MANAUS – Gp D: England 1, Italy 2 latest —- Mario Balotelli punished a fragile England defence to head Italy to a crucial victory in their winners-take-almost-all confrontation in the Arena Amazonia.
Earlier Giorgio Marchisio and Daniel Sturridge had exchanged goals in three-minute first half spell which offered England deceptive – and vain – hope.
In the end England were paying the penalty for inadequate defending against an Italian side who were far more compact and effective all around the pitch.
The outcome was particularly depressing because England made a bright start. Surprise choice Raheem Sterling thundered an angled drive into the side net before Jordan Henderson drew a sharp save from Salvatore Sirigu, playing in goal for Italy in place of Gigi Buffon who had twisted an ankle in training the previous evening.
Roy Hodgson’s men remained the more positive side. Danny Welbeck shot wide after a giveaway error by Italian centreback Gabriel Paletta then the Manchester United man’s right-wing cross very nearly prompted an own goal from Andrea Barzagli.
However Italy, in typical counter-attacking fashion, struck the opening blow. Andrea Pirlo stepped over a corner from the right and Claudio Marchisio thundered a low drive through a forest of players in the penalty box and wide of Joe Hart’s right hand.
England hit back almost immediately. Wayne Rooney found space down the left for the first time and crossed at pace to the far post where Sturridge came racing in to strke the ball first time up into the roof of the net.
The problem for England was that, with Rooney not dropping back to support Leighton Baines, Italy’s right-side partnership of raiding fullback Matteo Darmian and winger Antonio Candreva were causing more and more trouble.
Italy went close twice in the last seconds of the first half. First Mario Balotelli drew Hart wide and saw his brilliant chip headed off the line by Phil Jagielka then, after the corner, Marco Verratti saw an angled shot ricochet t0 safety off Hart’s right-hand post.
Cesare Prandelli’s men maintained their positive momentum after the interval as well. In the 53rd minute Candreva tricked Baines and pulled over a left-foot cross which Balotelli headed in from close range at the far post. As a ‘telegraphed’ goal it was a major disappointment for England’s defence.
Hodgson sought to shake up the attacking effort by bringing Jack Wilshere and then Ross Barkley into the action and switching Sterling to the right wing but Italy’s defensive organisation was exemplary.
England, for all their effort and possession, generated next to nothing in terms of attacking openings.
In fact, Italy came the closest to a goal when a Pirlo free kick, deep in stoppage, clipped the top of the crossbar with Hart flat-footed.
** England suffered an extra blow when physio Gary Lewin suffered a fractured and dislocated ankle in the celebrations of Daniel Sturridge’s goal.