It's strange to label Italy—a team that has won the World Cup on four occasions—dark horses to win the 2014 World Cup.
After all, the term "dark horse" is usually given to teams with little experience in the tournament yet lots of young talent: think Belgium and Colombia. Yet, there wasn't much talk about Italy going into this World Cup.
As hosts, Brazil have been immediately labelled the favorites—which could be a good or bad thing. Argentina, with their plethora of skilled attackers, have also been tipped to win it. In fact, with no European team ever winning a World Cup hosted in South America, both Brazil and Argentina are the only teams that have really been tipped to win the tournament.
While the sheer talent in Germany's squad means they entered the tournament as favorites to go far, Italy have been somewhat overlooked for a number of reasons—the main one being that they simply have not been in good form.
Prior to the 2-1 win over England—which we will get to later—the Azzurri hadn't won an international match since September, when they won 2-1 against Czech Republic in a World Cup qualifier. Since then, Cesare Prandelli's side failed to beat the likes of Armenia, Nigeria, the Republic of Ireland and Luxembourg.
Additionally, the fact that most of the Italian national team plays in Serie A, a league that has admittedly been in decline recently, means that several Italians haven't had much exposure at the highest footballing level this season.
Although Juventus—a club that won Serie A at a trot this season—are highly represented in the national team, their failure to advance past the group stages of the Champions League this season means that several Italian stars didn't have as much hype as the Spanish or the Germans or the Brazilians.
Other players like Daniele De Rossi, Antonio Candreva, Alessio Cerci and Ciro Immobile didn't even feature in the Champions League this season to start with.
This means that Italy weren't talked about much going into the 2014 World Cup. Sure, their international pedigree means they're expected to do well, but there was little buzz going into the tournament compared to other European sides.
Following the Azzurri's 2-1 win over England, it's clear that Italy are dark horses to go far in this World Cup.
In fairness, there wasn't much expected out of Italy and England's encounter. The heat and humidity in Manaus coupled with each respective side's tendency to play defensive football meant that a tedious draw was expected by many.
Few, then, predicted both sides would come out of the gates looking to attack and get all three points—but that's exactly what happened.
Italy have fused their typical "catenaccio" style of play—one with a heavy emphasis on defense—with a midfield that looks to keep possession and quick forwards.
The midfield trio of Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi and Marco Verratti had passing accuracies of 95 percent, 94 percent and 97 percent, respectively. While Pirlo attempted 108 passes and De Rossi attempted 105, Verratti attempted 61 in just 57 minutes. To put that into perspective, Steven Gerrard attempted 67 passes in 90 minutes.
It wasn't just the usual suspects who performed well, though. With injuries to Gianluigi Buffon and Mattia De Sciglio, Salvatore Sirigu and Matteo Darmian stepped into the side and performed admirably.
Sirigu didn't look fazed to be making his World Cup debut, catching crosses confidently and making a few important saves. Darmian, meanwhile, made a case to remain Italy's starting right-back as he defended tidily and was a constant threat going forward.
Italy's forwards, too, had an excellent night. Candreva made Leighton Baines—arguably the best right-back in the Premier League, by the way—look silly, beating him and lofting in an inch-perfect cross with his left foot for Mario Balotelli's winner.
Speaking of Balotelli, the AC Milan striker showed once again that he saves his best performances for the national team. Although he did have a quiet game for the most part, the fact that he can still find a way to score the winner is a testament to his ability and his importance to Prandelli's side.
Even without Balotelli, Italy have quite a few strikers who can come in and do a job. In fact, they happen to have the top scorer in Serie A on the bench in Ciro Immobile, while Antonio Cassano is also one who can score goals.
With three points in the bag and games against Costa Rica and England to come, Italy are currently looking good to advance from their tricky group. Once the knockout stage arrives, there's really no team that Italy aren't capable of beating—especially with Spain now knocked off their perch.
If there's anything we've learned from this 2014 World Cup so far, it's that the tournament is wide open. No team should be underestimated, and that includes the Azzurri.
All statistics courtesy of Whoscored.com.
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