World Cup Day 13: Italy-Uruguay Game Log

Pre-game thoughts: Costa Rica’s match with England in Belo Horizonte will not be of utmost importance, but for an unlikely scenario: Los Ticos have shockingly already clinched the group–without having faced what has now become the group’s weak link in England–and will likely win it outright with a +3 goal differential and four goals scored in only two games. That leaves the Italians and Uruguayans to duel it out for a second-place finish and knockout stage berth (teams which have +0 GD/2 GS and -1 GD/3 GS, respectively, making it highly improbable that their victory even compounded with a Costa Rica loss would result in winning the group). The Azzurri enter the crucial game in Natal with an upper hand, as a draw would allow them passage into the round of 16 as well. But after a stellar first outing against England, the Italians were surprisingly trounced by upstart tournament darlings Costa Rica, a game in which several questions concerning Italy’s defense arose. With a truly powerful attack, one reinvigorated upon Luis Suarez’s return, Uruguay will prove a formidable opponent that has gained key momentum as of late. While the Uruguayans will seek to replicate their WC success–a process that extends with a victory against Italy–the Italians will want the same result (or a tie) to reclaim their sense of European soccer authority, and progress out of the group stages for the first time in eight years. With all the international talent from both sides involved, and the stakes being as high as ever for each country, Tuesday’s clash will surely be entertaining as it is competitive.

First half:

-Mario Balotelli has struggled to settle into his role in Italy’s altered offensive formation that has placed him up top with Ciro Immobile; frustration might have now sunk in for the mercurial striker, as Balotelli commits two dumb fouls within a minute that earn him a yellow card (his second in the tournament, meaning he misses the team’s second round game if they advance today)

-in the first 25 minutes of the contest, while the Azzurri controlled possession and mostly dictated the pace of the game, Uruguay developed more dangerous attacks composed of better runs and spacing in the offensive third of the pitch than their opponents; yet after this mark in the game time, the Italians have gradually begun to translate their ball control into more concerted and fluid offensive pushes

-a couple of quick and effective pass combinations lead to La Celeste penetrating the left-side goalmouth (from the perspective of the attakcers), signifying the best offensive chance for either side in this game–legendary Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon works his magic again though, getting a hand on two Uruguayan shots while situating himself well outside the goal line

-for a Uruguayan side that cannot settle for anything less than a win to advance, it’s a worrying sign that Italy has so heavily and overbearingly dominated the ball in this opening half, leaving with Uruguay with an inadequate amount of chances on goal

-the play of midfield talisman Andrea Pirlo often determines his team’s fate: through 45 minutes of action, he has had 46 touches on the ball, compared to 72 in his first game (a win) and 36 in his second (a loss) at the same halfway point in the game

Second half:

A stunned Marchisio contests his ejection. (GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images)

A stunned Marchisio contests his ejection. (GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images)

-Italian manager Cesare Prandelli abandons his Balotelli-Immobile combo experiment, subbing out Super Mario–who will see his next WC action only if Italy advances to the quarterfinals now–for 29-year old Marco Parolo, also electing to not take the risk of allowing a carded player to remain in the match

-as Uruguay begins to pressure the opposing goal more and more to begin the final half, it receives a massive help: the referee hands Italian midfielder Claudio Marchisio a red card for a dangerous tackle with his cleats up–though it doesn’t seem too egregious (perhaps meriting only a yellow), adding a controversial nature to such a significant, game-changing decision

-GK Buffon, who energetically and furiously sprinted to the other side of the pitch to contest his teammate’s expulsion, will factor in hugely in the remaining time of this game, spearheading his team’s primarly defensive effort playing with 10 men–so far, in the minutes following the red card, Buffon has risen to occasion and already saved a few Uruguayan shots

-despite Italy producing some attacking pushes, it’s feeling more and more like a hockey game in which one team has a power play (a 31-minute one for Uruguay) and the other must settle for clearances downfield (Italy); such a strategy will be effective–notably returning to the team’s traditional, defensive-first mindset–but if the Italians are to close out this game with a tie, they must attain control of the ball in the opposite half of the pitch in order to shave off at least some time

