Salvatore Sirigu, Gianluigi Buffon, Mattia Perin
Gianluigi Buffon, center, is set to return in goal for Italy ahead of Salvatore Sirigu, left. Reuters

Italy’s World Cup got off to a perfect start with a win over England in the heat of Manaus and they are now set to be boosted further by the return of influential captain and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. The Juventus man was forced to sit out the hard-fought 2-1 triumph over England with a sprained left ankle, but has now returned to training ahead of the Azzurri’s second group game against Costa Rica on Friday.

Buffon’s return to the lineup is probable despite the impressive showing of replacement Salvatore Sirigu and it is thought unlikely to be the only change to coach Cesare Prandelli’s lineup. The defense could see the biggest rotation. Former Argentina youth international Gabriel Paletta was the weak link against the pace and movement of England’s attackers and is set to drop out, while there is also a doubt about the fitness of his partner in that match, Andrea Barzagli. His Juventus teammate Giorgio Chiellini should shift back into the middle of the defense, regardless, with either the fit again Mattia de Sciglio or Milan’s Iganzio Abate coming in at full-back.

As against England, the Italian defense will again be subjected to pace on the break. Costa Rica provided one of the shock results of the tournament do far when not just beating 2010 semifinalists Uruguay in their opening game, but doing so comprehensively. The side that finished second in Concacaf qualifying displayed their expected packed, deep-lying defense but they also carried a genuine threat on the break. In the absence of injured striker Alvaro Saborio, goalscorer Joel Campbell’s pace and movement impressed, while there were also some notable performances down the flanks.

Costa Rica’s victory has opened up a group that was expected to be a three-way fight for the top two places between the group’s former World Cup winners. Come up with a positive result against Italy and Jorge Luis Pinto’s side stand a real chance of getting out of the group stage at a World Cup for only the second time in the country’s history and first since 1990. Against Italy, while they will be outgunned in talent, they will expect to have one key advantage. The match will take place in the peak early afternoon heat of Recife, conditions far more familiar to Costa Rica’s players than Italy’s.

“Last year we played Japan in Recife at 9 p.m. and we were dying,” midfielder Daniele de Rossi said, according to the Associated Press, recalling Italy’s struggled to overturn a two-goal deficit and beat Japan 4-3 in a wild Confederations Cup match. “[Costa Rica are] more accustomed to this climate but I think both squads would accept time outs.”

It will be the second of three games for Italy to take place in the heat of the north of Brazil, all of which also involve a long trip from the team’s base on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. It is far from ideal, yet, not only do Italy have the vital experience of the Confederations Cup, but, of all the teams in the competition, they are perhaps best equipped with the nous to handle the situation. Italy managed the game against England superbly. It was a match that might have gone either way, but Italy were the more efficient and tactically superior before protecting their lead late on.

Prandelli’s rotation of his side, with Thiago Motta also expected to replace Marco Verratti, suggests he is aware of the need not just to navigate their opponents but the conditions. In terms of the specifics of the match itself, there is every reason to think that Italy can get a win in Recife to take them within touching distance of the last-16 with a game to spare.

Certainly, Italy’s shape should give Costa Rica far more problems that did Uruguay’s. Costa Rica’s three center-backs will be given plenty to think about by just having one player up against them in Mario Balotelli, forcing them to make a decision about whether to push up into midfield to address the two likely attacking midfielders. Unlike Uruguay’s simple 4-4-2, Italy will pack the midfield and have a clear numerical advantage against Costa Rica’s 5-4-1 to dominate that area of the pitch. It will be impossible for Costa Rica to keep tight on Andrea Pirlo, giving the playmaker the chance to control the play and pick passes at will. The greater control of possession is also likely to prevent Costa Rica from being able to get their wide defenders forward thus cutting off a key attacking avenue.

Expect Italy to attempt to get the goals needed early on in order that they can take their foot off the gas as the heat begins to take its toll.

Prediction: Italy 2-0 Costa Rica

Betting odds (
Italy win: 1/2
Costa Rica win: 11/2
Draw: 33/10

When and where: The 2014 World Cup Group D match will kick off from the Arena Pernambuco in Recife at noon ET.