It was only a matter of time until Mario Balotelli made his first mark in the World Cup.
The 23-year-old Milan striker put his country on top 2-1 in the 50th minute with a glorious header in front of the net off midfielder Antonio Candreva’s assist, and Italy held on to defeat England in Saturday’s Group D match at Arena Amazonia in Manaus, Brazil.
It was the 13th goal in Balotell’s 31st appearance for Italy, but his first in the World Cup, and he now gives the Italians an edge in the group before next week’s meeting with upstart Costa Rica.
Rightly billed as an early monumental matchup during this year’s tournament, Italy and England first tested each other’s defenses before unleashing some top-notch goals at the end of the first and start of the second half.
Prior to the 25th meeting between two of the sport’s global superpowers, it appeared England would have the edge with decorated Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon forced to sit out with a twisted ankle and 27-year-old Salvarote Sirigu making only his 10th international appearance.
Playing behind the legend Buffon has cost Sirigu appearances, but he was named French Ligue 1’s Goalkeeper of the Year helping Paris Saint-Germain in 47 domestic and European matches.
Sirigu recorded two saves off three English shots on target, including a two-handed diving save off a free kick attempt by Leighton Baines in the 76th. Sirigu was also aided by Italy’s outright 55-45 possession advantage and stellar midfield control by Andrea Pirlo.
After much flirting in the first 34 minutes of action with neither side claiming very few shots on goal, Italy midfielder Claudio Marchisio broke the nil-nil tie with a breathtaking ground strike that trickled through the English backline and past keeper Joe Hart.
England responded three minutes later off a fastbreak, with Wayne Rooney drawing Italy’s attention near the box only to flick a clever ball to the streaking Daniel Sturridge who only needed a soft tap of this right foot to even the match.
Caught at a difficult angle but capable of making the most with his considerable scoring abilities, Balotelli’s first attempt to put his country back on top was headed away by defender Gary Cahill, who swooped to the net and headed the shot away to keep the match level heading into the half.
All told the teams had one shot apiece in the first 30 minutes of play, before unleashing their attacking might on several fastbreaks and finishing the last 15 minutes in the first half with eight more shots for Italy and five more for England.
After gaining the lead Balotelli came off in the 73rd and Italy pulled back its aggressiveness while England spoiled several opportunities in the final 20 minutes. Rooney found space on the right side of the box and fired off a shot wide left of the goal in the 61st.
Ross Barkley made his first World Cup appearance and in the 61st minute and nearly made in impact but his shot was turned away by Sirigu. Glen Johnson’s cross attempt also carried too high past Italy’s line and his teammates.