Balotelli Header Lifts Italy Over England In Group D Opener

Balotelli headed in the game-clinching goal in a battle of European powers. (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)

Balotelli headed in the game-clinching goal in a battle against a fellow continental power. (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)

Out to recapture its country’s faith after a disgraceful 2010 World Cup, the Italian national team took a bold first step in the process, notching a 2-1 victory over fellow European heavyweight England to commence its tournament schedule.

As for the Englishmen, they had plenty of their own concerns as well–living up to their usual unrealistic expectations. Often times playing apprehensively on the international stage, the Three Lions have in fact shed this image through one match, taking an aggressive approach early with shots that tested fill-in goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu (Gianluigi Buffon out with an ankle injury). Finding openings in the Azzurri defense with deliberate and upfield ball movement, the English demonstrated much more opportunistic playmaking and forcefulness in their actions–and not exuding an attitude of hesitation, trepidation, or over-cautiousness. In addition to constructive activity both on and off the ball and a much more fast-paced flow to their offensive attacks than Italy’s, English players exhibited nice chemistry–in terms of passing and creation of chances–between each other; perhaps this shows early signs that coach Roy Hodgson selected the most compatible combination of his players.

Yet Italy quickly attained a stranglehold on possession to commence the game, its defenders comfortably exchanging the ball among each other, before attempting long-pass connections to Mario Balotelli and other players up top. Bolstering the growth of an attack, the Italian midfield deliberately pushed the ball forward throughout the first half, invading the opposing goalie box. These efforts were fruitless until the 35th minute, when Andrea Pirlo brilliantly and tactfully widened his legs to allow a pass–stemming from a corner kick ground-pass play–to find Claudio Marchisio at the top of the goalie box unchecked, who subsequently executed a clinical finish. It was fitting that Pirlo essentially created this goal-scoring opportunity, as the veteran offensive architetto (his Italian nickname meaning architect) settled his team’s psyche with his own composure, when, prior to their goal, his fellow teammates turned slightly restless after several close English chances. Pirlo’s presence continued to have this calming effect, as he dictated tempo the entire match.

Sturridge performed his distinctive goal celebration after the tying the game. (GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images)

Sturridge performed his distinctive goal celebration after tying the game. (GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images)

But only two minutes later, England–in extracting only the best out of urgency in reaction to conceding a goal–ferociously pressed on a counterattack. Sprinting along the left side, Wayne Rooney centered a superb cross right into the path of a gliding Daniel Sturridge, who easily completed his clever run by knocking in the equalizer. Similar to the majority of the team’s threats, the 37th-minute goal emanated from a rapid but controlled run towards the net–embodying how the Three Lions flourished most when agility defined their game flow, having generally established a speedy and intense rhythm.

When the Italian attack clicked in the first half, it was a beauty to watch, made up of sharp, short, and ingenious ball movement compounded with an exquisite touch. The Italians nearly pulled ahead two more times in stoppage time of the first half–the leaping ability of English defender Phil Jagielka and a right-side goalpost the heroes in preventing goals.

However it didn’t take long after the start of the second half for the Azzurri to snatch back the lead. As the Italians pressured relatively quick down the right flank, midfielder Antonio Candreva produced space for himself with on-ball craftiness and fired a cross at the far post, to which Balotelli gravitated, gauging the trajectory of the ball better than his marker did and heading it into the back of the net.

Following the goal, England regained its offensive mentality and developed several dangerous chances, again showing desperation–but in a more useful sense of it–in response to facing a deficit. Despite an eventual defeat, it was very positive display of decisiveness by the English attackers. A group of fearless youngsters, once doubted prior to the tourney about how they would react to the spotlight, best expressed this idea of dispelling any hesitancy or timidity; so far, they’ve handled the stage expertly with a free-flowing and quick style.

Yielding a fair amount of shots on goal in early first half action, the experienced Italian defense gradually solidified throughout the course of the game, breaking down England’s inventiveness especially in one-on-one drives down the wings. Italy’s fullbacks simply shut down English attackers on the flanks and disallowed potentially dangerous crosses from entering the goalmouth, a development that became more and more clear as the match progressed into the last quarter of game-time.

Furthermore, late into the second half, the heat and humidity in Manaus eventually exhausted both teams, and especially weakened any remaining English onslaughts. Nevertheless, while the winner in Italy can rejoice in discovering the power of a creative offensive attack in conjunction with its traditional dominant defense, England should salvage some good from this game as well: a newfound electric and opportunistic style–arising from the effective mix of swiftness and explosiveness from younger players (particularly Sturridge and Raheem Sterling) and the leadership from older ones–was put on display Saturday, one that could certainly allow the Three Lions to prevail over their next two opponents in group competition.