New-look England and wizened Italy face jungle test
The contrasting qualities of youth and experience will compete to tame Manaus’s punishing jungle humidity as a fresh-faced England, largely unburdened by past failures, play a wizened Italy, with a squad still imbued with their 2006 World Cup success.
England, whose qualifying campaign was underpinned by Hodgson’s natural caution, look set to put their faith in a pack of attacking youngsters with only a handful of caps between them but with energy in abundance and plenty of hard running in the tank.
Italy, by contrast, still revolve around midfield metronome Andrea Pirlo, a veteran of their final victory over France eight years ago, to set the tempo for a possession game where the ball is jealously guarded and energy conserved rather than expended.
Pirlo is one of three current Italy players with World Cup winners’ medals along with 36-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and 30-year-old midfielder Daniele De Rossi.
Italy’s legacy of success, having reached the final in two of their last four major tournaments as well as a semi-final appearance at last year’s Confederations Cup, contrasts strikingly with England’s record of persistently flattering to deceive.
Yet one advantage of England’s new-look side is there will be no hangover from 2010 where they exited the World Cup in a 4-1 last-16 defeat to Germany.
Captain Steven Gerrard, right back Glen Johnson and striker Wayne Rooney are the only likely starters on Saturday to have survived that dismal performance.
With Hodgson dropping hints that he could include Liverpool’s 19-year-old trickster Raheem Sterling in a forward line that is set to feature relative international novices Daniel Sturridge and Adam Lallana, England are looking to the future rather than the past.
The fact that expectation levels are at a low ebb could also work in favour of a side that retains enormous attacking potential.
“It’s probably the best squad I’ve been involved in so it’s great to be a part of. I am looking forward to this tournament and the future with England because it certainly looks bright,” Rooney told reporters earlier this week.
England lost to Italy on penalties in the quarter-finals of the European Championship two years ago and the Italians are strongly favoured to emerge from a tough group that also includes Uruguay and Costa Rica.
There is no lack of confidence in the camp with open talk of another run to the final.
“We can win the World Cup,” said Pirlo earlier in the week. “I always play to win and I won’t be satisfied by just getting out of the group stage or into the quarter-finals.”
“This Italy team has everything it needs to go all the way.”
Perhaps the difference between England and Italy is that none of Hodgson’s men could utter that prediction without it being greeted by laughter.
(Writing by Toby Davis in Recife, Brazil; editing by Nigel Hunt)