We are currently trialling our new-look independent.co.uk website - please send any feedback to beta@independent.co.uk


Italy vs Costa Rica World Cup 2014: Mario Balotelli too hot to worry about Costa Rica’s tactics

Also, goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon expected to return in goal against Costa Rica

The wonderful thing about Mario Balotelli is that he never follows a script, not even when it has been written by the man sitting next to him.

As he delivered his pre-match press conference inside the glittering silver structure of the Arena Pernambuco, the Italy manager, Cesare Prandelli, was saying all the usual things. He remarked how tenacious Costa Rica had been to pull off their stunning victory over Uruguay. “We have studied this squad a lot,” he went on.

At this point, Balotelli was asked what he had learnt from studying videos of Costa Rica. The man who decided the encounter with England in Manaus admitted that while he had certainly watched the videos, he could not actually remember very much about them.

Balotelli, the man his manager said “could take Italy to the moon”, is not someone who would change his game, no matter how many films he watched. He plays and lives purely by instinct.

The Milan striker appears a calmer and more relaxed figure than he has been recently – the only Balotelli story to have appeared from the Italian training camp has been of him filling the Italy page in his World Cup stickers book with pictures of himself. “I am approaching this competition with a great peace of mind,” he said. “I don’t feel any pressure because it is not Mario’s World Cup, it is Italy’s World Cup.”

And it is going better than many dared hope. If you had had to pick any of the big European sides to crash and burn in Brazil, it would not have been Spain, this century’s most successful team, but Italy.

They had defended the World Cup won in Berlin abysmally in South Africa. They had won none of their warm-up matches and lost one of their finest midfielders, Riccardo Montolivo, to a broken leg.

When they arrived in Rio de Janeiro, they managed to concede three goals to Fluminense, who had almost got themselves relegated, and then lost their captain, Gianluigi Buffon and, because of an injury to Mattia de Sciglio, were forced into employing their third-choice goalkeeper against England. They were not even able to field a specialist left-back.

Prandelli, described what followed as “an epic”. The goals from Claudio Marchisio and Balotelli were superbly worked and, in his final tournament for his beloved Azurri, Andrea Pirlo produced a masterful display.

Despite the suffocating heat in the Arena Amazonia, only Germany ran further than Italy’s collective 11km in their first fixture and their pass-rate completion of 93.2 per cent is the highest of the tournament. However, at the final whistle both Marchisio and Marco Verratti began hallucinating because of exhaustion.

Their focus will be much sharper now. Buffon, who at 36 can still claim to be the world’s best keeper – especially given the calamities that have befallen Spain’s Iker Casillas – is expected to return for his 141st cap.

Thiago Motta, whose decision to exchange Brazil for Italy looks more perceptive than Diego Costa’s to opt for Spain, could return to stiffen Prandelli’s midfield.

It seems straightforward but Recife means “reef” in Portuguese and Italy are perfectly capable of wrecking themselves on it. After their stunning second-half performance against Uruguay in Fortaleza, nobody is calling Costa Rica “minnows” but Italy’s record against unfancied teams in World Cups is on a par with England’s.

The rotten tomatoes that greeted their return from the 1966 tournament after being eliminated by North Korea are still metaphorically fresh and it was New Zealand who ended their hold on the World Cup four years ago. And Costa Rica are rather better than New Zealand.