Why Always Him? Italy's Balotelli Breaks England Hearts
Story of the Game
Both teams started brightly and the game took a surprisingly fast pace given the pre-match hype surrounding the sweltering heat. Raheem Sterling went agonisingly close early on with a long-range pile driver that rippled the side netting. I was not alone in celebrating wildly before realising the trick of the camera. Henderson also forced a good save out of Sirigu as England pushed for an early goal.
Italy grew more into proceedings and began to dominate possession. Darmian and Candreva down the right hand side saw a lot of the ball and were repeatedly causing problems with 2 on 1 situations. Pressure was building on England’s goal and they were struggling to get a foot-hold in the Italian half, so it was not against the run of play when the Azzurri took the lead on 35 minutes. A short corner on the right was then passed towards Andrea Pirlo who, rather than collecting the ball, sold a magnificent dummy and let it run to Marchisio. After taking a touch, the Italian rifled the ball home into Hart’s bottom right corner through the legs of a couple of defenders.
England’s response to going a goal down was highly commendable, levelling proceedings less than two minutes after going behind. Raheem Sterling picked the ball up in midfield and played a magnificent raking pass to Wayne Rooney which split the defence. After charging down the left, Rooney clipped over a cross to Daniel Sturridge who had pulled away at the back post. The Liverpool forward made no mistake from six yards out with a thunderous right foot finish. Wild celebrations ensued but unfortunately, England physio Gary Lewin was caught up in the throng and dislocated his ankle. Everyone wishes him a speedy recovery and hopes that his participation in Brazil is not over.
A late first half Italian flurry culminated in Jagielka being forced to head clear from under his own bar following a Balotelli chip. The second half began in much the same vein, with Italy having the majority of the ball and creating some openings, but England certainly looked dangerous on the break. 5 minutes after the interval, Candreva was found on the right flank once again and isolated Leighton Baines. Italy’s number 4 cut back inside onto his left foot and found Balotelli at the back post who had pulled away from Gary Cahill. Johnson was not there to cover and Mario had the relatively easy task of heading past Joe Hart from close range.
Again, England’s response was positive and they did not allow Italy to slow the pace of the game too much. Roy Hodgson brought on Barkley for Welbeck to try and add more invention to England’s attacks. It certainly did have an effect and several chances were carved out, the most glaring of which fell to Wayne Rooney but he dragged his shot agonisingly wide of the near post. While opportunities did fall England’s way, there wasn’t really a point in the second half where Italy had their backs to the wall. During injury time, the Italians won a free kick about 30 yards from England’s goal, and Andrea Pirlo sent a dipping and curving effort crashing onto the stationary Joe Hart’s cross bar. A timely reminder of his outstanding quality to come at the climax of proceedings in Manaus.
Although I feel a draw would have been a fair result, Italy were perhaps the side who posed a more constant threat and so England cannot be too unhappy with defeat. Plenty of positives can be taken from the game such as the impact of Raheem Sterling and an improving Danny Welbeck, but there are also many problems that need addressing. I think it is clear now that Rooney cannot play on the flanks, but is he playing well enough to justify a place in the middle? How can Hodgson provide more protection for his full-backs without losing out on the side’s attacking intent? These need resolving before the must-win clash against Uruguay.
England: Hart, Johnson, Cahill, Jagielka, Baines, Gerrard (capt), Henderson (Wilshere – 73’), Welbeck (Barkley – 61’), Sterling, Rooney, Sturridge (Lallana – 80’).
1. Joe Hart – 7. Was not at fault for either goal conceded, and generally commanded his penalty area well. Had a slight misjudgement in the build up to Balotelli’s chip.
2. Glen Johnson – 5. Another poor performance to add to a catalogue of recent others. Clueless going forward and a lack of communication at the back cost England dearly.
5. Gary Cahill – 6. A fairly solid performance, and although England conceded twice, he couldn’t have really done anything more.
6. Phil Jagielka – 7. Dealt fairly well with Italy’s attacks and made a great clearance off the line from a Balotelli chip.
3. Leighton Baines – 4. Didn’t really provide a meaningful contribution in an attacking sense; not really looking to beat his man, and his corners were of a low quality. He wasn’t offered much defensive protection by his left midfielder, but didn’t cover himself in glory when Candreva provided the assist for the second goal.
14. Jordan Henderson – 6. Kept the ball reasonably well and was energetic in his play as always. Didn’t do anything particularly special and was sacrificed in the second half as England pushed for a goal.
4. Steven Gerrard – 5. Failed to influence the game to a great degree and his delivery from set pieces wasn’t quite up to his usual standard. Had plenty of possession but failed to inject the same pace or incision into the game as normal.
