Mario Balotelli’s second-half goal led Italy past England 2-1 in a thriller at Manaus on Saturday night. Played in stifling conditions, both teams played at breakneck pace, but in the end, Italy’s experience and class proved the difference. Despite some pell-mell play at the end from the English, Italy were rarely in trouble after they seized their second half lead.
England looked far slicker and more fluid than they have in the past, a testament to manager Roy Hodgson’s choice to pick a far faster, younger side. And from the opening whistle, they pushed and probed at an Italian side with some key absences. Earlier on Saturday, it was revealed that star Gianluigi Buffon was unable to play after turning his ankle in training, handing a start to Salvatore Sirigu in the nets. But Italy always seemed to that extra juice on reserve, a bit of guile their opponents tonight lacked. Candreva and the old master Andrea Pirlo were more than a match for the likes of Steven Gerrard and Leighton Baines, and in the end, that class told.
England attempted to use the fleet trio of Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Danny Welbeck to break through the door. Sterling fooled observers worldwide in the 3rd minute when it appeared his shot had found the back of the net — instead it was the side. Jordan Henderson then forced a fine save off Sirigu in the 8th minute Welbeck had a wayward attempt of his own a few minutes later.
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Welbeck and Sturridge nearly found the opener in the 23rd, forcing Andrea Barzagli to make a yeoman stop. Crossing right to left, the Italian back stretched and tipped the ball dangerously close to his won net, but just out of reach of a racing Sturridge at the far post. It was nervy stuff but a brilliantly executed defensive play.
But if Italy were bending early, they were not bowing and danger lurked in the form of Pirlo, who was inexplicably allowed to make cutting diagonal passes from deep-lying positions. Pirlo is so classy that the fact is those types of balls simply might not be able to be stopped, but it was disconcerting to see four or five England players stand and watch as the Juventus legend ripped right them.
It was Pirlo who ultimately helped Italy get on the board. Antonio Candreva, a terror all night long down England’s right flank, won and then served in a corner that Marco Verratti tipped on. Pirlo pulled a sublime dummy to set up Claudio Marchisio, and he left Joe Hart helpless with his blast to the far post.
Normally, the Italians are very difficult to dislodge once they have a lead, but England have other ideas, and two minutes later, Sturridge crafted a reply. Sterling started the play, feeding Wayne Rooney out wide left with Pirlo-esque pass of his own, allowing the Manchester United man to whip one to the far post for Sturridge to take on the hop and hit home.
Italy took it up a gear, with Pirlo feeding Mario Balotelli deep and setting up what would have been an audacious reply. Pulling Hart out, Balotelli simply stopped, then chipped the ball over the keeper and under the bar. If not for the intervention of Phil Jagielka with a saving header, Italy would have taken a lead. Candreva then fired a low shot just as the whistle went, only to see it ricochet back off the post.
The hits kept on coming after the break, with Balotelli finally finding the back of the net in the 50th minute. Candreva was again left alone on that right side and he sent in a fine ball that caught Gary Cahill lollygagging. Balotelli simply popped up, headed the ball in and then went on his merry way.
England were not entirely down and out, but they made life difficult for themselves with wastefulness. Rooney spurned a gilt-edged chance in the 62nd minute when he was slipped through cleanly with not a man near him. With time and space to shoot, he failed to even hit the target, an agonizing miss for a player of his ability. And then the game began to fall apart as it became clear that England were out of gas and out of options. Mental errors followed: Rooney would badly muff a corner kick and sub Jack Wilshere would foolishly concede possession as the heat began to sap their will. Baines came as close as any when he lined up a free kick in the 75th that forced Sirigu to make a diving stop.
England next face a wounded Uruguay side on the 19th in Sao Paulo, while Italy take on high-flying Costa Rica side with whom they share the group lead. England will take heart from a far more positive performance than we’ve seen in the past, but in the end, the result against the Italians was awfully familiar. Like it or not, Gerrard and Rooney remain a cut below their counterparts on the world stage, and England will have to find inspiration from somewhere else if they are to remain in Brazil for much longer.
Hodgson felt his side were unlucky to lose to Balotelli’s winner after Sturridge had cancelled out Claudio Marchisio’s opener. "It is a bit tough to accept we lost the game," said Hodgson. "Joe Hart has had a pretty quiet evening but we found ourselves having lost it. Even when they got back to 2-1 I thought we would get back into it. I thought that was the best I’d seen the team play.
And his captain agreed. "I think the chances were there," Gerrard said on BBC1. "Maybe we have to look at trying to finish a few more chances off, but we can’t point any fingers because everyone has given everything tonight — the effort, desire and commitment was there and we were unlucky not to get anything out of it."
Gerrard added: "It is still disappointing to come away with no points. That is the lesson from tonight. We are still not out of this group. No matter what the result was tonight, I think we still would have had to go and beat Uruguay."