-it’s as if Luis Suarez needed to fulfill his notorious, questionable on-field character in order to truly jumpstart his team and propel it to victory: on the 79th minute, a tussle between Suarez and Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini in front of the goal ends with Suarez moving his head into Chiellini’s left shoulder and apparently biting down, as he’s done in two other infamous incidents in the past; interestingly, Suarez also goes down after the clash (a result of taking a hit to the face that doesn’t seem too harmful), perhaps learning from his past biting episodes that if the bitten player falls, he should do the same in order to hide and offset the infraction–then, just within a few minutes of this moment and subsequent dispute, Uruguay earns a corner kick, on which centerback Diego Godin capitalizes with a header (that in fact bounces off his upper left back) to give his team a 1-0 lead (81′)

-a chaotic flow to the game ensues, as while Italy must press forward to look for an equalizer, the team also sustains a few dangerous counterattacks, that fortunately amount to nothing; until the game’s end five minutes into stoppage time, the Italian bench bickers and clamors vehemently–likely stemming from the red card shown to Marchisio and lack of one to Suarez by the referee–with one of the team’s trainers getting sent off, and other bench players and coaches helping to collect and pass balls to on-field Italians to speed up play; finally, about half a minute past the allotted five for injury, as every member of the Uruguayan coaching staff surrounds the line judge and frenziedly motion to their wrists to signal that the final whistle is overdue, the tense and frantic match concludes, as Uruguay advances to the knockout stages, and Italy fails to do so for the second consecutive time in the World Cup

Godin (3) knocks in the go-ahead goal to vault Uruguay into the second round. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Godin (3) knocks in the go-ahead goal to vault Uruguay into the second round. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

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World Cup Day 8 England/Uruguay: England’s Woes A Matter Of Efficiency

With a discouraging 2-1 defeat to a Uruguay squad led by a familiar face in Luis Suarez, England now lies on the brink of World Cup survival. To advance out of Group D, the English would have to beat Costa Rica and then need Italy to topple both Costa Rica and Uruguay, with Costa Rica losing either of their next two games by at least two goals.

Yet despite having sustained losses (both on 1-2 counts) to Italy in their first game and most recently Uruguay in their second, the Three Lions possessed the upper hand in shot categories during these two games, and thus developed more goal-scoring opportunities than their foes. Much of this disparity could result from a combined 84 minutes that the team has trailed so far (42 in each of their WC matches)–the opposition adopts a more defensive mentality once obtaining a lead, so most of the Englishmen’s activity would take place in their offensive third of the pitch–but it still doesn’t explain how England faltered in the most important statistic in the game: goals.

Consider the following table, that includes the total shots, those on and off target, and those blocked, below:

Total shots On target Off target

Blocked

England

18 5 11 2
Italy 13 4 8

1

England

12 6 5 1
Uruguay 8 2 5

1

Assuming an advantage in nearly every one of these measurements of a team’s efforts towards goal, and notably in the most significant and insightful ones (totals shots and shots on target), England did more damage with its attack than either of its two opponents.

But that’s when efficiency with these attempts and offensive drives factors in prominently–taking into account the outcome of these shots. In terms of shots intended towards goal, Italy converted two of their 13 (15.4%) while England did so on one out of their 18 (5.6%) in the first game, and Uruguay slotted home two of their eight (25%) with England at just one for 12 (8.3%) in the second game. Upon evaluating the percentages of shots on target that resulted in goals, these numbers become all the more striking and noteworthy, as well as further vital to understanding the Three Lions’ struggles: the Italians scored on two of four SOG (50%) and the English did so on one of five (20%), and in the second match, the Uruguayans scored on each of their two SOG (100%) whereas the English went one for six (16.7%).

