After overcoming England 2-1 in Saturday’s fixture, Italian coach Cesare Prandelli labeled his opponents as being one of “the strongest teams in the World Cup.” The English press, regularly the national team’s harshest critics, found a great deal of optimism after the match, even as Steven Gerrard & Co trundled off the field in defeat. Such are expectations nowadays.
Despite the result, England can definitely take heart from some of last night’s game. Young winger Raheem Sterling was impressive, drawing 3-4 Italian players every time he surged forward. His Liverpool teammates Gerrard, Daniel Sturridge, and Jordan Henderson also received passing marks. Manchester United’s striker Danny Welbeck, who publicly criticized his former coach David Moyes for placing him on the rightwing, appeared to flourish in the role. But there are also a series of familiar problems for England.
Of course they looked fairly comfortable on the ball and largely dominated the second half, but that was the problem. It was all huff and puff with nothing to show for it, almost a quintessential English performance. Rooney was again disappointing; continuing his pathetic run of appearances at the World Cup without scoring a goal for his country. His cross to create Sturridge’s equalizing goal was his one highlight, but he also had a glaring miss in the second half. His disastrous corner towards the end of the game really summed up his performance. In its entirety, it was yet another reminder why coach Roy Hodgson should drop him.
And yet the fact that Italy emerged triumphant says a lot about Prandelli’s side. Midfielder Andrea Pirlo was again exceptional, drawing a dummy that set up Claudio Marchisio’s opening strike, even if England appeared to wait an eternity before closing him down. Mario Balotelli, renowned for his indiscipline as much as his ample soccer ability held the ball up nicely throughout and later headed home Antonio Candreva’s cross for the match winner. For all their indifferent performances leading up to the tournament (including a tie with Luxembourg), Italy can take a great deal from last night—more than just the three points.
To say Italy thoroughly deserved their win, however, is slightly unfair to England—especially when they were extremely lucky not to concede what looked to be a clear penalty for bringing down Gerrard. But England’s failure to take – and create more – chances will always cost them. That’s really why Rooney’s on the field. As his opponents grew more frustrated and ran out of ideas, Prandelli’s tactics were perfect and actually looked fairly comfortable as England’s batteries became more and more drained. In fact, as England committed more men forward one even got the sense that if someone was going to score again, it would have the Azzurri.
Even though Costa Rica’s defeat of Uruguay should have come as not too much of a surprise, Group D is now wide open. England’s next fixture against the wounded Uruguayans will be crucial, knowing that a defeat will send them packing. As they regroup, Hodgson will see that he possesses a team filled with graft, passion, and plenty of talent, but still lacking that little bit of creativity and killer instinct. This morning the English public might have a heightened sense of optimism, but failure to put quality teams to the sword is an all too familiar site.
What we learned about… England: Plenty of potential there. It seems strange that the main question mark before kick-off was whether to start Raheem Sterling — who was by far England’s best performer. Wayne Rooney, however, has to be dropped. The last time Rooney enjoyed a decent tournament for England was ten years ago—nobody can say that he’s not had the opportunities to deliver. In defense, England looks a little shaky with Leighton Baines and Gary Cahill. It’s perhaps even fair to say that this is the first World Cup in decades England has no truly world class defenders, especially in their central pairing. A lot for Hodgson to think about.
What we learned about… Italy: This was more graft than glitter for Italy, but that doesn’t matter. Pirlo, just 35-years young, can comfortably dictate the tempo of a game and looks like he can still click up a couple of gears. Balotelli was impressive and nicely evaded his marker to score the match winner. Goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu, who deputized for the injured veteran Gianluigi Buffon, looked a little shaky at times but most of his stops were fairly straightforward. Not to take anything away from the Azzurri, but given this isn’t one of the better Italian sides, it’s still unclear how they would deal with a side more creative and cutthroat than England.
Ewan Watt writes extensively on state and national issues in the US, covering the 2012 presidential election for both print and online publications. He is providing commentary for the Daily Caller on a regular basis throughout the World Cup. He writes strictly in a personal capacity. You can follow him on Twitter at @ewancwatt