Three Points: Italy defeat England
MANAUS, Brazil -- Three thoughts on Italy's 2-1 win over England in their 2014 World Cup opener in Group D.
1. England fade in the heat
England could not dig deep enough. With even those sitting on the bench dripping in perspiration from the oppressive Amazonian temperatures, this meant going into the red zone; Raheem Sterling's spring heels cramped up badly and Steven Gerrard's movement became increasingly ginger.
Roy Hodgson's team initially thrilled in attack but eventual disappointment resulted from deficiencies in defence. The bravery of his formation was in vain. In what has been a hugely entertaining World Cup so far, England played their part but were picked off by far greater tournament nous. A match played at half the pace of a Premier League encounter suited the Azzurri far better.
Patience is the virtue of Italian football whereas England could not resist chasing after chances. At first, the athleticism of Danny Welbeck and Sterling opened up great holes in Italy's defence, but too often chances were snatched at. Daniel Sturridge's equaliser was a goal of rare beauty, but its silkiness was not repeated in a second half where English technique became sloppy once energy levels faded.
Mario Balotelli enjoyed scoring against the country he found such a difficult place to live. Netting in the fifth minute of the second half gave England time to chase but they could do little with it. A free kick by Leighton Baines, swept away by Gianluigi Buffon's able deputy Salvatore Sirigu was as close as they came once Wayne Rooney -- sublime for one moment, disappointing for the rest -- had dragged a shot wide.
Both Italian goals came from the right hand-flank. Glen Johnson had been the English full-back fear but it was Baines who proved the weak link, though it must be said he was exposed by Hodgson's flexible formation never giving him nearly enough help. Antonio Candreva's cut in from Baines' flank and ball to the far post found Balotelli alone save for the despairing attentions of Gary Cahill.
After Costa Rica beat Uruguay, a draw would have been decent for England; Hodgson was delighted by the quick fashion that Sturridge's goal had cancelled out Claudio Marchisio's opener. Instead, Italy are in Group D's driving seat, and England's match with Uruguay now has a look of a sudden-death encounter.
2. Hodgson's choice
Hodgson, inveterate gambler: who knew? England began a tournament with their most attacking formation since Kevin Keegan began Euro 2000 with Paul Ince as a sole holding midfielder behind five attackers. This time, Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson doubled up, with the aim of providing freedom for four players for whom attacking is the stock-in-trade but the end result was the same as Keegan's folly.
This was no team to contain in the fashion that Hodgson has made habitual throughout his coaching career and tried to do at Liverpool, which added a certain irony to his trusting of Reds players to carry out his new-found attacking philosophy. Rotational flexibility between the front four of Rooney, Welbeck, Sturridge and Sterling was the plan and there was sense to it; all four have played across the frontlines for their clubs over the years. Adam Lallana was dropped in favour of Sterling, after never quite looking the threat the Liverpool flier can be. Suspect energy levels may have counted against the Southampton captain; he rarely completes 90 minutes.
When the Italians attacked, the foursome fanned out across the field. Rooney was required to chase back. It was once one of his strong points but he kept exposing Baines on his flank whenever he drifted out there.
Sterling's early burst through the middle and shot that had half the stadium believing he had scored showed his danger through the centre. The same agonised sound came from the England fans when Welbeck's dart and inside pass from the byline almost reached Sterling. Only last-ditch Italian defending got the ball from danger.
Flexible, varied, speedy England: we never thought we could see the day. Rooney, who had looked resistant to the new methods in the build-up matches, produced a golden moment in supplying Sturridge's equaliser a minute after Marchisio's opener. His ball from the left was pearling, the equal of Sterling's fantastic pass to Rooney on the left; Sturridge took his chance. It was almost certainly Rooney's finest moment yet at a World Cup finals, the type of attacking verve seen all too rarely in England teams.
Unfortunately for England, Hodgson's approach was too imbalanced for his team to be successful.
3. Pirlo peerless once more
Andrea Pirlo held no truck with the suspect playing surface. He strolled around in princely style, the ball always under control, the next pass clearly thought out, and the one beyond that, too. Long and short, his passes found their target, just as he always find space, even at the walking pace he plays the game.
Hodgson had said there was no special plan for Pirlo and was true to his word. Playing further forward than the base of midfield from where he has starred for so long, Cesare Prandelli was trying to prevent his playmaker being exposed to England's athletic bursts. Daniele de Rossi and Marchisio were there for the dirty work, while Pirlo's successor-in-waiting Marco Verratti was an auxiliary passmaster for England to think about.
Matteo Darmian's shuttle run down England's left and nod back across goal might have provided Balotelli with Italy's opener. Baines and Rooney were to be seen holding frantic discussions on whose job it was to stop Darmian, the most regular target of Pirlo's crossfield sliderules.
Marchiso's goal came from the resultant corner. Pirlo's majesty played its part in making the dummy that opened out the space for Marchisio to drill his shot beyond Joe Hart. Whether it was training ground routine perfectly executed or the result of improvisation, it was superbly carried out, a reminder of the invention that lies at the heart of Italy's success in international football.
They were too experienced for England, held on grimly when pace threatened them, and then pounced expertly when the opportunities arose.