The distinction between the offensive effectiveness of England and its competitors is unmistakable. Italy and Uruguay have maximized and took full advantage of their opportunities; though producing fewer than England in number, these two teams better capitalized on their chances, and outperformed England in the facets of clinical goal-scoring ability and finishing. So as much as the Three Lions contain youthful talent and dynamic attacking capabilities, they are evidently lacking in the most significant offensive aspect–an inadequacy that, as of now, will likely undo the team, and grudgingly send them home earlier than expected.

2014 FIFA World Cup Group D: Three Talent-Ridden Contenders, Only Two Survivors

Balotelli, Rooney, and Suarez (clockwise from left to right) will hope to finish off their respective nation's offensive attacks.

Balotelli, Rooney, and Suarez (clockwise from left to right) will hope to finish off their respective nation’s offensive attacks.

As top-heavy as any other group in the tournament, Group D presents the classic South American-European clash, plus one. A pair of consistent powers from Europe along with a resurgent soccer nation–that has not fielded a team this good in at least 40 years, if not since the 1930 and 1950 championship squads–will fiercely vie for World Cup survival, all three sides certainly deserving entry into the knockout round. With all this hubbub at the top, it leaves outsider Costa Rica squarely out of the mix, and before the groups stages have even commenced. Los Ticos will maintain their stingy manner of play on the pitch, and pack it tight in the back with goalkeeper Keylor Navas (who had a huge role in qualifiers), but with inexperience, youth, and a relative dearth of talent, will struggle to do more than act as spoiler to the hopes of the other three teams.

Three-way fight to the death 

Italy

No longer are the Azzurri simply defined by tenacity and emphasis on defense; rife with potent attackers, and marked by creativity and technical preeminence, Italy has gradually evolved into a dangerously balanced side–and one primed to avenge a catastrophic 2010 World Cup showing.

Nevertheless, the team will still hold fast to their usual ways of securing control of the game through efficient ball movement, setting the pace and dictating tempo, and exerting a resolute defensive effort. Pedantic and deliberate as it moves up the field to attack, the Italian team will still retain its classic style of play, amid also experimenting with different lineups and structure, particularly in regards to the back line. Lagging behind in terms of pace when playing opponents comes with the territory of an older team, yet even then, if Italy imposes their style on a game, the result is a decreased need for a high level of endurance.

Pirlo (21) will hope to celebrate in Brazil in what will probably be his last World Cup.

Pirlo (21) will hope to celebrate in Brazil in what will probably be his last World Cup.

But in Brazil, the Italians will attack more than ever, having a top-flight striker Mario Balotelli at the core of the offense. The A.C. Milan player must put the stamp on Italy’s offensive drives, and continue his efficiency as a finisher, revealed during UEFA qualification and previous friendlies, especially in the penalty box: he netted 10 goals on 27 shots since Euro ’12, and five on 10 during qualifiers in this area near the goal. Also, it’s crucial to the team’s collective offensive prospects for Balotelli to trend away from his mercurial nature and more towards a dependable, team-oriented character. Nevertheless, with “Super Mario” working alongside 35-year old talisman Andrea Pirlo–who still acts as the backbone of the attack with unparalleled vision and touch–in addition to a plethora of other viable, proven options, the Italian attack will boast a powerful mix of experience, organization, dynamism.

Moreover, the Azzurri will have available a near-perfect blend of experienced countrymen that have both endured triumphs (2006) and hardships (2010), and a crop of youthful rising stars. And that’s on top of the factor of unity: the group enters the tourney with 20 of 23 players on the roster regularly interacting on Italian club squads, meaning that Italy will be as cohesive a team as ever. World-class goalkeeper and captain Gianluigi Buffon will also play a significant role in making up for any shortcomings by a sometimes-shaky back four, so the defensive third of pitch is once again covered well.

