Watch England v Italy live on BBC1 at 11pm on Saturday
Undoubtedly one of the blockbuster opening matches of the 2014 World Cup is the Group D clash between England and Italy. And the outcome could, to a large extent, boil down to which side is better equipped to cope with the conditions.
‘Boil’ is, ironically, the operative word. Indeed, the game will be staged in Manaus, an Amazonian jungle city, and temperatures are predicted to reach the dizzy heights of 90 degrees Fahrenheit. And, commensurate with its tropical monsoon climate, humidity levels will be very high – around 80 per cent, in fact.
The state of the ground in the Arena da Amazonia is pretty bad by all accounts. FIFPro, the global players’ Union, describe it as ‘unsuitable’, and there have been reports that, on Thursday, ground staff were spraying the surface with what looked like green paint, presumably to improve the aesthetics of the pitch.
The combination of the searing heat and condition of the turf, assuming it is as bad as reports suggest, will hopefully not detract from this match as a spectacle. But, in reality, are we expecting it to be a spectacle? Or, deep down, are we bracing ourselves for a night of tactical, middle-of-the-park ping pong?
It’s well documented that, in order for the Three Lions to truly roar against Italy, they will need to neutralise the Azzurri’s playmaker-in-chief, Andrea Pirlo. To stress just how important it is for England to put Pirlo in his place, we need to put Pirlo’s genius into perspective.
When the two nations last met in a competitive match, a Euro 2012 quarter-final tie, Pirlo strung together more passes than the entire England team combined. Give the 35-year-old room to manoeuvre and you’ll end up a as a mere puppet in Pirlo’s puppeteer show.
That match ended 0-0, with the Italians eventually progressing following a 4-2 verdict via penalty shootout. The problem when two teams’ desire not to lose a match is stronger than their desire to win it, is that the result tends to be a goalless draw. It doesn’t make for compulsive viewing and, I fear, this could easily turn out to be one of those games.
Is Raheem worth his weight in Sterling?
Vibes emanating from the England camp strongly suggest that Raheem Sterling will feature in the starting XI on Saturday. Pitching a 19-year-old into a game of this magnitude is not without risks, but his sheer pace and dynamism could potentially cause Italy all sorts of problems.
With Danny Welbeck and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain likely to miss out through injury, Roy Hodgson could play Daniel Sturridge as the sole out-and-out striker, with Wayne Rooney just behind him. Adam Lallana could feature along with Sterling in an advanced midfield role, and Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson sitting deeper.
Meanwhile, the Azzurri are expected to deploy Mario Balotelli up front, either alongside Cirro Immobile or as a lone striker supported by a five-man midfield in a 4-1-4-1 formation. The mercurial Balotelli is 5/1 with Betfair in the first goalscorer market.
England v Italy betting advice
Italy are favourites with Betfair at 9/5. Meanwhile, England are 2/1 and the draw is available at 19/10. Betfair is offering an incentive relating to all England matches: place a pre-match Sportsbook single bet on any England group game and, if the Three Lions lose, they will refund your stake of up to £25 by way of a free bet. Can’t say fairer than that!
There is cause for optimism where England is concerned. If Hodgson throws caution to the wind and adopts a cavalier approach to this match it could pay dividends. Indeed, the Azzurri are habitual slow starters, winning just one of their last five opening games in major tournaments, and they failed to win a single game as defending champions in South Africa four years ago.
Conversely, England have won just two of their last 11 clashes with the Italians overall, and Cesare Prandelli’s side reminded everyone that you underestimate them at your peril when runners-up in the European Championships two years ago. Hodgson will not want to take unnecessary risks against the four-time World Cup winners, especially with the margin for error in Group D so minimal.
Indeed, with the ‘Group of Death’ also featuring a dangerous Uruguay side, a defeat for either England or Italy on Saturday night would potentially leave the losers with a veritable mountain to climb. A place in the last will not be out of reach, but it will be at arm’s length.
Hopefully, I’ll be wrong – I’d quite happily end up with egg on my face, and a lighter pocket, if it meant that this game were to produce several goals – but I strongly believe that this will be a tight, evenly-matched affair. Consequently, the best bet of the match in my opinion is under 1.5 goals at 11/8 with Betfair.