here.
Tuesday's appearance against Ukraine was only Parker's 16th since making his debut nine years ago.
And he's hoping to win another three caps at Euro 2012 to reach the final.
''We have a real togetherness and commitment in the squad and, ultimately, that can get you a long way,'' he said. ''We've seen that last season with Chelsea (winning the Champions League) and other teams.
''Fundamentally, they are the main key ingredients of why we can go and progress further. It's going to be a very tough game against an Italian side that are very well prepared and organized, with individual qualities. If we carry on doing what we are doing, we can maybe upset them.''
They will have to contain the heartbeat of the Italy side: playmaker Andrea Pirlo, who managed two assists and one goal in the group stage.
''You want to pit your wits against the best,'' Parker said. ''Pirlo is one of those - the clips I have seen of him in this tournament, his passing ability, his control of the game is fantastic.''