England 1 Italy 2: Highlights, key battles and what the result means
Published on Jun 15, 2014 8:56 AM
This was not your typical Anglo-Italian football war of attrition. England and Italy served up a spectacle of drama, despair and, quite simply, dynamic play to open their 2014 World Cup campaign.
In the end, a midfield masterclass from Andrea Pirlo proved decisive as the 35-year-old stylishly set up the Azzurri’s opener, before spearheading a 40-minute rearguard as his side held on for a priceless victory in Manaus.
Tipped to finally shine on the big stage, Wayne Rooney instead struggled in an unfamiliar left-wing role. His failure to track back hurt left-back Leighton Baines, who could not bomb forward as usual and was often outnumbered by Italy’s roaming flankers.
Captain Steven Gerrard was also found wanting as England’s youngsters searched for guidance but found little leadership and creativity in key moments. The Three Lions could have no complaints for losing their World Cup opener for only the second time since 1962.
– England got off to a bright start. Raheem Sterling’s scorching effort into the side-netting was followed up by Jordan Henderson’s snap-shot, which forced a smart parry from stand-in goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu.
– The game’s opening goal was a work of art. With a nonchalant dummy, Pirlo dragged marker Daniel Sturridge out of position on the edge of the box. Juventus team-mate Claudio Marchisio had the keys directly to goal, unleashing an angled grounder that powered past a fully-stretched Joe Hart.
– Barely a minute later, Rooney made his only significant contribution to the Three Lions’ cause. Latching on to Sterling’s angled through pass, the Manchester United forward curled a delightful cross right onto the feet of Liverpool hitman Sturridge to power home from close range.
– Another wondrous cross, this time from under-rated Italian winger Antonio Candreva, settled the score. Pouncing on Gary Cahill’s loose marking, Mario Balotelli was perfectly placed to nod home and cap off an unforgettable week when he got engaged.
Andrea Pirlo vs England’s midfield
Pirlo’s 95 per cent accuracy rate for 104 passes makes for grim reading for any player in a white shirt. Danny Welbeck tried and failed to stifle the Juventus maestro, who deftly found space for himself and his passes by timing his off-the-ball runs.
Playing further forward in England’s half, the veteran also outclassed Gerrard by bossing proceedings in the final third. Most importantly, he returned effectively to his favoured deep-lying role late in the second half to protect his backline as England piled forward.
In his seemingly inimitable languid style, Pirlo continues to defy age and critics. Who will bet against him leading the Azzurri to a repeat of their 2006 success?
Man of the Match
Unsurprisingly, Pirlo will dominate the headlines for yet another superlative performance. But credit must also go to Sirigu, who had to step in on short notice between the sticks for injured stalwart Gianluigi Buffon.
The Paris Saint-Germain custodian parried shots when he needed to, was faultless in distributing the ball and was - most impressively - a calming influence as his side withstood a late England onslaught.
What the result means
England cannot afford another slip-up on Thursday against Uruguay, who themselves are fighting to stay in the competition. Star striker Luis Suarez could return from injury to inspire his ailing outfit, who were shocked 1-3 by minnows Costa Rica. It sets up a fascinating battle up front with Liverpool team-mate Sturridge.
Italy could seal their passage into the knockout stage with another three points over the buoyant Costa Ricans. Goal difference could prove crucial in what will likely be a tight group that promises even more surprises.