It was far from the ideal way to prepare for a World Cup opener. Losing Riccardo Montolivo and accepting Giuseppe Rossi’s lack of fitness. Days beforehand Mattia De Sciglio was ruled out, then with hours to spare legendary captain Gigi Buffon followed suit. Giorgio Chiellini had to brush the cobwebs off his left-back boots and Salvatore Sirigu make only his second competitive outing in an Azzurri jersey – the other being four years ago in Estonia. It’s enough to make a Coach like Cesare Prandelli tear his hair out.
England thought they had done everything right, taking advantage of Italy’s injury woes to field an all-attack side with the Raheem Sterling/Danny Welbeck question transformed into a Sterling+Welbeck equation. In theory, Roy Hodgson had the game in the palm of his hand. In theory.
Italians flourish when they are up against the odds, we all know that and this is also why friendly draws against Luxembourg aren’t particularly frightening. We don’t like it easy. Far too boring. Drop the Nazionale into a full-blown crisis and they are in Blue Heaven. Sirigu – thank goodness – is no Federico Marchetti, as we all feared a repeat of the South Africa debacle when Buffon was last injured in a World Cup. Paris Saint-Germain have a great goalkeeper and he showed an admirably cool head under immense pressure.
England changed some of their tactics at the last minute, but it was mainly the same approach promised by Hodgson: try to close down Andrea Pirlo and attack with pace. The problem here is that Prandelli saw old Roy coming a mile away and had plenty of time to undermine the whole affair. Run at Pirlo every time he is near the ball? Then he’ll sell you a dummy and create space for the other Italy players. It worked like a charm on Claudio Marchisio’s goal and on several occasions, suggesting this double playmaker system with Marco Verratti has real legs in future too.
Daniele De Rossi’s position is also crucial, providing the kind of coverage and security that for example Milan sorely needed in their final seasons with Pirlo. This quality of midfield is only sustainable thanks to the Roma man, who is effectively working as a sweeper. And, let’s face it, an extra sentinel was essential with Gabriel Paletta there...
Prandelli said tactics and line-ups could change at the last minute, but not fitness levels. He was proved so very right at the Arena Amazonia. Usually it’s Italy players gasping for air in the final minutes of games, but we were greeted to the unusual sight of Azzurri veterans like Chiellini helping young England starlets deal with cramp. It was a Twilight Zone moment, much like seeing the England physio stretchered off with a sprained ankle after over-celebrating.
The Nazionale experienced these conditions in the Confederations Cup last year and learned a great deal from it. Building the so-called ‘Casetta Manaus’ – basically a sauna – in Italy’s training camp was a masterstroke. England merely trained with several layers of clothing, but that cannot hope to replicate the humidity and stifling air of an Amazonian rainforest environment. It’s a completely different kettle of steamed fish. Prandelli’s staff deserve absolute praise for this performance and we can only hope the fitness levels are maintained during the tournament, especially in less challenging atmospheric conditions.
Another great piece of planning was Matteo Darmian. He can really be the Fabio Grosso of Brazil 2014, a full-back from a minor club who suddenly bursts on to the scene and proves decisive. The 24-year-old Torino talent was remarkable against England and it looks as if we’ve finally found the right player for that role after searching through so many dire options. Christian Maggio, goodbye and never come back. However, it now seems worrying that Prandelli doesn’t have a replacement left-back when De Sciglio has spent most of the season injured at Milan already.
Finally, a word of praise for Mario Balotelli. He worked hard, did not let frustration get the better of him and kept plugging away even after a spectacular Phil Jagielka goalline clearance denied him that long-awaited breakthrough. I am glad SuperMario silenced his critics, though I am confident this blog will still receive numerous comments insisting he should be dropped. Chatter away, because Balo is here to stay.