So Italy, apparently traditionally slow starters at major tournaments, kicked off their campaign with a 2-1 victory against Roy Hodgson’s England in a hot and humid Manaus.
Cesare Prandelli’s men made the most of Costa Rica’s surprise vanquishing of Uruguay earlier on Saturday; a result that threw open Group D. It also sets up nicely next Thursday’s crunch clash in Sao Paulo, when both Uruguay and England require the three points to get their campaign back on track.
Here, we look at three pointers from Saturday night:
Wayne Rooney needs to be better utilised
Hodgson’s decision to deploy the Manchester United striker initially on the left side of midfield raised eyebrows, especially as Raheem Sterling was given a roaming brief in the hole behind Daniel Sturridge instead. Rooney is undeniably hamstrung out wide — he later switched to the right flank, before spending the closing minutes at the tip of the attack — although he provided a sumptuous assist to draw England level.
That, the first time Rooney had assisted a goal at the World Cup — remember, he is still yet to get on the score sheet — was really all he contributed, which is a major concern for his international manager. Previous finals in Germany and South Africa have provided little joy for Rooney, and the build-up to Brazil was dominated by doubt and debate surrounding his ability to perform on the grandest stage.
Rooney, 28, is obviously a fantastic footballer — on his day, England’s best — but those days have been all-too fleeting when major tournaments come around. Shunting him out to the left flank, a position he has never enjoyed at United, does not help his cause. Granted, Sterling was superb against Italy, but his inclusion meant Rooney felt almost forced into the starting XI. That should not be.
He was peripheral for large spells, only touching the match’s consciousness when he half-heartedly attempted to clear Claudio Marchisio’s goal-bound shot that gave Italy the lead and then somehow scuffed a late corner straight into touch. Rooney has 39 goals in 93 appearances for England: he should be better utilised. With Sterling, Sturridge and, at times, Danny Welbeck impressing in a fluid forward line, Hodgson needs to tinker with his supposed talisman. Rooney requires a more accommodating platform to finally thrive at world level.
Raheem Sterling can be a star of this tournament
For all Rooney’s redundancy, England’s young hope excelled on his finals debut. Sterling was a constant threat to the Italian defence, always open to receiving the ball and forever driving at his opponents.
The Liverpool winger seems a perfect fit centrally, which offers a considerable conundrum regarding Rooney. However, unlike his struggling compatriot, Sterling seized his moment in Manaus to shine as England’s brightest light, confirming reports that he had indeed been the squad’s standout player in preparations for Brazil. In fact, he appeared to pick up immediately where he left off in training, collecting the ball in the opening minute, evading a couple of challenges and drilling a shot high into the side-netting. Half the Arena Amazonia — presumably those clad in white and red — erupted in misguided jubilation.
Yet Sterling was not to prove a flash in an extremely hot pan. He probed throughout, and supplied a beautifully weighted pass that set Rooney on his way to crossing for the equaliser. At 19, Sterling refused to be hampered by the occasion. Keep him in this sort of form and England, and the tournament, will be all the better for it. Sterling looks every inch a big-time player.
With Mario Balotelli and Andrea Pirlo, Italy have a supreme double act
The two could not be any more different, but in tandem they are a perfect pair. Balotelli, the combustible and controversial striker, did not do much, apart from heading home the winner. He also provided a typically ‘why-always-me?’ moment, when he greeted the final whistle by staring straight down the television camera and reminding the millions watching of the score. His goals will be vital to Italy’s chances of advancing from the group.
Pirlo preferred to offer an altogether subtler reminder of his star quality. The bearded midfield maestro may be 35, but he remains the conductor to the orchestra, all understated eminence. Before the tournament, some had the temerity to question whether his supposedly creaking legs could carry him through 90 minutes in Manaus and beyond, but if the England encounter is anything to go by, Pirlo could float through the rest of his career and still burnish an already remarkable reputation.
His expert step over set up Italy’s first goal, and then, when Balotelli clinched the points, Pirlo was soon on the scene, celebrating but instructing, too. A casual whisper in his young compatriot’s ear presumably refocused Balotelli in the white-hot heat. The two, as alike as pasta and potatoes, are united in holding Italy’s hopes in their hands.