With the World Cup starting and excitement reaching fever pitch, England fans will be looking for the Three Lions to start strong in Group D. Italy are notoriously slow starters in international tournaments, England facing them first is the best situation for the possibility of a strong performance against the Azzurri. Labelled ‘The Group of Death’ by many, both teams will be hoping for the best possible start, with defeat for either team making their chances of qualifying from the group that much shorter.
Here are three important things that England must do if they are to have any chance of success against Italy. If they are not considered, we could see another instance like in Euro 2012, where Italy arguably played England off of the pitch.
1. Nullify Andrea Pirlo
Manchester United legend Paul Scholes recently called Pirlo ‘ the world’s greatest playmaker’, that is high praise indeed from someone who almost certainly falls into the same category. Andrea Pirlo may be 35 years old, but he still plays to the highest level, so much so that his club side Juventus have recently signed him to a further 2 year contract.
One concern that has surfaced, is the standard of the pitch at the Arena Amazonia. Due to the location in the north of Brazil, the pitch is dry and is looking bare in patches. This could affect both teams passing, although Italy’s possession play, with Pirlo as the fulcrum, could be massively nullified by the conditions proving a boost for England.
England must keep the ball better that they did when both teams met in Euro 2012, in this game, which Italy eventually won on penalties, Pirlo passed the ball more times than the entire England midfield. This can not happen again, England will have no excuses if they do not deal with Pirlo tactically.
2. Frustrate Mario Balotelli
Mario Balotelli is likely to lead the line for the Azzurri against England. A strong, explosive player currently playing for A.C Milan in Serie A. Balotelli is a world class player if left to play his own game and has the potential to cause England a lot of problems in Brazil.
If Italy manager Cesare Prandelli has kept fond memories of Balotelli’s form in Euro 2012, particularly his strong performance against England, then it would make sense for him to start Super Mario. Italy have also taken 24 year old Ciro Immobile to the World Cup, the leading scorer in Serie A this season with 22 goals for Torino. Many are calling for Immobile to start up front for Italy, whilst only young, he has a fantastic eye for goal and would be more of an unknown quantity for the England back line to deal with.
If Prandelli does start Balotelli, England will have to look to frustrate him at every opportunity, if given the space to shine, he is a player that thrives on confidence. A player who plays on emotion, although this can be both a gift and a curse for Balotelli. If the English are tactically astute in this game, their gamesmanship combined with the patient-melting climate, could wear Super Mario’s restraint to a thin slither. A frustrated Balotelli could mean he is a walking time-bomb of frustration.
3. Take advantage of the youth and speed in the squad
Although tactics, formations and player selections could all make a difference to this game, a hugely important factor will be the heat and humidity in Manaus. This has been a much talked about issue going into this game played in the north of Brazil. More unneeded intensity was added to the mix when the match was moved forward into the daytime and away from the evening in order to suit the English and Italian TV audiences.
England have a youthful squad this tournament and even the fittest and sharpest of players would struggle with the raw pace of a Raheem Sterling, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Daniel Sturridge. But in the stamina-sapping conditions of Manaus, these young talents can destroy reputations and leave defenders for dead. If these players do not start, they could be used effectively as a substitute, as Roy Hodgson tries to change the dynamic and bring on fresh legs.
The Three Lions could also bring on Ross Barkley on with 20-30 minutes left to play to inject some pace, vigor and unpredictability, the heat will be intense, legs will be tired and Italy will struggle against Barkley. The last 20 minutes of this game could be absolute key to the final outcome of this important Group D match.