Having both fallen victim to this World Cup’s Cinderella story, Costa Rica, Italy and Uruguay now meet for the right to join Los Ticos in the Round of 16. A draw will be enough for Italy to advance on goal difference, while Uruguay must win to keep hope alive of at least replicating their semifinal berth of four years ago.
The intrigue created by the do-or-die nature of the match is only exacerbated by the uncertainty over just what kind of performance the teams will produce. Both Uruguay and Italy have been insipid in defeat to Costa Rica, yet impressed in 2-1 wins over the now eliminated England.
While various factors have undoubtedly been at play, it is hard not to think that one of the chief ones has been the conditions. In their opening game, Uruguay had gotten a lead against Costa Rica and, given their preference for sitting deep and playing on the break, appeared set up for a routine three points. Instead, Costa Rica came back superbly in the second half and Uruguay fell apart in uncharacteristic fashion. In the oppressive conditions in Fortaleza, Uruguay’s elderly side -- not a single member of the starting lineup was under 27 -- they appeared to have nothing left to give.
It was a similar story for Italy when playing in another of the hot and humid northern cities, Recife, against Costa Rica. Midfielder Daniele de Rossi had spoken ahead of the match of Italy’s experiences at the same venue in last year’s Confederations Cup when they were “dying from the heat.” Initially, perhaps wary of over-exerting themselves or maybe already drained from their 90 minutes in the Amazonian city of Manaus against England, Italy set a slow tempo. And it only became more pedestrian as they showed little suggestion of being able to overturn a 1-0 deficit.
“Once we've finished training today we'll see what kind of condition we are in," Buffon said ahead of the Uruguay match, according to AFP . "I think a lot of European teams are struggling compared to the Latin Americans. But that isn't an excuse. The climate is the same for all of our opponents.”
When Italy and Uruguay meet, it will be in the early afternoon heat of Natal and the conditions will again surely play a part in who prevails. Of course the ability to deal with the climate and in Italy’s case yet another long journey from their base camp on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, are far from the only factors.
As well as the luxury of being able to play in the cooler conditions of Sao Paulo, Uruguay’s performance was aided against England by a change of personnel and system. Teenager Jose Gimenez, with just a handful of appearances in senior club soccer never mind international level, impressed in place of veteran central defender Diego Lugano. Meanwhile, the midfielder played with more intensity, and was more compact with Edinson Cavani also dropping deep.
And then, of course, there was the return of Luis Suarez. Less than a month on from undergoing knee surgery, Suarez fulfilled his pledge to be fit to take on the country where he plays at club level for Liverpool. There was no way he could be fully fit, and indeed his performance backed that up. Yet he produced the match’s two defining moments when heading in the opening goal and then lashing the ball past England goalkeeper Joe Hart for a dramatic and priceless late winner. With Suarez, Uruguay are a threat to win any match.
Italy will be ruing that they didn’t get the same kind of impact from their own leading striker with a habit of dipping their toes into controversial waters. Mario Balotelli had two early chances against Costa Rica that could have given them a lead to sit back on as they tired. Instead, unlike when scoring the winner against England, the Milan star lacked the requisite sharpness and the opportunities were squandered. The consequences could be similarly stark against a Uruguay side based around defensive organization.
Balotelli should have more support against Uruguay, however. Reports suggest that Italy have been training with a 3-5-2 formation and are set to start with that shape for the first time in this World Cup against Uruguay. That would mean Balotelli getting a partner up front in the shape of last season’s top scorer in Serie A, Ciro Immobile. At the back, Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci will resume their Juventus partnership. Marco Verratti is likely to come back in to replace Thiago Motta and give Italy another playmaking option alongside Andrea Pirlo, although De Rossi is expected to miss out with a calf injury.
A back three makes a sense for Italy against a Uruguay team that will play with two center-forwards. Cavani, though, is unlikely to play right up top alongside Suarez, and it makes sense for him to drop deep again in order to try to limit the influence of Pirlo. With Uruguay’s midfield set to be compact once more, it will be a match that will in all likelihood be decided through the middle of the pitch.
Purely on the strength of the two teams, Italy would have to be favorites to prevail. Given that they only need a draw that is especially true. However, under Cesare Prandelli, Italy are no longer a team happy or perhaps even able to simply sit back and grind out a result. A three-man backline should make them stronger defensively, but the loss of De Rossi’s presence in the midfield is a major blow. It is a match that will likely come down to incredibly small margins. It could be that Italy, after three successive games in the heat coupled with a day’s less rest fade greater, and the individual brilliance of Suarez once again comes up trumps.
Uruguay 1-0 Italy
Betting odds (Bovada.lv)
Italy win: 33/20
Uruguay win: 17/10
When and where: the 2014 World Cup Group D match will kick off from the Estadio das Dunas in Natal at noon ET on Tuesday. Coverage will be provided by ESPN.