Many believed that Italy and England's style of play would create a relatively dull matchup, but the 2014 World Cup has refused to play out to expectations so far.
That was once again true Saturday night, as the early Group D matchup produced a fluent, fast-paced, back-and-forth match with a slew of tantalizing chances and tremendous attacking play from each side.
Ultimately, an early second-half finish from Mario Balotelli propelled the Italians to a pivotal 2-1 victory, ending a couple of unbeaten streaks from England, per ESPN's Paul Carr and Opta Sports:
England's 5-game unbeaten streak in WC openers & 10-game unbeaten streak in WC group games are snapped.— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) June 14, 2014
1986 - England have lost their opening World Cup game for the first time since 1986. Unfamiliar.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) June 14, 2014
Here's a look at the game-winning goal:
Still, while the Italians came away with three points, The Independent's Sam Wallace and The Mirror's John Cross were thoroughly impressed by England's performance:
Struggling to think of a better England performance since Euro 2004. But they were up against a ruthlessly brilliant Italy team tonight— Sam Wallace (@SamWallaceIndy) June 14, 2014
In a match that featured end-to-end action, it would be difficult to criticize either side. According to Squawka, possession was even, passing was on point and the shots were far from limited:
Carr and Opta Sports added two more unbelievable numbers:
Italy completed 92.2% of passes vs England. Highest pass pct by any team in a #WorldCup game since 1966.— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) June 15, 2014
91% - England's pass completion tonight was the highest they've ever recorded in a World Cup game (1966-2014). Progress. #ENG— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) June 15, 2014
Prior to this match, there was much talk about Italy's aging squad, England's youth and both teams' disappointing showings at the 2010 World Cup. But this was an early candidate for match of the tournament, as each side looked fantastic.
FOX Sports' Kyle McCarthy noted the difference:
Cross added to the praise of Andrea Pirlo:
The veteran Juventus midfielder was his typical orchestrating self. He hit a mesmerizing late free-kick that fooled Joe Hart and flew off the crossbar, and as always, he was the engine to Italy's attack.
WhoScored noted his impressive passing stats:
Andrea Pirlo: Completed 95% of his 108 attempted passes vs England #ita— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) June 15, 2014
He also had a convincing dummy in the first half that helped provide space for Claudio Marchisio, who sent a low rocket screaming past Hart to give Italy an early 1-0 lead.
As WhoScored.com pointed out, the goal continued a recent hot stretch for the midfielder not usually known for his goal-scoring prowess:
Claudio Marchisio: Has scored 3 goals in his last 4 games for club and country #ENGvsITA— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) June 14, 2014
England quickly bounced back, though. A beautiful couple of passes opened up Wayne Rooney down the left sideline, and he perfectly picked out Daniel Sturridge, who equalized with ease:
Balotelli's finish off Antonio Cadreva's cross in the 50th minute put Italy ahead for good, though, as the Azzurri were able to hold on during a scintillating final 40 minutes to earn three points.
Italy and Costa Rica, who surprisingly defeated Uruguay earlier in the day, now sit atop the group with three points, forcing Squawka to highlight an important match moving forward:
There's still a long way until the knockout rounds, though, and if Italy and England continue to play like they did Saturday, it's difficult to imagine either of them failing to advance out of this stacked group.