By RYAN TOLMICH
The second battle of international heavyweights produced the tournament’s first neck-and-neck battle as Saturday’s headliner between Italy and England lived up to the hype that proceeded it.
Playing in the heat and humidity at the Arena Amazonia in Manaus, the more experienced Italians put together a complete performance, holding off England for a 2-1 victory. Mario Balotelli’s second-half header proved to be the difference for the Azzuri against the Three Lions.
The scoring was nearly opened by England youngster Raheem Sterling just minutes into his World Cup debut, as the 19-year-old’s long-distance strike nearly missed into the goal’s side netting.
However, it was Italy’s Claudio Marchisio who got the party started from distance in the 35th minute with a strike from the top of the box that gave the 2006 World Cup champions a 1-0 lead.
England found their answer virtually immediately by way of Liverpool star Daniel Sturridge, whose equalizer essentially came before the opposition could even finish their celebration. Sterling kicked-off the build up with a perfectly weighted through ball into the path of Wayne Rooney, whose cross from the left side found a streaking Sturridge for the equalizing finish.
Italy responded to Sturridge’s equalizer with a superb performance in the midfield, as Pirlo, Antonio Candreva and Matteo Darmian repeatedly overloaded England’s left side of Leighton Baines and Wayne Rooney.
The Italians deservedly took the lead for good in the game’s 50th minute via a Balotelli header. Candreva found himself in space on the right side of England’s box and fired a ball toward the far post. England centerback Gary Cahill was caught ball-watching, leaving the 23-year-old AC Milan star with plenty of room to smash the ball past the England goalkeeper Joe Hart.
Manager Roy Hodgson made the decision midway through the second half to unleash substitutes Ross Barkley, Jack Wilshere and Adam Lallana to join fellow youngsters Sturridge and Sterling, but aside from a Barkley shot just moments after coming on, the trio of substitutes proved to be relatively ineffective.
The best chance of the game’s final forty minutes came via Italian maestro Andrea Pirlo. Taking a free kick from 30-yards out in the fourth minute of second half stoppage time, Pirlo blasted a shot with the outside of his right boot that caught Hart moving the wrong way. Fortunately for the England goalkeeper, the free kick slammed off the crossbar.
England failed to display any sense of urgency in the game’s final moments as Italy deservedly escaped a hot, humid Manaus with all three points.