11. Danny Welbeck – 8. Having proved his fitness, he was handed a rather surprising start and performed above and beyond what many expected. Frequently stretched the Italian back line and chased back well to win possession on several occasions.
19. Raheem Sterling – 9. The brightest light in an England shirt, he more than justified his selection from the start. Flashes of brilliance were combined with a consistent performance throughout, and seemed to be the one player the Italian defence could not handle with confidence.
10. Wayne Rooney – 5. Another poor showing that’s only positive was the assist for Sturridge. Repeatedly caught out of position down England’s left and provided little protection for his full-back. His starting berth is now under serious pressure.
9. Daniel Sturridge – 7. Was a constant thorn in Italy’s side, with his pace and quick feet proving difficult to handle. Popped up with the goal for England that was by no means an easy finish.
21. Ross Barkley – 7. Made a difference when he came on and kept possession well in the attacking areas. Made a further case for a starting berth against Uruguay.
7. Jack Wilshere – 5. Brought on to try and break down Italy’s defence with clever passing but never threatened to do so. He ran down many a blind alley and failed to have a noticeable impact.
20. Adam Lallana – 6. Didn’t have much time to do anything to affect the result but his balance and quick feet won a couple of free kicks for England. A possible starter against Uruguay.
12. Salvatore Sirigu – 6. Made a couple of decent saves but primarily parried rather than catching them. Came to claim several of England’s corners.
4. Matteo Darmian – 8. Constantly pushing Leighton Baines back and providing crosses for Balotelli to attack. His defensive capabilities had been questioned prior to the game, but he more than answered his critics.
15. Andrea Barzagli – 6. Marshalled attacks fairly well but couldn’t stop plenty of shots raining down on Sirigu’s goal.
20. Gabriel Paletta – 5. Was turned plenty of times and often dragged out of position. The weakest member of the Italian back line.
3. Giorgio Chiellini – 7. A classically robust performance, making strong tackles and was never really shown up. Offered something going forward but nowhere near as much as Darmian.
16. Daniele De Rossi – 7. Broke up play well before either holding onto possession or shifting it quickly. Dropped back between the centre halves later on and helped to shore up the defence against an England onslaught.
21. Andrea Pirlo – 9. Another majestic display from possibly the best passer in world football. Played the game at walking pace and had important contributions in both of Italy’s goals.
23. Marco Verratti – 7. Added youth and mobility to the Italian midfield and popped up all over the park before being substituted.
8. Claudio Marchisio – 7. Scored the goal to set Italy on their way and also carried out a good job for the team by offering constant protection to his full-back.
6. Antonio Candreva – 9. Constantly had Baines on the ropes and England couldn’t find a way to counteract him. Assisted Balotelli’s goal with a wonderful run and cross and generally kept England pegged back all night.
9. Mario Balotelli – 7. Barring the goal, he did not do a great deal but his physicality kept Cahill and Jagielka on edge. A brilliantly improvised chip over Joe Hart was cleared off the line, and he was eventually brought off for Immobile.
5. Thiago Motta – 6. Was brought on to add a greater degree of control to proceedings and did help to achieve that. He kept possession well and was a reliable recipient of the ball during the time he was on.
17. Ciro Immobile – 5. Repeatedly caught offside which allowed England’s defence the opportunity to push further up the field. Posed less of a problem to Cahill and Jagielka than Balotelli.
18. Marco Parolo – 5. Not much of a noticeable contribution after entering proceedings, but didn’t let his side down either.
Man of the Match:
Although I was massively impressed with Raheem Sterling and how he was able to translate his form in a red shirt onto the international stage, I feel the Man of the Match should come from an Italian. Darmian’s marauding runs from right-back were used throughout by Italy as an ‘out ball’ and made Baines very fearful of coming forward. He reminded me of Cafu or Dani Alves in their prime, possessing seemingly boundless amounts of energy and almost always found in the position of a right midfielder without ever being caught out defensively. Andrea Pirlo was also highly impressive and performed to the same level that he has achieved on a consistent basis over the last few years. He played the game at such a slow pace, never rushed, always with time on the ball, and his passes were caressed into his team mates with staggering accuracy.
However, for the scale of impact on the outcome of the game, Antonio Candreva is my Man of the Match. Playing in a role where he was difficult to pick up by any individual defender, the Lazio winger was a scourge on England’s defensive unit. Right from the early stages, he would combine well with Darmian and the Italian central midfield to create space for himself and others to operate in. Close control was demonstrated to the highest degree and he was able to provide a problem for England in many different manners. Dropping off, putting in early crosses, and beating his man were all ways in which he posed a threat. It was this last method which led to Italy’s winning goal but his final ball was magnificent all night. If he is able to match that performance for the duration of the tournament, The Azzurri will be a threat to absolutely anyone.