After Costa Rica shocked Uruguay with a 3-1 victory, Italy defeated England by a 2-1 margin to close out the first set of matches in Group D at the World Cup in Brazil. Four-time World Cup champions Italy snatched a crucial three points against one-time winner England. Coming into the tournament, 7th ranked Uruguay was the favorite to finish top of the group, leaving second place most likely up to 9th ranked Italy or 10th ranked England.
Italy and England had both disappointed in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Italy had finished at the bottom of a group that featured Slovakia, New Zealand and Paraguay. Then the reigning world champions, the Azzuri greatly underachieved by drawing two games and losing one to Paraguay. England managed to finish second in a weak group that consisted of the United States, Algeria and Slovenia, but they lost in the next round to Germany 4-1.
Coming into this match, the Italians looked to rely heavily on their captain and playmaker Andrea Pirlo, who plays for the Italian club team Juventus, and Mario Balotelli, a 23-year-old forward who in the last few years has proven himself to be one of the world’s premier goal scorers. England also looked towards one of their veterans to lead the charge, captain Steven Gerrard, who is in the twilight of an illustrious career. As Gerrard is at the end of his career, England would feature many players just beginning their own, including 19-year-old winger Raheem Sterling and 24-year-old Daniel Sturridge, both teammates of Gerrard’s at Liverpool F.C.
Right away the tone of the game was evident. Pirlo took control of Italy’s midfield and began to live up to his nickname the “Maestro” by stringing together series of passes and finding the outside midfielders on deep long-balls. Italy’s midfield was easily finding pockets in England’s defense. On the flip side, it was the Three Lions front three, Sterling, Sturridge, and Manchester United striker Danny Welbeck that were generating chances for their country. Sterling’s pace was too much for Italy’s midfield and defense as he would pick the ball up in the midfield, burst into open space and either distribute to the outside or create goal scoring opportunities around Italy’s 18-yard box.
England started off the stronger of the two in the first five minutes, but quickly the tide turned Italy’s way. Italy would gain control of the match with England having a chance here or there and the first break through came 35 minutes in by Italy’s Claudio Marchisio. The ball was played to Pirlo off of a corner kick, which he dummied and let through to Marchisio, who took one touch and struck low into the bottom left corner from about 22-yards out.
However, the Italians lead didn’t last long as two minutes later England equalized. Wayne Rooney was played down the left flank in Italy’s final third, which he served across the 18-yard box to the back post, which Sturridge put away easily after one short bounce.
England’s goal seemed to give the side some much needed confidence going into halftime. Unfortunately, that confidence along with any momentum was quickly squashed in the second half as Italy went ahead once again in the 50th minute. Midfielder Antonio Candreva crossed a ball from the right side of the 18-yard box to the back post of England’s goal, which Balotelli easily headed downward and in past keeper Joe Hart. Balotelli’s goal would be the deciding goal of the match, with the only other real scoring opportunity coming in stoppage time when Pirlo put a dipping 35-yard free kick off of the crossbar.
Both teams seemed much improved from the last World Cup, however both defenses seemed to still struggle. Pirlo and Candreva shined for Italy, as did Sterling and Sturridge for England. Unfortunately for England, three-time World Cup veteran Gerrard seemed to have picked up an undisclosed injury towards the end of the match.
England plays next against Uruguay on Thursday, June 19, while Italy plays Costa Rica for the top spot in the group on Friday, June 20.