England run out of energy and ideas against Italy
Balotelli scored the winner after Sturridge cancelled out Marchisio’s opener
Italy’s Mario Balotelli (left) scores the winner against England at the Amazonia Arena in Manaus. Photograph: Andres Stapff / Reuters
It was a match in which Italy’s superiority in possession proved decisive. Having chased the ball for much of the game in the heat and humidity, England were unable to up the tempo when trailing in the last 20 minutes.
Sterling had only ever played in that position as part of a midfield diamond, which meant there were three players behind him, as opposed to the two he would have backing him up in England’s formation.
And to accommodate Sterling in that position, Hodgson had two strikers, Rooney and Welbeck, in the wide positions.
The system made some exacting demands on Rooney, in particular. When England had the ball Rooney was expected to burst forward into attack, and when they lost it he had to retreat and tuck in on the left side of midfield. What this meant in practice was that Rooney spent the opening period of the game making a punishing series of shuttle runs without touching the ball.
It seemed that Hodgson had devised a way for his senior forward to wear himself out without affecting the game.
Nevertheless, there was almost a spectacular dividend inside three minutes, when Sterling received the ball just inside the Italian half, skipped past one challenge, and then, almost for want of a better idea, hammered a shot goalwards with his right foot.
The ball buried itself in the sidenetting in such a convincing manner that half the stadium was fooled into thinking Sterling had scored.
England created another good chance when Welbeck got the better of Paletta, but his low cross was diverted out of the path of the onrushing Sturridge by Barzagli’s desperate challenge.
Italy moved the ball around patiently and conservatively but with little penetration. They only looked threatening when feeding the ball into the path of the overlapping right-back Darmian of Juventus.
Leighton Baines was caught out of position by the Italian interplay, but luckily for England, every time Darmian crossed the ball the sluggish Balotelli failed to react.
After half an hour, the game had settled into a lull, with both sides plainly uncomfortable in the humidity and playing at walking pace. Then, in the 35th minute, a typical moment of invention from Andrea Pirlo broke the deadlock.
Pirlo was tightly marked by Daniel Sturridge when he shaped to receive a pass on the corner of the area. Instead of controlling the ball, the Italy captain threw a delicious dummy that foxed the entire England defence, but not his team-mate Claudio Marchisio, who had read the intention and was already sizing up the situation in the penalty area as the ball passed between Pirlo’s legs.
The dummy had even bought Marchisio enough time to tee the ball up for himself. He rolled it forward with his studs, then hit a furious low shot through the crowded box and into Hart’s bottom-right hand corner.
England looked dejected as they waited for protracted Italian celebrations to conclude. Trailing 1-0 to a side that had bossed the game with 60 per cent possession, with a lot of running already done in punishing humidity, their situation looked bleak.
Yet it took barely 90 seconds of play before they were level. The goal could be seen as a vindication of Hodgson’s strategy. Sterling stole the ball from Pirlo in midfield and released Rooney with a clever angled ball to the left side. Rooney could see Sturridge running for the far post, but getting the ball to him was no easy task.
He conjured up a beautiful left-footed pass from the corner of the area that faded perfectly into Sturridge’s path. The Liverpool forward didn’t have to break stride as he buried a gleeful half-volley into the roof of the Italian net.
England responded with their own ecstatic celebrations, which got so out of control that their physio Gary Lewin broke his ankle amidst the chaos and had to be stretchered off.
Italy were no doubt furious with themselves to have squandered the lead so easily, but there was still time for them to come back at England before half-time.
Marchisio prodded a pass through for Balotelli, who got free on the left side of England’s penalty area. Joe Hart had come out for a ball he was never going to reach, and now the keeper froze. Balotelli sized up his options and coolly spun the ball over the head of his former club-mate.
The chip was dropping under the bar until Phil Jagielka headed it off the line.
From the resulting corner, Candreva again nearly embarrassed Hart, this time with a shot towards the near post that the goalkeeper didn’t anticipate.
This one hit the outside of the post and Dutch referee Mr Kuipers blew for half time. England re-emerged without having done anything to address Italy’s superiority down their left side.
They were punished within a few minutes. Darmian found Candreva, who methodically turned Leighton Baines inside out and sent an inswinging cross floating towards the far post.
This time Balotelli was in the right place and he made no mistake with a downward header beyond Hart. England now had it all to do again, but they knew that Italy were unlikely to give away another equaliser quite so easily.
Their best chances came in the minutes immediately following the Italian goal. After Sturridge had jinked down Italy’s left, the ball richocheted to Baines, who found Rooney with a clever ball that wrong-footed the Italian defence. Rooney controlled and from 12 yards shot fiercely at the near post, but the ball streaked a foot wide. That was to be England’s best chance.
The rest of the game seemed to slide by for the team in white, who introduced Ross Barkley, Jack Wilshere and Adam Lallana without effectively changing the pattern of the game. The problem was that the players who had started the game were exhausted. They no longer had the reserves of energy to force the issue.
Rooney, author of that sublime first-half assist, summed up their decline when he shanked a corner kick directly towards the crowd. Italy knew that England were gone with 10 minutes to go and they finished much the stronger of the two sides, their fans - a number that seemed to include most of the neutrals - olé-ing as they passed the ball around exhausted England challengers.
There was even time for Pirlo to smack the crossbar with a 35-yard free-kick to which Joe Hart did not react. Another quick Italian counter left Immobile racing one on one with Cahill, but the England defender got the ball away with a desperate challenge. That was the last action of the game.
England and Uruguay face each other in Sao Paulo on Thursday knowing that the loser is going home.