Mark Andrea Pirlo out of the game, they said, and you shut down Italy. Obviously, nobody told those pundits about Marco Verratti, or even Daniele De Rossi, who for all his fame as a physical ball-winner, is nevertheless an exquisite passer of the ball.
The Italians started the game, then, with not one but three play-makers. Roma's De Rossi from defensive phases, behind Juventus' Pirlo and Paris Saint-Germain's Verratti.
Between them, they passed England to death, racking up an impressive 93% successful pass rate. And their hard work and clever invention unlocked two players that to Roy Hodgson were probably an after-thought: Antonio Candreva and Claudio Marchisio.
When Lazio's Candreva described starting against England as the highlight of his career, he wasn't exaggerating. The talented, energetic attacking midfielder is a fine player, but is neither world-class nor world-renowned, and seeing his name in the starting XI, most England fans were probably indifferent. Juve's Marchisio is similar: an excellent footballer but not as lauded as his teammates at club level and occasionally seriously under-rated.
Neither has the star power of Pirlo, De Rossi or Mario Balotelli—but for Cesare Prandelli that doesn't matter. He's built a squad that's more than the sum of its parts, and the fact that his two attacking midfielders were among the best players on the pitch against England is proof that he was right to.
Marchisio opened the scoring with a fine effort, and Candreva assisted Balotelli's eventual winner and hit the woodwork himself. The win was very much a team effort—the work done farther back in midfield allowed them both space and opportunity to exploit England's frailty—but that's not to take away from the fact that both were impressive. What's more impressive is that neither is—or at least, was—a nailed-on starter.
It's a validation for Prandelli, who's always insisted that players deserve to play on merit rather than celebrity or past endeavours. And it's proof that he's taken a squad—rather than just a first team—to Brazil that can do some damage.
Candreva and Marchisio mightn't start every game for Italy, because Prandelli's got plenty of options. Antonio Cassano and Lorenzo Insigne offer less midfield strength, but more imagination behind the striker. Ciro Immobile—just signed by Borussia Dortmund—can replace Balotelli and offers a different kind of play, coupled with his excellent working relationship with Alessio Cerci from their time together at Torino and Insigne, with whom he burst onto the scene three seasons ago with Pescara.
Optimism is all well and good, but when it's not tempered by realistic appraisals of your own strengths as well as those of your opponent, disappointment is almost sure to follow. This doesn't mean England's World Cup is over by any stretch, but they're on the back foot, and not because they were bested by Pirlo, or any single Italian player. Prandelli's side succeeded where Hodgson's failed because they worked better as a unit, and they didn't underestimate their opponents.
It wasn't a spectacular opening game for the Azzurri, but it was a critical success. Italy have silenced the doubters with a hard-fought victory, earned in incredibly uncomfortable conditions in Manaus. They've also settled their own nerves ahead of their remaining clashes with Costa Rica and Uruguay—and reassured the manager that he was correct in his convictions. Qualification isn't secure yet, but they've got one hand on a ticket to the knockout stages.
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