ITALY take control of Group D after a 2-1 decisive victory over England.
Scorers: England; Daniel Sturridge 37’, Italy; Mario Balotelli 50’, Claudio Marchisio 35’
This was never going to be anything less than intense and so it proved. Helicopter blades throbbed in the sky overhead, as two old foes eyed each other as if pacing out the steps in the moments prior to a duel, before trading quick first-half goals.
But a decisive headed goal at the start of the second-half from Mario Balotelli means England have much to do in their last two matches to qualify for the knock-out stage. Roy Hodgson’s side will have regrets but this was a consummately carried out operation by Italy, who did enough to merit victory against a side who had initially looked buoyed by youth, with Hodgson electing to select the teenage Liverpool winger Raheem Sterling in an adventurous line-up.
Balotelli is hardly tender-aged, but he is still only 23. Here he again made the headlines with the winning goal, as Italy’s perhaps more sophisticated mix of youth and experience prevailed on an absorbing evening of football.
Few were surprised at the tightness of the outcome but there was some astonishment expressed at the level of entertainment on offer, particularly given the conditions. The thermometer remained stubbornly around the 30 C mark. Humidity hovered at about 60 per cent – not as bad as feared, but uncomfortable enough, and not only for the players.
It was why when English physio Gary Lewin was spotted being stretched off shortly after England’s 37th minute equaliser through Daniel Sturridge the natural instinct was to suspect heatstroke. However, it later emerged that he had broken an ankle while celebrating.
It was a night of thrills and spills in the stadium where the lattice roof made up of diamond-shaped panels is designed to look like a snake’s skin. There were twists, and there were turns, with England’s quick response to Claudio Marchisio’s 34th minute strike taking many by surprise, including, it appeared, Italy. But the Azzurri managed to compose themselves again, and, excluding half-time, took only another 12 minutes to edge back in front.
It was the cunning Andrea Pirlo who proved every bit as influential as the England fans had feared in the middle of the park. The veteran made this unusual spot for a football match in the middle the Amazon seem like the most natural place in the world for him to weave his wizardry.
The area is famous for being where the dark waters of the River Negro and the sandy water of the Amazon meet but do not merge. And here, too, was a game of two distinct styles. As much as Hodgson clearly wanted to hurt Italy with the pace provided by Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck, Italy ensured that they were once who would dictate the rhythm of the game, and they controlled the match for most of the second-half after Balotelli’s intervention.
The AC Milan striker cleared enough space for himself in the middle of the rainforest to prompt action from a conservation group. Gary Cahill completely lost the man he was meant to pick-up, although it was a catalogue of errors from England. Leighton Baines, who endured a difficult evening, handed the excellent Antonio Candreva too much time and space to cross.
Given events in Fortaleza earlier, both sides knew that victory would allow them to steal a march on Uruguay, cast by some as potential Group D winners. Where does defeat now leave England? Not at the bottom of their group, certainly. But they now know there is little room for margin in Sao Paulo on Thursday, when they play opponents who are similarly desperate to get their campaign up and running.
At least they have likely seen the last of Pirlo for a while. He stroked the ball around with the insouciance of someone dangling his feet from the side of an Amazon river boat while keeping a loose grip on a fishing rod. His fluorescent yellow boots would not have helped attract any nibbles. In the middle of a football pitch, however, they proved mesmeric.
Often, it was as much about what these feet didn’t do, as what they did. The deft dummy that led to Italy’s opener after 34 minutes was a thing of beauty; it was fleeting glimpse of beauty; like a rare creature scuttling out and then back into the rainforest.
When the ball arrived at Pirlo’s feet from the right, everyone expected him to do what he usually does, which is caress it, consider his options and lay it off again. On this occasion, however, he simply lifted his leg to leave Sturridge wondering what had happened, a wheeze that helped create abundant space for Marchisio to line up a shot on goal.
The Juventus midfielder was every bit as composed as his club and international teammate, as he rolled the ball in front of him with one foot and then hit a sweet strike into the corner of the net from 20 yards with the other. As for Pirlo, it was just another piece of chicanery to add to his repertoire of tricks visited on England.
Up until this point Wayne Rooney had not been faring well, despite his insistence that he was desperate to give everything in an attempt to finally shine on this stage. Although he was certainly providing industry, he was showing all the signs of someone not completely enamoured with being handed a role wide on the left.
While Welbeck, Sturridge and Sterling had license to roam, or at least change positions with one another, Rooney looked forlorn, out of sorts and, even, slightly out of shape on the flank.
But he did seize one moment. While not the goalscorer, his contribution to England’s equaliser was every bit as pivotal as Pirlo’s had been in the run-up to Italy’s opener. His run and cross was swept in at the back post by Sturridge, who looked England’s most dangerous attacker until he was taken off for Adam Lallana towards the end of the second half, with England running out of ideas and energy.
Sterling, however, started brightly, and even appeared to have given his side the lead in only four minutes with a shot from just outside the box. The ball hit only the side netting despite giving the illusion that had swept past Salvatore Sirigu, who replaced the injured Gianluigi Buffon in the Italian goal.
It wasn’t the first time that England would have their hopes raised and then dashed again. But Italy, who also hit a post through Candreva and the crossbar via a Pirlo freekick in the dying embers of the game, deservedly triumphed in this first compelling World Cup adventure in the Amazon.