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Jun 13, 2014

England v Italy: 50-50 Challenge

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The city of Manaus was hit by a tropical storm ahead of their opening match between England and Italy on Saturday.

Our expert bloggers will give their thoughts ahead of each game so as England take on Italy Group D, John Cross (England) and Mina Rzouki (Italy) are your guides.

What's at stake?

John Cross: There's so much focus on this game because England were knocked out on penalties by taly so recently in Euro 2012. Italy were much the better team, Andrea Pirlo ran the show and it's going to be another tough test for England. But we will know after Saturday how far they've come under Roy Hodgson.

The pre-match headlines have been dominated by worries about the Manaus stadium pitch, which looks very poor as it is patchy, brown and has lots of sand on it. But both teams' fear is that whoever loses this game will struggle to get through the group which -- statistically -- is the hardest in the World Cup. So, expect a cagey draw!

Mina Rzouki: Both have won the trophy, both possess a fervent love for the sport yet their philosophies differ entirely. One side enjoys the glory, the sweat and a passionate heart while the other is about cynical efficiency, a soldier mentality.

Having faced each other 24 times, the statistics are somewhat similar yet when it comes to the crunch matches in the big tournaments, Italy have a tendency to prevail. While Uruguay are considered the other big team in the group, they have stagnated in the last two years, thus making the match in Manaus a potential fight for first place in the group. A win would ease the tension and make for a more relaxed journey going forward.

- Manaus pitch gets FIFA 'treatment'
Bjorn Kuipers to ref Italy vs England

X factor

JC: Wayne Rooney is England's main man. This will be his third World Cup, but he's yet to score in the tournament and if he wants to be known as world class then he has to shine on the biggest stage of all. What more motivation can you have?

He has not been in great form for Manchester United this season, largely because of fitness, and is still lacking match sharpness but should come good for England. The emergence of Raheem Sterling should be something to keep an eye on, given the injury to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain but realistically, if England are to do well then Rooney must show up.

MR: It's almost too easy to pick out Pirlo as the man to watch and it already has been noted that England will take special care of him. As such, Cesare Prandelli is likely to play another playmaking genius alongside him in Marco Verratti and it is perhaps he who will prove a handful for the English.

Genius with his geometric passes and a much more tenacious approach than Pirlo, he's young, he's determined and his vision on the pitch, coupled with his tactical intelligence, may well prove key. That will especially be true if Ciro Immobile starts as the duo share a certain chemistry having played together for Pescara.

England are desperate to adopt an attacking approach but with Verratti on the pitch, it will be harder than ever for Hodgson's men to dominate possession, while then PSG man's defence-splitting passes can penetrate the most resolute of defences.

Fear factor

JC: Pirlo, Italy's veteran playmaker, knows what it takes to beat England. Italy don't have a classic squad, in fact they lack depth and quality throughout. A national debate is raging between whether Mario Balotelli or Ciro Immobile should play up front, but whoever it is will rely on Pirlo.

The Juventus midfielder is clever, a great passer and keeps the ball well. He's 35 and has said he will retire from his national team after this tournament, but he will be crucial if Italy are to keep the ball in hot temperatures. How they will manage without him is a question for another day.

MR: Playing Pirlo and Verratti will mean Italy's defence might suffer and there's nothing that terrifies an Azzurri back-line more than pace. While there are many English stars who can upset the Italians, such as Rooney -- whose sheer talent overwhelms any back-line -- it is Sterling who may well prove to be England's secret weapon.

Energetic and boasting a deadly shot, Italy will fear the fast feet of the Liverpool player who enjoys nothing more than proving a handful for his marker. Considering the Azzurri's lack of mobility at the back and the fact Verratti can concede possession cheaply, it's vital the defence stays alert to stop Sterling from having the kind of impact he is capable of and has managed in the big games.

Roy Hodgson and Cesare Prandelli both have hopes of topping Group D, which makes their opener all the more exciting.

Key battle

JC: Steven Gerrard v Andrea Pirlo -- While they are not in direct opposition, the midfield battle is key to this game. Manaus has scorching temperatures, high humidity, and you cannot afford to waste any energy. Pirlo sits deep, tries to dictate the game and will be crucial for Italy's gameplan.

Similarly, if England are to do well, then they will have to rely heavily on Gerrard to try and boss the midfield. Whichever team wins the battle in the middle of the park, surely wins the game. And whomever comes out on top between Gerrard and Pirlo will do a lot for their team's chances.

MR: Yep, agree with John there. It's Gerrard v Pirlo. With both sides looking to dominate possession and control play, the key battle will be between the Liverpool and Juventus schemers. Who will be better at pushing their team forward?

The aim of the game for both men will be to raise their team's lines, pushing their side forward to force their counterpart into a deep position on the field, thus limiting their impact. Providing the necessary service to the forwards,the onus will be on both stars to dictate the tempo, to keep hold of the ball until the right moment a perfect pass can be dispatched to penetrate.

Prediction

JC: A 0-0 draw looks likely. The heat, conditions and the fear of losing the opening game in one of the toughest groups will make it a very tight affair.

MR: A 1-1 draw. While Italy may be blessed with a technically gifted side that understands how to keep and control possession, England's pace and athleticism may well trouble the Azzurri considering the climate conditions. The first match for both sides, one expects a cautious affair thus a draw seems a reasonable bet.

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