Arena Amazonia, Manaus
Saturday, June 14, 2014; 23:00 Hrs GMT
Of all the eight groups in the competition, Group D is the trickiest one. Italy, England and Uruguay constitute three of the most competitive sides in world football today and yet none is an outright favourite to bag the ultimate prize. The neologism ‘group of death’ has been in practice for quite a few years now and nearly every major tournament in the modern times has invariably produced a group where a winner is impossible to pick. On the third day of the finals as Group D kicks off, Uruguay are at a very distinctive advantage of playing the weakest opposition – Costa Rica – first up and open the gap at the top even before Italy or England kick a ball. But the game that matters is between the latter two.
The Euro 2012 quarterfinals between these two sides can serve as the recent most memories of a competitive encounter between them – one that English supporters would not be thinking very fondly of. Andrea Pirlo, the genius with ball at his feet dictated the proceedings for over two hours at the end of which England were decimated without conceding a single goal. Roy Hodgson’s side is a seemingly different one two years from that day and has surely evolved tactically. Italy on the other hand have been steady but unspectacular under Cesare Prandelli but have enough players in their roster that can be relied upon to deliver on the big stage. A tasty encounter is definitely in store with both sides being pretty keen on registering a win to deny Uruguay a chance to open up a lead.
Team News & Tactical Brief
If Roy Hodgson has learned his lessons from Kiev, the last thing he’d let his side offer Andrea Pirlo is space. England chose to sit deep enough during the Euros and paid the price heftily. You offer Pirlo space and time on the ball and you inevitably invite trouble your way. In order to stifle Pirlo for space and deny him the time that he much cherishes on the ball, Hodgson has to have his men press the Italy playmaker and in process, mark him out of the game. Wayne Rooney and Jordon Henderson are two men capable of carrying out this job to a great impact. 4-2-3-1 formation makes complete sense in this case with Henderson lining up in the midfield double pivot alongside skipper Steven Gerrard. The Liverpool duo is coming off a very successful premier league season having performed at consistent levels in the Merseyside club’s incredible second place finish.
While Gerrard will primarily be restricted to ball winning and retention duties, few are unaware of his attacking prowess and particularly his shooting range. Henderson on the other hand is a workhorse and his relentless runs up and down the pitch should prove to be very crucial. Another of Liverpool’s star performers of the season, Raheem Sterling should also reserve himself a starting position ahead of a more experienced and better built James Milner. Sterling, apart from possessing an enviable technique, is a very mature customer for his age and his telepathic understanding with Gerrard and Henderson only adds to his strengths. Italy’s fullbacks aren’t the quickest in the world and should Sterling successfully drag them out of position with his pace and trickery, it will be very hard for the Azzurri defence to regain shape.
Manchester United talisman Wayne Rooney should start at the tip of the attacking midfield in the centre and although his record in World Cup tournaments is pretty uninspiring, Rooney is the kind of player you’d want to rule out at your own peril. Southampton’s Adam Lallana should occupy the left wing ahead of an injured Danny Welbeck. Daniel Sturridge, another Liverpool star coming off an extraordinary season shall lead the attacking line being the only target-man up front. Sturridge’s goal-scoring form was top-notch all throughout the season and he flourishes a few yards deeper too creating chances for his teammates. The England attack overall is pretty dynamic and one that if plays to its potential, should keep the rigid looking Italian defence on its toes for 90 minutes of football.
The defence may seem a little suspect on the right wing with Liverpool’s Glen Johnson defending the flank who isn’t exactly famous for his positional sense. However, Leighton Baines on the other flank is one of the better fullbacks in the premier league and contributes immensely to the attacking moves too. The central defensive partnership of Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka may not seem the best on paper but both have had a very impressive season and are known for carrying out their jobs with utmost precision.
Probable Starting Lineup [4-2-3-1]: Hart; Johnson, Cahill, Jagielka, Baines; Gerrard, Henderson; Sterling, Rooney, Lallana; Sturridge
In his four year long tenure with the national side, Cesare Prandelli must be credited for injecting the much needed belief in his squad especially after what transpired in 2010. But it will still not be unfair to suggest that he is a man of limited tactical repertoire. Prandelli has predominantly deployed a couple of variants of a 4-3-1-2 system with a few odd instances of 3-5-2 to show for in between. And it won’t be very wrong to assume he’d have preferred carrying on with the midfield diamond had it not been for AC Milan skipper Riccardo Montolivo’s unforeseen departure from the tournament after fracturing his shinbone in one of the warm-up games.
Of those Prandelli has at his disposal to find a replacement, Marco Verratti is the likeliest candidate to get the nod ahead of his more seasoned PSG teammate Thiago Motta. But Verratti’s inclusion immediately calls for a change in the tactical shape. Zdenek Zeman’s aversion for trequartistas on a football pitch has meant Verratti has long been converted into a classic deep lying playmaker who could also be deployed on the either side of the regista to operate box-to-box. Another important tactical aspect worth pondering over is, Italy must have a counter-measure to England’s pressing tactics to prevent Andrea Pirlo from being marked out.
The only logical alternative is to distribute the passing channels to a greater degree and operate with two regista – Pirlo and Verratti that is. In what could loosely resemble a 4-1-3-1-1 shape, Daniele De Rossi should act as the ever so reliable shield to the defensive line and will be the key passing machinery to engineer counter-attacks. This allows Pirlo additional freedom to drag the play sideways, spend more time on the ball and find the defence splitting long pass. Claudio Marchisio should complete the midfield starting from the left but he should often be seen venturing further forward linking up with the players in more advanced positions.
Controversy’s own child Mario Balotelli will be the focal point of the Italian attack. The Milan forward has had anything but an inspiring season with the club and the likes of Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne are constantly knocking at the doors for a starting place in the side. Balotelli must realize the situation and waste no time in announcing his arrival. Alessio Cerci is expected to start in the hole right behind the striker but one might safely assume, Antonio Cassano will have a role to play at some point in the game.
The biggest blow to the Azzurri ahead of their tournament opener is the news of fullback Mattia De Sciglio having picked up an injury that rules him out of this game and remains a doubt for the rest of the tournament. This should mean Giorgio Chiellini is shifted to left while in an all Juventus centre-back pairing, Leonardo Bonucci should join Andrea Barzagli. Young Torino fullback Matteo Darmian has impressed one and all with his performances for the Turin club and richly merits a starting place above AC Milan’s Ignazio Abate.
Probable Starting Lineup [4-1-3-1-1]: Buffon; Darmian, Bonucci, Barzagli, Chiellini; De Rossi; Verratti, Pirlo, Marchisio; Cerci; Balotelli
Players To Watch Out For
The former Manchester City and Chelsea forward was always deemed a talent waiting to explode but lacked the igniting spark – which Liverpool provided. Sturridge now finds himself heavily burdened with the entire nation’s expectations placed on his shoulders to deliver. He is likely to remain England’s chief attacking weapon throughout the tournament and his performance in the very first game could well determine England’s fortunes at the World Cup.
Daniele De Rossi (Italy)
Often overshadowed by the artistic beauty of Pirlo’s game, De Rossi continues to be the most important component of the Italian midfield. The Roma icon becomes an even better player on the national duties and his performances over the last two major tournaments are pretty indicative of that. With his strong physical presence in the centre, De Rossi’s role will be crucial in negating England’s pressing tactics and allow the rest of his teammates more time on the ball.
England 1-1 Italy
Both the sides have traditionally been slow starters in big tournaments. Moreover, both have reasons to be circumspect and not concede points. The attacking prowess in both camps should be able to cancel each other out over the course of the game.
Blast From The Past