World Cup 2014: Balotelli Leads Italy Past England!

Strange things happen to soccer players when they pull on an England shirt. Alpha-male goalies get twitchy. Experienced defenses start playing with all the cohesion of a bunch of drunk dads at a barbecue. Normally-astute midfielders turn into simpletons and start running around furiously like pixel-men in a 90s videogame, only able to change direction in 45-degree angles. Up front, two strikers who’ve lost all their usual touch and timing plod about disconsolately, taking turns to look accusingly at their team-mates.

Most English people have grown to accept this transformation as a fact of nature, but coach Roy Hodgson is one man who  bucks the trend. He’s tried to shake things up, bless him. He ditched England’s signature formation—a nervous, neurotic interpretation of 4-4-2—and adopted a setup with two holding midfielders, a line of three creative players and a single striker. He dropped Ashley Cole, England’s best-ever left-back, and called up a bunch of callow youngsters.

The signs from England’s warm-up games (two draws, one win) weren’t great. Theoretically the formation makes England more flexible; in practice the players’ hangups seem to have rubbed off on the new 4-2-3-1 setup, making it look old-fashioned and rigid. A bit English, in other words. And the players — well, they’re still England players. In interview after interview, they’ve queued up to proclaim how confident they are, how excited, how they’re going to play with confidence and freedom this time round — and you could see the fear in their eyes.

This evening will be a huge test for England’s players. Although they managed to take a more-or-less identical Italian side to penalties in their quarter-final at Euro 2012 two years ago, they were lucky not to be badly beaten. Italy dominated as Andrea Pirlo –sedate in possession, technically brilliant, everything the typical England midfielder isn’t — dismantled the defense time and again.

Stopping Pirlo will be a key tactical challenge for England. But this Italy side is shot through with talent. The defense, based around Juventus’ serial title-winning back-line, is one of the best in the competition; manager Cesare Prandelli has an absurd number of talented central midfielders to pick from; striker Mario Balotelli is always capable of genius. The Azzurri aren’t among the favorites for the World Cup, but they always perform.

ENGLAND: Hart, Johnson, Jagielka, Cahill, Baines, Gerrard, Henderson, Welbeck, Sterling, Rooney, Sturridge

The only news in the England line-up is that Raheem Sterling, the exciting young Liverpool forward, has been selected to start ahead of Adam Lallana. Lallana was favored in England’s friendly warm-ups and performed OK. He’s pretty slow, though, and most England fans will be pleased to see that Hodgson went with Raheem, who excelled for Liverpool last season (It will be no surprise to readers of the WJS’s markets coverage that Sterling has performing strongly recently.)  Still, the main unknown for England wasn’t the personnel but instead the question of who gets the job of marking Pirlo. Wayne Rooney did a pretty appalling job of it in 2012.

ITALY: Sirigu, Darmian, Paletta, Barzagli, Chiellini, De Rossi, Pirlo, Verratti, Marchisio, Candreva, Balotelli

The selection of Parma’s Gabriel Paletta, a center-back, and Torino right-back Darmian means it looks like Prandelli has chosen to play four defenders, rather than the back three he has sometimes favored in the past. That pushes Giorgio Chiellini out to left-back, a position where Italy lack a top-class specialist. It’s a slight surprise to see him choose Marco Verratti in midfield, rather than his more experienced PSG team-mate Thiago Motta, but not a real shock. Out of a whole slew of contenders to partner Mario Balotelli in attack, Lazio’s Antonio Candreva gets the nod.

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