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.

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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)