In the steaming heat of Manaus, there were positives for England - in the zestful performance of Raheem Sterling, for example, and the spirited manner in which the team had responded to Italy taking the lead but, in the end, it was the Azzurri who took the key chances, Mario Ballotelli confirming that if you’re going to do one truly useful thing in a game, then make it the winning goal.
“A very disappointing result,” said England manager Roy Hodgson afterwards. “It’s never easy to take positives when you lose but my gut feeling is we did many good things and had good individual performances. But we conceded that second goal and, however hard we tried, we couldn’t produce the quality shot or cross we needed. The players gave it their all. We’ve got to lift out heads now and prepare for the next two games. If they reproduce that performance twice more, they’ve a good chance of getting a result.”
There were plenty of multi-coloured seats visible in the Arena Amazonia at kick off, an attendance of 39,000 falling short of the stadium’s 42,000 capacity, the result of a combination of local disenchantment with the exorbitant price of tickets and the remoteness of the venue for English and Italian supporters.
Roy Hodgson gambled on playing Raheem Sterling through the middle, the tyro flanked by Danny Welbeck on the right and Wayne Rooney on the left, with Daniel Sturridge as the spearhead of the attack.
The idea was to test the Azzurri’s sometimes creaky rearguard with a high-tempo opening and, sure enough, in the very first attack of the game, Sterling caused Italian hearts to flutter with a rasping drive which rippled the side-netting. Jordan Henderson was next to have a go from distance, Gigi Buffon’s replacement Salvatore Sirigu having to get down low to bat the ball away at his near post.
Cesare Prandelli opted to pair the king and the heir apparent, Andrea Pirlo and Marco Verratti, in midfield, something which would either define the phrase ‘embarrassment of riches’ or turn out to be a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth. In the end, Pirlo once again proved he is simply the masterchef.
The 21 year old Verratti played the deeper of the two, the 35 year old Pirlo further forward than has been his wont of late. And it meant the veteran unexpectedly showed up in the English box early on, a clever dink striking Glen Johnson’s forearm and prompting the blue shirts to appeal in vain for a penalty.
For what is traditionally a cautious opening game, there was a pleasing end to end quality about the early exchanges, although Wayne Rooney was peripheral for a long time as Sturridge, Welbeck and Sterling made all the running. But at the other end, Marco Ballotelli wasn’t involved to any greater extent than Rooney, making poor contact on a header from a good position after Pirlo, not for the first time, had put galloping full back Darmian in behind England’s defence.
But the white shirts were carrying a threat too, Andrea Barzagli almost finding his own net after Welbeck pulled the ball back across the face of goal.
In the baking heat, the tempo had slowed appreciably by as early as midway through the first half but then, conjuring magic out of the thick air, the coolest head on the park helped give Italy the breakthrough with a moment of consummate class. Pirlo – who else? – threw England off balance with an exquisite dummy, a thing of almost audacious nonchalance, which in turn allowed Marchisio enough time to tee up his shot and hit a rasping drive through a forest of white shirts to the corner of Joe Hart’s net.
To their credit, England replied immediately - and devastatingly - on the counter attack, Daniel Sturridge taking his Liverpool form into the World Cup arena with a lung-busting run to the far post to drive Rooney’s perfectly measured ball into roof of the net.
Bizarrely, England physio Gary Lewin suffered a dislocated ankle in the ensuing touchline celebrations, ending up in hospital.
“A very sad moment,” was how Hodgson later described the freak incident. “In celebrating the goal, he jumped up, landed on a water bottle and dislocated his ankle. It’s the end of the World Cup for Gary Lewin, I’m afraid.”
It was also first half injury time on the pitch by now - and almost as dramatic - Balotelli awaking from his slumbers to essay an inventive chip from an acute angle which, with Hart stranded, Phil Jagielka did well to head to safety as the ball looked to be dropping just under the bar. And, as Italy kept up a final spasm of pressure before the break, Antonio Candreva struck the foot of Hart’s near post.
In the second half, the blue shirts continued where they’d left off in the first. Just five minutes after the re-start, that man Mario finally made the difference, heading home at the far post after Candreva turned Baines inside out before supplying the perfect cross, the Everton man continuing to have an evening to forget, though, in fairness, he was getting precious little defensive support from Rooney.
But, afterwards, Hodgson rejected criticism of the Man United man.
“We wanted to get Sterling around Pirlo and that meant moving Wayne Rooney,” he said. “It’s very harsh if people are criticising Rooney’s performance because I thought he played well.”
England tried hard to get back into the match, the manager deploying more of his young lions but, for Italy, it was all about energy conservation now. Pass masters at killing games through retaining possession, they soon had and the oles echoing around the arena as the passes were strung together.
But the last word - and almost the perfect one - went to Pirlo, of course, the peerless one rocking the English crossbar with a trademark free-kick as cameras flashed all around the stadium in anticipation of the icing on the cake.
No matter. Italy already had their three points and it’s now England who must find victory on the rebound.
England: Hart, Johnson, Cahill, Jagielka, Baines, Gerrard, Henderson (Wilshere 73), Sterling, Rooney, Welbeck (Barkley 61), Sturridge (Lallana 80).
Italy: Sirigu, Darmian, Paletta, Barzagli, Chiellini, Verratti (Motta, 57) Pirlo, De Rossi, Candreva (Parolo 79), Balotelli (Immobile 73), Marchisio.
Referee: Bjorn Kuipers (Holland).