England

Even with slightly lowered expectations going into this tournament, the pressure still seems as strong on the English to succeed. In Brazil, The Three Lions will continue to employ a characteristic defensive mindset in terms of the team’s likely formation on the pitch, and possess a group of gifted midfielders that pack the best clubs in the Premier League. The team is not suited to play the possession game, nor will rely much on any counterattacks; rather, they will build from the back with a stout defense, utilizing the same approach as in past World Cups. Therefore, the English will again put forth a very simple and basic style of attack: launching the ball forward with long passes and connections aimed at Rooney and other fellow attackers up high. Rooney, despite only 28 years old and leading the roster in international goals, remains an enigma on the WC stage; however, the team still banks on the now fading hopes that the volatile striker will finally deliver consistent production. When him and captain Steven Gerrard become active offensively and forcefully press upfield, the rest of the team benefits on the attack. In general, the midfielders and forwards are mostly untested and young, which consequently tasks coach Roy Hodgson with discovering the right formula, fusing athleticism from youngsters with the experience of the veterans.

Uruguay

For La Celeste, the performance of striker tandem Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani will determine how far the team goes. Perhaps no other nation possesses such power up front, as the duo can ravage opposing defenses even just playing amongst themselves. But Uruguay does has several skilled playmakers to surround and facilitate the two forwards, coming up from the midfield position; these additional members–whose ages range from 23 to 34, and play for clubs in England, Brazil, Spain, Italy, and Mexico–are just as vital in helping the Uruguayan attack function.

Uruguay will count on Cavani (21) to regain his top form for the WC.

Uruguay will count on Cavani (21) to regain his top form for the WC. (Clive Rose/Getty Images South America)

As game-changing and dangerous the aforementioned two strikers can be in Brazil, there remains some skepticism: Suarez is currently nursing a knee injury and will have to battle through this ailment for however long he stays on the pitch, and Cavani comes off an underwhelming season at the club level with Paris Saint-Germain. The two should still dominate once they conjoin on the field, and it bodes well that the team only has its first true test on the 19th against England, granting Suarez more time to heal. Regardless of the condition of these two, Diego Forlan, who rose to international prominence in South Africa four years ago, is a more than viable option off the bench. The 35-year old adds useful experience and leadership to the Uruguayan squad; the country’s leader in all-time caps and goals in official matches, Forlan can easily provide an important offensive boost in the role of a substitute.

After playing poorly for West Brom in the EPL last season, captain Diego Lugano still anchors an unstable defensive line that along with the goalkeeping, linger as weak points in the Uruguayan lineup. But it would be foolish to disregard the presence of 28-year old Diego Godin, whose stalwart play for La Liga champs Atletico translates to instantly fortifying an otherwise deficient supporting cast. And despite a disconcerting CONMEBOL qualifying campaign characterized by inconsistency–and included having to win an international playoff to advance to Brazil–Uruguay has seemingly put their woes behind them, performed strongly as of late, and enter the WC with some momentum.

The verdict 

Initially, I had Group D as yet another producer of two UEFA teams for the knockout rounds. But after more consideration, a bigger conundrum revealed itself regarding England. The likelihood of advancing to the knockout round for The Three Lions hinges on their opening match in the tourney: if they can muster enough might to play up to par with and tie a fellow European force (and in doing so proving their status as one themselves), the English will probably take about four more points in their last two games, adding up to a 1-0-2 record good enough to progress out of the group. But if Italy wins the first game, then the Azzurri might not be so overwhelmingly strong as to sweep the entire group for nine points–indicating a potential draw with La Celeste in each team’s final group match, and leaving England behind in the dust.

Furthermore, location of play is often of paramount significance in the World Cup–and not only to determining the eventual champion. A combination of Italy likely emerging victorious from its first game, coupled with the dynamic and influential attack of Uruguay–bolstered by playing in its home continent–should spell doom for England: a team whose players regularly lack confidence on this stage for fear of making the smallest of mistakes, and that fails to have a special, intangible factor that helps distinguish itself and push it over the hump.

Key match: England vs. Italy, June 14th

Predicted Finish:

1) Italy (7 points)

2) Uruguay (5 points)

3) England (4 points)

4) Costa Rica (0 point)