Flank factors set to be big
RECIFE, Brazil -- Friday's Group D encounter between Italy and Costa Rica may be decided by whichever team's wide players can impose their will on their opponents.
The Azzurri and the Ticos both rode impressive flank play to gain victories in their opening matches, vs. England and Uruguay respectively. For Italy, Andrea Pirlo was his usual majestic self but the right-sided duo of Matteo Darmian and Antonio Candreva also had an impact, as they constantly pushed into the attack. And with England's Wayne Rooney often cheating forward, Darmian and Candreva continually found themselves in numbers-up situations against left back Leighton Baines.
Granted, Rooney did evade the attentions of Darmian shortly after Claudio Marchisio's opener, with his cross leading to Daniel Sturridge's equalizer, but the combination of Darmian and Candreva proved so problematic that England manager Roy Hodgson had Rooney switch sides at halftime and placed Danny Welbeck in front of Baines.
It didn't work.
After being set up by Darmian, Candreva's cross found Mario Balotelli at the far post to nod home the game winner.
For Costa Rica, it took a bit longer for the Ticos' wide players to make their mark. In fact, it required manager Jorge Luis Pinto to suggest at halftime that Cristian Gamboa and Junior Diaz push further forward in order to have an impact. That they did. It was Gamboa's cross -- after good work from Cristian Bolanos -- that found Joel Campbell in the box, and he duly fired home the equalizer that signaled the start of the impressive fight back that ended in a 3-1 victory.
So which team will benefit from its wide play the most on Friday? Unfortunately for Italy, it looking more and more like the partnership of Darmian and Candreva will be broken up. With center back Gabriel Paletta delivering a disappointing performance against England, it looks like Giorgio Chiellini will move back to the middle.
Combined with the fact that left back Mattia de Sciglio is still battling a muscle strain, it now looks as though Darmian will switch to the left side, with Ignazio Abate taking his place on the right. Abate certainly has the mobility to get forward, though his defensive deficiencies may make such forays unadvisable.
There is an added benefit to the changes, however, in that they position Darmian and Marchisio to do battle against Gamboa. And given that Costa Rica operates out of a 3-5-2 alignment, there figure to be plenty of spaces out wide to exploit.
Of course, Costa Rica already has shown an ability to force teams out of their comfort zone, with Bryan Ruiz and Bolanos combining with Gamboa to overload one side of the field against Uruguay. They'll no doubt try to create the same kind of situations against Italy.
Let the battle of the flanks begin.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.