"Mario is an unpredictable player," commented England defender Gary Cahill prior to his side's meeting with Italy in Manaus. "I have played against him when he has done well. I have played against when he has been brought off after 60 minutes. It is difficult to say."
At least it is not difficult for the Chelsea defender Cahill to say now. But then we are all wise after the event. Mario Balotelli headed Italy’s winner in a 2-1 success against Group D foes England that they just about merited. So much for the demise of Serie A and Italian football.
Roy Hodgon’s young England side were a game lot in the Amazon, but desire and spirit only takes you so far against genuine quality. In football’s form of jungle warfare, Italy’s class could not be camouflaged. But then there is a reason why the Azzurri have four World Cups to their name.
Cahill was left ball watching as the Milan forward Balotelli arrived behind him from the outstanding Antonio Candreva's gorgeous cross to nod beyond his former Manchester City team-mate Joe Hart. It ultimately curtailed England’s widespread ambition in a pulsating duel full of bedlam and farce that saw Gary Lewin perhaps become the first physio in the history of football to be carried off on a stretcher from the side of the pitch. Or at least in a World Cup finals.
When the excellent Daniel Sturridge sped in to restore parity with a lovely finish on the half-volley two minutes after Claudio Marchisio had swept Italy into a 35th minute lead, Lewin was apparently caught among a posse of grown men celebrating in the English technical area. An awkward fall on a water bottle did for him. He has a dislocated ankle, poor chap.
It was a disconcerting moment for the England squad to see Lewin being carted up the tunnel, but not enough to knock the young lions out of their stride. And they roared loudly in the jungle.
England played with plenty of gusto and style in this battle of wills and willpower amid the Amazon heat. They were a game lot, but remain without a figure as classy as Andrea Pirlo in terms of ball retention, or a striker with as much quality as Balotelli.
These are men who know what they are doing, why they are doing it and where they are going with and without the ball. They don’t make needless runs.
Pirlo's total of 108 passes versus England is the highest recorded by a player so far at this tournament. His style seems to match up particularly well against British sides, but nobody should take it personally. Certainly not 'Wazza'.
With Rooney apparently complaining to the England bench about the unease he was encountering in covering the left flank in the first half, the problem area is obvious. Hodgson must take heed of the issues, and act upon them before it is too late.
“We know we can play Wayne in many different positions and I think he has to be pretty satisfied with his performance,” said Hodgson.
"It's looking for things to suggest he didn't do well in that position because I think he did."
It is not looking for 'things' to suggest there are players better suited to fulfil the remit out wide. England must regroup from this defeat, but brave decisions must be made by the manager against a sluggish Uruguay side who could easily be clipped in Sao Paulo. Luis Suarez is likely to return, but Oscar Tabarez’s side are far from infallible having come off a wretched 3-1 slump to Costa Rica.
Hodgson was positive to include Sterling from the start as the main support act for his Liverpool companion Sturridge. He must be brave to leave Rooney on the bench for a match against Uruguay that they simply must win. Adam Lallana, Ross Barkley, James Milner or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are all better options out wide. For the record, the unconvincing Danny Welbeck should also be removed from the problematic wide areas.
Leighton Baines was left exposed at left-back by a lack of cover that was supposed to come from Rooney in the first half and Welbeck after half-time. Hodgson did not try this ploy with Rooney or Welbeck prior to the finals. It showed with Welbeck at fault in failing to close down advancing blue shirts before Mario discovered the winner.
Both Sterling, who looked liked he pierced the opposition net from distance in the opening moments, and Sturridge were excellent in the central roles. Rooney nor Welbeck should be dispersed out wide to keep them in the side. Unless Sturridge is injured, Rooney can’t play in his favoured position. He should be deployed as an impact substitute from the technical area.
England did not combat the width of the Italians. They were powerless to prevent Italy from building a 1-0 lead as Pirlo ran over a Marco Verratti pass to hand Marchisio the time and space to wallop the ball beyond Joe Hart from 22 yards. It was a fine move to end a period of crisp, possession play.
England drew level at 1-1 with the best flowing move of the match as Sterling released Rooney, whose cross was dispatched by Sturridge into the gaping rigging with Italy caught on the hop.
Despite the best intentions of a young England side, it was difficult to escape from the conclusion that Cesare Prandelli's team were more street-wise in controlling the temperament required for tournament football. Despite being without water breaks amid the pressure cooker, a point Prandelli berated FIFA over, Italy were in control of the game's temperature gauge.
They could have been ahead at half-time with Phil Jagielka clearing Balotelli's audacious chip off his line from under the bar, and Candreva hitting a post.
But Pirlo also smacked the bar with a free-kick from distance in the death throes of a frantic evening. One that is not all bad for England if they learn a lesson from it.
- Sports & Recreation
- Mario Balotelli
- Daniel Sturridge
- Gary Cahill
- Andrea Pirlo