Italy talented enough to beat Uruguay
After the midnight dance with England in Manaus came the nightmare with Costa Rica in Recife. Italy now have to wake up and pull themselves together for their game against Uruguay in Natal on Tuesday if they are to qualify for the knockout stages of the World Cup.
"We mustn't think negative," insisted coach Cesare Prandelli. Unable to resist staring into the abyss and allowing dark thoughts to enter into print, the papers back home have contemplated the worst-case scenario: an early exit in back-to-back World Cups.
It hasn't happened to Italy in almost half a century [1962 and 1966]. "Speriamo di no," wrote La Gazzetta dello Sport, meaning "We hope not." The Azzurri hold their destiny in their hands. Two results out of three -- a win or a draw -- will be enough to see them through to the next round.
Encouragement can be taken from their last meeting with Uruguay a year ago. Italy twice went ahead in the Confederations Cup third-place playoff. On both occasions Edinson Cavani equalised. But a repeat of that 2-2 score line in 90 minutes (Italy ultimately prevailed on penalties) would suffice.
The team Italy fielded that day in Salvador was markedly different than the one expected on Tuesday. Christian Maggio, Davide Astori, Alessandro Diamanti, Stephan El Shaarawy and Alberto Gilardino aren't even in the squad. Riccardo Montolivo and Daniele De Rossi are injured.
On paper, Italy look better now than they did then against a full-strength Uruguay team. In practice, however, the impressions Italy have given so far in Brazil have been mixed. The high of beating England with "Tikitalia" was followed by the low of losing to Costa Rica. Whether that defeat can be put down to a bad day at the office -- a case of "second-game syndrome" -- has been the subject of postmortem debate.
Prandelli's selection was mistaken. In hindsight, he perhaps shouldn't have moved Matteo Darmian from right-back to left so Giorgio Chiellini could return to partner Andrea Barzagli in the centre ahead of the disappointing Gabriel Paletta. It broke up one of Italy's match-winning combinations against England: the Darmian-Antonio Candreva tandem on the right. Ignazio Abate couldn't replicate the same dynamic. Short of confidence and form, he was also at fault for Costa Rica's first goal.
Thiago Motta's inclusion in midfield ahead of the tired Marco Verratti also contributed to Italy losing some of their sense of invention, bravado and, crucially, rhythm to their play -- although much of the credit for upsetting that must go to Costa Rica and their intelligent pressing game.
Prandelli's changes also didn't make the impact he desired. Afterward, he said that he expected more from them. Antonio Cassano lost the ball more times in a half than his teammates who played 90 minutes. It was this "soft" attitude, plus the tactical and technical mistakes and imprecision, that Prandelli lamented after the game, rather than the stifling midday sun and the toll it exacted. "The heat is the same for everyone," he said.
But is it? In this World Cup, Italy have played in 30 degrees Celsius and 78.5 percent humidity on average. That's higher than anyone else. To put that into some perspective, Uruguay by contrast have been exposed to 21 degrees and 67.5 percent humidity, a much kinder average; take the temperature of their game against England in Sao Paulo, for instance. It was 12 degrees Celsius. Other countries like the Netherlands (14 degrees) and France (18) have also played at least one of their opening two games in cooler climes.
Italy have instead been "cooked and eaten," according to La Gazzetta. Claudio Marchisio complained of hallucinations after the England game in Manaus. Antonio Candreva vomited following the capitulation to Costa Rica in Recife. "We hope it rains in Natal," said Italy's doctor, Enrico Castellacci.
Italy's experience at the Confederations Cup in Brazil last summer and their pre-tournament training in a sauna appears to have gone only so far in mitigating the draining effect of the conditions. Italy ran 6 kilometers fewer against Costa Rica than they did when they faced England. Some have put that down to the deterioration of their physical condition. Others have instead claimed that Costa Rica did so well at compressing the space, playing a high line and executing their offside trap a record 11 times, that Italy had little or nowhere to run.
Whether Uruguay can do the same remains to be seen. Their game plan is different, after all. The victory over England has been interpreted as a turning point in their tournament. The stats, however, say otherwise. They had fewer shots on target (only 2), a poorer pass completion rate (63.8 percent) and less possession (37.5 percent), and they were forced deeper by England than against Costa Rica. As a collective, the prevailing wisdom is that Uruguay aren't great. The difference continues to be made by a great individual: Luis Suarez.
Italy kept him quiet a year ago -- remember, it was Cavani who came to the fore instead -- and must do so again Tuesday. Prandelli is expected to change the 4-1-4-1 formation with a Y-shaped midfield to the more dependable Juventus 3-5-2 that he has fallen back on in the past. The goalkeeper and defence all come from the Italian champions, as do Pirlo and Marchisio. It's a system the Torino players know well, too. Darmian will be restored to the right-hand side now that Mattia De Sciglio is fit again. Verratti should also return.
There is great anticipation at the prospect of seeing Ciro Immobile, the Capocannoniere (top scorer) in Serie A, perhaps start alongside Mario Balotelli. Immobile scored a hat trick and laid on two assists in Italy's final warm-up game with Fluminense, and the clamour for him to be more involved has grown and grown. He was left on the bench against Costa Rica, and Prandelli had the intention of throwing him on, only for Marchisio to pick up a knock and force the manager to rethink. Alessio Cerci was introduced instead. Immobile should now get his opportunity.
With El Pistolero (Suarez) and El Matador (Cavani) on one side, and Super Mario and Ciruzzo (Immobile) on the other, Italy-Uruguay promises to be quite a shootout. It's the last-chance saloon for qualification to the round of 16.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.