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Jun 14, 2014

Prandelli gets his tactics right

2014 FIFA World Cup Group D: England 1-2 Italy

Italy's players followed Cesare Prandelli into the jungle and emerged, like Rambo, with First Blood. The Azzurri coach spoke before this game about the strength that can be drawn from an opening win and this already confident team will go into Friday afternoon's game against a tricky looking Costa Rica side in high spirits.

It must be said that victory against England wasn't taken for granted. Many had Italy down as favourites after their last encounter in the Euro 2012 quarterfinal two years ago, which was one of the most one-sided 0-0s in history. But the Azzurri anticipated a closer contest this time around and, though they went into it "without fear" -- as La Gazzetta dello Sport's front page proclaimed on Saturday -- they were wary of an opponent out for revenge and refreshed by new faces such as Raheem Sterling -- a player of pace and movement who threatened to ask serious questions of a defence lacking in mobility.

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Italy's preparations, informed greatly by last summer's experience of the Confederations Cup, had been meticulous. But as this game neared, Prandelli's best-laid plans were severely disrupted. After losing Riccardo Montolivo to a broken leg in the opening warmup game against Ireland and then deciding not to select Giuseppe Rossi on the basis that he didn't want to risk another relapse of the striker's knee injury, Prandelli sustained more casualties.

First, starting left-back Mattia de Sciglio strained a muscle and then, on the eve of this match, goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon sprained an ankle. The psychological impact of losing their captain and leader had the potential to spread doubt and uncertainty within an Italy defence that, in contrast to other tournaments, came into this one as a perceived weakness rather than a strength.

Salvatore Sirigu stood in between the posts. With all the resources Paris Saint-Germain have, the winners of back-to-back Ligue 1 titles don't have to play him in goal. They could go out and spend the kind of money -- some 50 million euros -- Juventus did to buy Buffon from Parma in 2001. That they haven't is a measure of the regard in which he is held by the French champions. Still, England immediately set about shooting from distance and putting crosses into the box to exploit any nerves he might have been feeling.

- Brewin: Three Points -- England vs. Italy
- Match highlights (U.S. only)

In light of the new weapons available to Roy Hodgson and the misfortune striking their own camp, the consensus was that a point would not be frowned upon by the Azzurri. And yet Italy took the lead from a well-worked corner. Andrea Pirlo ran over it, leaving the ball for his Juventus teammate Claudio Marchisio to set and shoot beyond Joe Hart from outside the area.

The disappointment was that Italy conceded an equaliser almost immediately after going ahead. Sterling turned and released Wayne Rooney whose cross was finished by Daniel Sturridge. It was symbolic of the danger England posed: a counterattack executed at speed. That was always in the back of Italy's mind.

However, they were the ones that came closest to a second before half-time. Mario Balotelli almost caught Hart out with a sublime lob that Phil Jagielka headed off the line, and Antonio Candreva hit the post. A combination between that pair after the interval put Italy back in front.

Candreva swung in a cross and Balotelli leapt at the far post to nod past Hart. It was no coincidence Italy's winner came from the right. Ineffective in this area in the warmup game against Luxembourg, Candreva kept pulling England left-back Leighton Baines inside, creating a motorway of space for right-back Matteo Darmian. Had his crosses been more precise, the Azzurri might have made England pay more.

Balotelli's goal, scored past his former Manchester City teammate, proved to be the winner for Italy.

As expected Italy held possession for long spells with Daniele De Rossi and the doppio-play or double playmaker system based around Andrea Pirlo and Marco Verratti in the middle. They weren't able to completely control the play nor make it tell as much as they perhaps would have liked. Much of the play was sterile, though it did appear to sap the energy from England as the game went on. It's evident that the tactic remains a work in process but there is promise. Isolated in the early stages, Balotelli later did get the support Prandelli demanded of Marchisio and Candreva.

The thinking behind their deployment is that, as midfielders who have the engine to run from deep, get into the box, and score, they are difficult for defenders to pick up. They don't give any reference points. Considering Marchisio scored and Candreva assisted Balotelli, one imagines Prandelli will be encouraged.

The manager's outstanding record in competitive matches goes on. In four years under his management, Italy have lost only twice in 90 minutes: the first was in the Euro 2012 final against Spain, the second to Brazil in the group stages of the Confederations Cup last summer.

For all the euphoria that a result like tonight's will bring, Italy are never ones to get carried away. Costa Rica confirmed Prandelli's suspicions that they could well be a trap game by winning their curtain raiser while Uruguay now need to win their remaining two matches to be sure of qualification for the knockout stages. The Azzurri, though, have once again reminded everyone why they deserve respect.

As Prandelli has often said, his team aren't among the best but they are capable of beating the best. No one will relish playing them.