The England of 2014, led by the teenager Raheem Sterling and at last playing like a team that knows how to attack, have finally arrived on the world stage. A pity for them that they should come up against those shrewd old men of Italy, who picked them off in the second half and condemned Roy Hodgson’s men to the kind of cruel defeat that can befall good teams.
A first-match World Cup finals defeat for England. The result that no one wanted albeit the performance that everyone had prayed for. Yes, at times England wobbled in defence, and Mario Balotelli’s winner on 50 minutes was the kind of goal that no team should concede but that was always a possibility. Yet Hodgson’s team showed an attacking threat that gives hope.
England have stumbled through draws and even victories in opening games of tournaments with worst performances than this. The best of Sterling, Danny Welbeck, and the goalscorer Daniel Sturridge was not enough. Now it will be the uphill struggle, and in Sao Paulo on Thursday they cannot afford to lose to Uruguay, beaten by Costa Rica earlier in the day.
Hodgson will have to pick up his men for that game. At least the good points abound. Sterling was magnificent, playing first as the No 10 and then eventually out on the left as England were shifted around. The concern will be about Wayne Rooney who, aside for his assist for Sturridge, looked off-form.
It was a big call by Roy Hodgson to pick Sterling, the 19-year-old whose rise has outstripped all expectation. The likelihood is that Sterling, suspended for the last warm-up game after his red card against Ecuador, gave Hodgson no choice at all. His training performances have been electrifying. Almost immediately he gave Italy something to think about.
Less than three minutes had been played of the first half when Sterling eased past a tackle and hit a shot that slapped the side-netting to the left side of Salvatore Sirigu’s goal. The second-choice Italian goalkeeper was on the pitch in place of Gianluigi Buffon, who had turned his ankle in training the night before.
It was a wonderful first half, with two very different tactical systems. England were prepared to sit deep and stay tight, ceding territory to Andrea Pirlo in midfield and down the flanks.
There was no man-marking job on the great icon of Italian football style. Instead they let him have possession and while he picked out passes to both wings, goalkeeper Joe Hart and his defence dealt with the ball into the box well.
Going forward, England were a very different proposition. They were fast – showing much more pace than the Italians – and exciting. Italy had no answer to it and relied on keeping the ball and trying to keep England in their own half.
At last there was something to believe in. There was a discernible plan and it released the England attack. The only thing that was missing was a performance from Rooney, stuck out on the left to accommodate the new boy wonder in the centre. It had caused England, and Leighton Baines in particular, problems when the Manchester United man had failed to track back and the full-back had words more than once.
Unfortunately for England, a short corner on the left on 34 minutes, given away after Rooney and Baines had left space on that side, led to Italy’s goal. The ball was worked out to Pirlo on the edge of the box, he essayed a glorious dummy that deceived Sturridge and the ball fell for Claudio Marchisio, who had time for a touch to set it and then dispatch it with his right foot past Hart.
England responded magnificently within two minutes. Sterling picked a pass down the left channel to Rooney, he crossed impeccably to the back post and Sturridge took it on the half-volley with his right foot. It was a wonderful goal, and reward for England’s ingenuity in attack. The celebrations on the touchline were so wild that the physio Gary Lewin required a stretcher after dislocating his ankle.
There was one more scare for England in the first half when Balotelli drew Hart to one side of the area, doubled back and chipped him. Phil Jagielka capped a solid first half by heading the ball off the line.
With Rooney switched to the right, and Welbeck left, England had the first chance of the second half, a shot from Sturridge who seemed capable of skipping away from the Italian defence at will, this time breaking through an outstretched arm across his chest. His shot was saved.
Then the second Italian goal, another that originated out on the England left. Antonio Candreva, who had used the space out on the wing astutely, turned it back on to his right with Baines unable to get close. Then he clipped a masterful cross to the back post where Balotelli had pulled away from Gary Cahill to head the ball in from close range.
All their best work had been undone. It put England straight on to the back foot, although they came back at the Italians in strong fashion and Steven Gerrard had a decent penalty appeal when Gabriel Paletta stepped across him in the penalty area on 56 minutes.
Ross Barkley came on for Welbeck and played down the left, forcing a good save with his right foot from Sirigu Later, Jack Wilshere replaced Jordan Henderson and England pushed hard. A free-kick from Baines was pushed wide but England could not find a way through.
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