After an impressive performance in their opening Group D fixture, many expected Italy to make short work of their qualification to the last 16.
The Azzurri have a history of making things difficult for themselves, however, notoriously playing much poorer when faced with what they perceive to be a lesser opponent.
As such, it was difficult to know what to expect from Cesare Prandelli’s team less than a week after vanquishing England, and a number of decisions from the Italy coach only exaggerated that feeling.
On the surface, his tinkering with the starting XI made sense, but the longer Friday’s meeting with Costa Rica went on, the more his choices looked erroneous.
Nobody could argue with the change of goalkeeper, even allowing for Salvatore Sirigu’s excellent display against England in Manaus. The Paris Saint-Germain stopper enjoyed a solid outing, but even he would acknowledge that the return of Gigi Buffon was inevitable once the Juventus man recovered from his ankle injury.
Ahead of their captain was where the real issues lay, although the initial decision to drop Gabriel Paletta again seemed a wise move given his struggles in that opening match. The Parma defender looked woeful, Roy Hodgson’s attacking players constantly getting the better of him but failing to capitalise on his unsteady showing.
His withdrawal had serious implications across the Italy back line, however, with Matteo Darmian swapping flanks to left-back, and Giorgio Chiellini shifting into the centre as Ignazio Abate was drafted in on the right. The Milan full-back had a torrid time against Costa Rica, constantly out of position and allowing Junior Dias far too much space as his cross led to the only goal of the game.
With only Andrea Barzagli retaining his position within the back five, constant defensive mix-ups were really no surprise, and Joel Campbell was unlucky not to add to that Bryan Ruiz opener at numerous points throughout the game.
The Azzurri woes at one end of the field were only compounded further forward too, as swapping Marco Verratti for Thiago Motta robbed Italy of some much needed creativity.
The 21-year-old midfielder was constantly probing the English defence on Saturday night, stats site WhoScored.com showing he completed 97 percent of his passes. He laid on the assist for Claudio Marchisio’s opening goal, a clever corner routine involving Andrea Pirlo making room for his raking shot from distance.
There were far fewer opportunities against a well-organised Costa Rica, despite Prandelli making three attacking changes as he and Italy sought an equaliser.
The introductions of Antonio Cassano, Alessio Cerci and Lorenzo Insigne all failed to provide a cutting edge, WhoScored.com showing the trio managed just one shot on target between them.
Without support for the majority of the game, Mario Balotelli cut an increasingly isolated and frustrated figure, the same source showing the Milan striker managing just 24 touches over the 90 minutes. Completing all 12 of his pass attempts, he never really came close to his match-winning heroics against England, receiving a deserved yellow card as his temper got the better of him in the second half.
With just one shot on target, his stuttering performance was indicative of the uncertainty and unfamiliarity behind him, Prandelli’s changes hindering rather than helping his side.
The loss means Italy now need at least a point against Uruguay to ensure they progress, a difficult prospect if Luis Suarez and Co. perform as they did in their own victory against England Thursday.
On a number of occasions, even the returning Buffon looked shaky, yet at full-time it was the iconic goalkeeper who perhaps summed up the situation better than anyone.
“You get back on your feet by looking on the bright side,” the Italy skipper told Sky Italia at full-time (h/t Football Italia), and the Azzurri must now do just that.
Qualification remains in their own hands, and Prandelli must get things right on Tuesday against Uruguay. Italy need more creativity, but the changes needed to deliver it must not harm the team chemistry as they so clearly did against Costa Rica.
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