One of the most anticipated games of the World Cup’s opening weekend, Italy’s meeting with England today in Manaus, Brazil, took a turn early today when Azzurri captain Gianluigi Buffon was ruled out with an ankle injury sustained in training. Instead of the 36-year-old’s 140 international appearances and experience at four previous World Cups, Cesare Prandelli will turn to Salvatore Sirigu, whose ninth international appearance will be by far his most important.
England is not without its own injury concerns, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain out while Danny Welbeck nurses a thigh problem, but none of those ailments can detract from today’s bigger story. These are two of the most storied nations in the soccer world, and although this is only their first game of Brazil 2014, there is an urgency to these first 90 minutes. Grouped with defending South American champions Uruguay, both England and Italy will be thrown into two must-win scenarios if they can’t get a result in Manaus.
Here’s how the teams will line up for today’s 6:00 p.m. Eastern kickoff:
England: Hart; Johnson, Cahill, Jagielka, Baines; Gerrard, Henderson; Welbeck, Sterling, Rooney; Sturridge;
Italy: Sirigu; Darmian, Paletta, Barzagli, Chiellini; De Rossi, Pirlo, Veratti, Candreva, Marchisio; Balotelli
1. England’s Andrea Pirlo obsession – It’s not that the Three Lions are wrong to be concerned about Italy’s midfield magician, but it’s strange to see a player who’s not named Messi, Ronaldo, or Ibrahimovic become such a single-minded focus of an opponent. Given how Pirlo performed against England at Euro 2012 (as well as the talent around him), you can’t blame Roy Hodgson for dwelling on the now-legendary distributor.
2. How do you help Sporadically Super Mario? – Whether Prandelli starts somebody with Mario Balotelli up top will be a game-to-game concern, but the reality of Italy’s attacking options remains the same: The team only has one proven goal scorer in the squad, and for better or worse, it’s the mercurial Balotelli.
3. Some good old English bravery – Hodgson is known for his conservative approach, but in the lead up to Saturday’s match, there was an increasing hope that the former Inter Milan and Liverpool boss will roll the dice with his quick attack against a veteran (read: slower) Italian team. Facing an Azzurri side that should control the ball while needing its fullbacks to augment the width of a narrow midfield, the Three Lions should have their changes to counter, but to what extent will Hodgson play for those moments? Moving Southampton’s Adam Lallana to the bench gives us hint number one.
4. That pitch in Manaus – Particularly in this country, with the U.S. starting its tournament on Monday at the same venue, the quality of the field in Manaus has been a major concern. According to reports, part of the field appear to be painted, portraying an unnatural color of green. If the field’s a mess, it will be even more difficult for these two teams to distinguish themselves.
Expectation: Italy is generally seen as the slightly better team, with its run at Euro 2012 and performance at the 2013 Confederations Cup confirming that perception. Matched up against England, however, the Three Lions’ potential width plus the speed of Daniel Sturridge have given prognosticators pause. There is no clear expectation for this one.
One blogger’s prediction: The last time these teams played a competitive match, 120 minutes passed without a goal. Today’s game my not end scoreless, but where a loss would be a huge blow to either side, we still see a draw.