Italy vs. Costa Rica: 6 Things We Learned
So much for Italy's perfect start. As impressive as they looked against England, the Azzurri were sluggish and devoid of spark against Costa Rica and can have few complaints about the 1-0 loss in Recife, Brazil.
Bryan Ruiz put the Costa Ricans up at the end of the first half, and some determined defending coupled with an effective offside trap kept the Azzurri at bay for the rest of the game.
The loss put England out of the tournament and now leaves Italy needing at least a draw against Uruguay in their final game to advance.
Prandelli was right to change, but got the mix wrong
Italy's centre-backs looked out of shape. Ignazio Abate was quick but feckless at full-back. Matteo Darmian looked uncomfortable on the left, a shame given how effective he was on the right against England.
Thiago Motta was ponderous and ineffective, and the loss of Marco Verratti's creativity in the centre took the sting out of Italy's buildup play and their ability to hold onto the ball in meaningful areas.
The double-playmaker system was so effective in the first game that it deserved to be kept. Alberto Aquilani would have been a better option in the middle, and up front the fresh legs and clear head of Ciro Immobile might have offered more than Mario Balotelli, even if the loss was far from the Milan forward's fault.
Italy are best when allowed to play their own game
Costa Rica deserve credit for earning progression from an extremely tough group, but the plaudits are due for their work ethic, organisation and team spirit rather than their entertainment value or technical displays.
Against England, Italy were allowed to play their own style of football, while Roy Hogdson's men tried to win it their own way. It's a familiar situation with the biggest teams: They have their own methods, strengths and weaknesses, and they play to them.
Smaller sides, meanwhile, often set up to frustrate and surprise on the counter, and with good reason, because it generally causes sides like Italy problems. Costa Rica were brilliant against Uruguay and dogged against the Azzurri, and you wouldn't bet against them making a clean sweep of the group when they meet England.
Cesare Prandelli will have to hope that Uruguay don't decide to do the same thing, because if the South Americans play to contain and frustrate Italy while attacking on the break with the phenomenal Luis Suarez, it could spell the end at this World Cup for the 2006 champions.
The heat is no excuse
Fans and pundits might want to use the conditions in Brazil as an excuse for a sluggish performance from the Azzurri, but the fact is that it's the same for everyone. Just like the Italians, most players involved in the tournament are unaccustomed to such temperatures and humidity.
The majority of Costa Rica's starting XI plays in Europe, including the goalscorer Bryan Ruiz, who's hardly playing in tropical conditions every week for Dutch side PSV.
Leonardo Bonucci deserved a start
Giorgio Chiellini was visibly tired against Costa Rica, more than likely from the fact that he'd put in an admirable shift out of position against England in Italy's opening game.
Andrea Barzagli isn't fully fit either, so it seems a shame that Prandelli chose to stick with the pair in favour of their Juventus team-mate, Leonardo Bonucci.
Italy looked sluggish in the centre against Costa Rica, and Chiellini was lucky not to give away a penalty. It's hard to see Bonucci doing much worse.
Alessio Cerci looks in poor form
Is Alessio Cerci still scarred from his dramatic penalty miss at the end of the season for Torino?
The former Roma star was brilliant for Toro all year, but his miss against Fiorentina on the final day clearly had a huge effect on the wide man. He was in tears at the time, because it was a golden opportunity to put his side into the Europa League, and having gotten them so close, he fell at the final hurdle.
Financial problems at Parma mean that Toro will still get to play in Europe next season, but the damage was done by Antonio Rosati's save. Against Costa Rica, he looked a shell of the player that made so many headlines this campaign and could offer little of his usual magic to turn the tide for Italy as he's been able to do so well for Toro.
Football still lags behind in the fight against doping
It was an unfair assumption to make, but when seven Costa Rican players were called for anti-doping tests after their win, a lot of eyebrows were raised.
Normally, two players are tested after each game. Football Italia reports the extra five were called not because they were under suspicion, but because they'd missed their pre-tournament checks. To followers of other sports, that in itself is an offence worthy of exclusion or at least rigorous examination.
Cycling, in particular, is often branded as a sport full of dopers, but the reality is simply that even though it's far from perfect, professional bike riders are tested more often and under closer scrutiny than in any other sport. They catch more because they're looking harder.
No cyclist who'd missed a scheduled doping test would be allowed to start a major event. There could be a harmless explanation for the Costa Rican mix-up, but the fact that it's come this far before being addressed proves what many people already know: Football needs to do more to combat the use of performance-enhancing drugs, and it needs to start by taking a much firmer stance against truancies such as these.
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