For England, this was a peculiar kind of World Cup defeat.
They played well, but lost. Went for it, but lost. Had the best chance, but lost.
England were beaten by Italy not because Roy Hodgson was too cautious or our forwards less skilled. Raheem Sterling started and was excellent. Salvatore Sirigu, Italy’s goalkeeper, was among their best players.
The flaw, and it may prove an insurmountable one, is in defence. It wasn’t good enough.Gary Cahill is a better player with John Terry beside him – nothing against Phil Jagielka, by the way, who was the pick of the back four – and Terry isn’t here.
Italy’s winner was soft. Antonio Candreva of Lazio got down the right and beat Leighton Baines too comfortably. His cross was a beauty but Mario Balotelli got the better of Cahill and Glen Johnson was nowhere at the back post. His header had the assurance of a training ground exercise. Maybe it was; but such routine stuff should not win a World Cup tie of this magnitude.
It was an outstanding game. Italy only reverting to cautious type once they had their noses ahead and the minutes were slipping by. Every substitution England made was positive but to no avail. Conditions in Manaus had sucked the life from the game. The next two matches must now be won, and there is much to suggest they could be. After the result in the other group game, England will be expecting to face Luis Suarez in Sao Paulo. It will get no easier from here.
Joe Hart got lucky. At the last World Cup, Rob Green let the ball slip through his fingers against the United States and his international career never recovered. Hart is on surer ground, immune to the effects of one fateful slip, but even so it would have been a big one had Candreva’s shot rebounded the wrong way, when he failed to gather it cleanly after 20 minutes.
Fortunately, the ball ricocheted outwards and with no Italian forward on hand to capitalise, England breathed again. It would have been a travesty had it gone in at that moment, though – the first quarter of this match for England was as promising a start to a World Cup game as many can remember.
Having been decried for negativity in the past, this was Hodgson making good on a promise to be bold, the selection of Raheem Sterling ahead of Adam Lallana confounding expectations and, almost, the Italian defence after just four minutes.
It was Sterling who signalled England positive intent with a great run through the middle and a shot that flew just wide into the side-netting. It was one of those optical illusion hits, half the stadium on its feet thinking the ball was in. Sadly, no. But it was one hell of a way to announce a World Cup career.
A minute later Jordan Henderson forced another excellent save from Italy’s stand in goalkeeper Sirigu – Gianluigi Buffon being the first victim of the substandard Manaus pitch, claimed in training the previous night – and it was plain there was going to be no repeat of the dour stalemate between these teams in Kiev two years ago.
This was, indeed, a new England, younger, fresher, more ambitious. The decision to play Sterling through the middle was inspired, Wayne Rooney moved to the left but no less valuable for that. He did some excellent tenacious mop up work in the 11th minute which resulted in a Danny Welbeck shot that curled wide.
Although Italy always look lovely on the ball – England have skill, too, but need a higher tempo to express it – it was Hodgson’s team that were getting in behind the defence. In the 22nd minute, Sterling crossed and for a moment it appeared as if Welbeck had gained an advantage on the blind side until Gabriel Paletta saw the danger and took him out, contriving cleverly to make it appear like an innocent coming together.
More impressive was Andrea Barzagli’s intervention a minute later when Welbeck tried to tee up Daniel Sturridge. The Liverpool man was in inviting space in front of goal but Barzagli acrobatically prevented him reaching the ball. Top defending that ended a top period of pressure from England.
For as the clock passed the 30 minute mark, so Italy appeared to find another gear. Their passing, always tight, became more incisive and a goal was the quick result. The warning came moments earlier. A fine crossfield pass by Daniele De Rossi was met by full-back Matteo Darmian on another lung-busting overlap, and his cross should have been finished by Balotelli, who lost his radar for goal in surprising fashion.
Another Darmian run in the 35th minute won a corner off Leighton Baines, and a shot one saw the ball fed back to Andrea Pirlo. With a knowledge of the movement around him that bordered on witchcraft he dummied and allowed it to run to Juventus’s Claudio Marchisio. His low shot from 20 yards out travelled through two pairs of legs, leaving Hart surprised and he could do nothing but grasp at air as the ball whistled into the bottom corner.
Despair for England, but the response was instant. In a counter-attacking move that justfied each of Hodgson’s major decisions, England equalised with quite stunning fluidity. Sterling picked up the ball in his central role and played a pass to Rooney that took four Italian players out in one swoop. Rooney sped down his flank and hit a cross of total perfection that Sturridge could not help but convert. He did the dance, naturally. Careful now. Not wise to expound unnecessary energy in this heat.
Particularly when the game was very much live. In first-half injury time, Italy had two chances to score and one, at least, was a work of art. Balotelli chased a ball down the left channel and Hart came out thinking he had forced him to an impossible angle. He should have known from years of training together at Manchester City that there is no such thing. The striker sized up the situation and as Hart battled to recover hit the most beautiful chip which Jagielka did brilliantly to keep out of goal with a saving header. From the recycled ball, Italy’s best player on the night, Candreva, hit the base of the post. It truly was a rumble in the jungle.
Who do you think deserved the man of the match for both teams? And do you think England still has a chance to top the group? Drop your comments below guys.