Mario Balotelli and Andrea Pirlo failed to produce any attacking magic for Italy as Costa Rica scored its second straight World Cup upset (1-0) to advance to the knockout stage. Bryan Ruiz scored the only goal.
Italy opened the tournament with a 2-1 victory over England. Balotelli scored the game-winning tally in the second half of the high-profile clash. Another win against Costa Rica would have put the Azzurri in prime position to advance heading into the group finale.
Furthermore, the hopes of the Three Lions rested on the Italians' shoulders after they suffered a defeat at the hands of Uruguay on Thursday. Group D was expected to be one of the tournament's toughest groups even before the strong play of Costa Rica, putting even more pressure on the other three sides.
After learning his side held England's hopes in its hands, Balotelli took to Twitter with a message for those back in the United Kingdom:
If we beat Costa Rica i want a kiss,obviously on the cheek, from the UK Queen.😂😂😂.— Mario Balotelli (@FinallyMario) June 19, 2014
Both sides got off to a bit of a sluggish start, with very few promising attacks inside the first 20 minutes. It seemed like each team wanted the other to become the aggressor, until Italy finally decided to start picking up the pace about midway through the half.
Balotelli proceeded to get a couple of golden scoring opportunities just after the half-hour mark.
The first came off a brilliant delivery by midfielder wizard Andrea Pirlo. The striker got free behind the Costa Rican defense and was one-on-one with goalkeeper Keylor Navas. His first touch let him down, however, and then he tried to chip the keeper rather than slide it into the far corner on the ground.
Football Vines passed along a look at the miss:
Pirlo with an unbelievable no-look pass and Balotelli miss. http://t.co/bBIQIXf2UT— Football Vines (@Vine_Football) June 20, 2014
Even though Balotelli couldn't provide the necessary finishing touch, The Sun was seeing plenty of reason for Italian and English optimism:
Positive signs for England fans. Balotelli looks up for it and Pirlo is stroking the ball about like the little genius he is. #DoUsAFavour— The Sun - Football (@TheSunFootball) June 20, 2014
A few minutes later, it was the AC Milan star with another opportunity to get on the scoreboard first. He drilled a shot from the top of the box, but it was right at Navas, who was able to parry. Any other placement and it's in the back of the net.
Jeff MacGregor of ESPN joked that Balotelli was starting to perform like Wayne Rooney, who had countless chances Thursday against Uruguay before finally scoring his first World Cup goal:
Balotelli rooneyed the hell out of those last two chances.— Jeff MacGregor (@MacGregorESPN) June 20, 2014
The absence of a goal certainly wasn't due to a lack of chances, as ESPN Stats and Info noted:
Aside from the one highlight-reel pass, Costa Rica was also doing a great job of keeping Pirlo under control. Paul Carr of ESPN noted his number of touches in the opening half was down significantly from the side's opening match:
Andrea Pirlo had 36 touches in the first half. He had 72 touches in the first half vs England.— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) June 20, 2014
The trend continued into the second 45 minutes. With a 1-0 lead and a ticket to the knockout stages within their grasp, the Ticos did an outstanding job of defending and maintaining possession when they had the opportunity.
Jon Townsend of These Football Times praised the effort:
Costa Rica have shown how to cancel Andrea Pirlo out of a game (so far). Impressive feat. #ITAvsCRC— Jon Townsend (@jon_townsend3) June 20, 2014
Without Pirlo delivering pinpoint passes, Balotelli failed to make any type of impact in the second half. He received very few touches, and one of the only times he garnered attention was because of a yellow card that came due to mounting frustration.
Matthew Reichbach of the New Mexico Telegram noted the lapse in judgment:
Dumb yellow card by Balotelli. Now if he gets a yellow card against Uruguay and they advance, he misses Round of 16 game.— Matthew Reichbach (@fbihop) June 20, 2014
It was an all-around lackluster effort by Italy in the second half. The energy and execution necessary to break down the Costa Rica defense just wasn't there. Even during a few stretches of possession, the underdogs never seemed in serious danger.
Bleacher Report UK's Anthony Lopopolo summed up the half:
No ideas. None. No service for Balotelli. Nothing happening. #ita— Anthony Lopopolo (@sportscaddy) June 20, 2014
In turn, Costa Rica cruised to the finish line pretty comfortably to win 1-0. The Ticos advance to the round of 16 with the victory, while England is officially eliminated.
As Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight points out, it sets up an elimination match between Italy and Uruguay on Tuesday:
Group D is simple now. Costa Rica advances, England out. Italy in if they beat or draw Uruguay, otherwise Uruguay sneaks back in.— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) June 20, 2014
Italian head coach Cesare Prandelli now has some decisions to make before the Uruguay clash. The attack wasn't nearly as dynamic as it needed to be. Changes are likely to come in the midfield around Pirlo in an attempt to find a combination capable of creating more chances for Balotelli.
Which team will join Costa Rica in the next round?
The Azzurri could also decide to start a second striker like Antonio Cassano or Alessio Cerci. The lack of a consistent link between Pirlo and Balotelli made life difficult, and Italy can be sure Uruguay will try to replicate the same defensive tactics.
That said, the good news for the Italian squad is that it holds the draw advantage. The Azzurri hold a better goal differential, so they have a little more margin for error heading into the match. That doesn't mean they should try to sit back in a defensive shell for 90 minutes, though.
Costa Rica has become one of the World Cup's biggest stories so far. Italy found that out the hard way and now faces a tricky challenge just to survive the group stage.