Conventional wisdom dictates that to win a World Cup, it requires a team to build momentum toward peaking when the final stages arrive. Playing seven matches over just four weeks, it is unfeasible to think that a team can be at its best throughout. Italy are the masters of this approach, often stumbling through the group phase and surviving scares in the early knockout rounds before finding itself with the trophy in their sights in the final.
But the Azzurri will have no such luxury for starting slowly this time around. Italy’s opening game sees them take on England in the stifling heat and humidity of the Amazonian city Manaus on Saturday. With South American champions and 2010 World Cup semifinalists Uruguay expected to garner three points from their opening game with Costa Rica earlier in the day, both England and Italy know that a defeat will mean their World Cup could be set for an unpalatably early end.
For Italy it would be their second-straight group-stage exit. In 2010, the holders shockingly took just two points from matches against Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand to finish bottom of their group and bid farewell to South Africa in ignominy. Since then Cesare Prandelli has taken over as coach and breathed fresh life into the national team. The team has been overhauled in terms of personnel and philosophy.
Far from the defensive-minded stereotype of Italian soccer, Prandelli has strived to get the team to be proactive and entertain. Those goals were achieved emphatically in the European Championships two years ago when Italy surprised many by reaching the final. Andrea Pirlo was the star man of that side and will again be integral to Italy’s chances this time around. Now aged 35, the brilliant playmaker has shown some signs of his influence declining over the past season with Juventus. Yet he will be desperate to make a major impact, having revealed on the eve of the World Cup that he will retire from international duty following the tournament. Despite the loss to injury of Riccardo Montolivo, the midfield trio remains settled, with Daniele de Rossi and Claudio Marchisio likely to provide the leg work to allow Pirlo to flourish.
The question marks for Prandelli come at both ends of the pitch. It remains unclear whether he will go with a back three or back four against England, having used both in Euro 2012. In the pre-World Cup friendlies a back four was favored, although that would disrupt the Juventus trio of Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci.
Up front, it is unclear how Prandelli will look to support Mario Balotelli, who remains the main striker despite a troubled season for Milan. Alongside him could be Ciro Immobile, the 24-year-old who scored 22 goals in Serie A last season for Torino to earn a move to Borussia Dortmund. More likely, though, on the evidence of the buildup games is that Prandelli will go for a 4-3-2-1 formation, with two men supporting Balotelli.
England coach Roy Hodgson also has several selection decisions to make. For the man who has experience managing in Italy with Inter Milan, the key question is just how bold he will be in fielding the vibrant young players who have helped to raise expectations in England ahead of the tournament. Regarded as a cautious coach, Hodgson has handed squad places to emerging talent, especially from Liverpool and Southampton.
It remains to be seen how many will start. Raheem Sterling, Adam Lallana and Ross Barkley are those chiefly in contention to get into the lineup. How many do will show just how adventurous Hodgson is prepared to be in the opening game. A draw against Italy in the type of stifling conditions that have never been favorable to English players would surely been deemed acceptable.
The other key consideration is Wayne Rooney. On his day, the Manchester United forward remains England’s best player, but he has failed to perform at every major tournament since bursting onto the scene at Euro 2004. With the emergence of Daniel Sturridge to become a lock for the main striking role, Rooney has struggled to fit in behind the Liverpool man. Indeed, the team has often looked more fluid going forward with Rooney not in the side in the buildups.
Hodgson has said he would not be afraid to drop Rooney, although he now looks a certain starter in the opening game, at least. Where he plays could depend on whether Danny Welbeck, who could be detailed to try and halt the influence of Pirlo, is fully recovered from.
Almost certainly against Italy, England will be happy to concede possession and look to play on the counter attack. With a solid if unspectacular defense, whose potential vulnerabilities out wide are unlikely to be exploited by Italy, there is reason to think that England can largely frustrate their opening opponents. In their pre-tournament friendlies, England have shown the ability to be dangerous on the break, but that won’t be easy in this first match.
Ultimately, it could be a case of the game getting to 60 minutes level and both teams lacking the desire, or capability in the conditions, to push for a winner.
Prediction: Italy 1-1 England
When and where: The Group D match will kick off from the Arena Amazonia in Manaus at 6 p.m. ET.