With a key win in its first match of the 2014 FIFA World Cup over England, Italy seemed poised to seamlessly advance to the knockout stage, but a shocking unfavorable result in its second fixture on Friday may have dire consequences for the Azzurri.
On the World Cup's opening weekend, Group D unfolded precisely how the Italians would have desired.
Uruguay was overwhelmed by Costa Rica in a 3-1 defeat and the Azzurri emerged victorious over England with an impressive collective effort.
Italy was expected to cruise past Costa Rica, nab six points and almost certainly secure a slot in the knockout stage while the other likely advancers from Group D, Uruguay and England, would only be able to accumulate a maximum of six points.
However, it wasn't nearly as simple as that for Italy on Friday, when Andrea Pirlo and Co. discovered how tough it would be to emerge victorious against a resilient Costa Rica squad that was expected to be a bottom dweller in Group D.
Costa Rica not only pulled off a 1-0 defeat of Italy and planted its stake at the top of the group table but also exposed clear weaknesses in the Italian squad, subsequently raising major concerns for the Italians as they approach their final group fixture.
Los Ticos stymied Italy’s offensive flow by cutting it off at the source: Pirlo.
Although Italy's star midfielder covered the most distance in possession (4,175 m.) for his squad, Costa Rica snuffed out Pirlo's flare by applying immediate pressure on him from multiple positions when he received the ball, thus diminishing his enigmatic effect on the game.
As per usual, Pirlo completed more than 90 percent of his passes (93 percent vs. Costa Rica; 92 percent vs. England), but he was limited to 76 passes completed against Costa Rica in comparison to 103 in Italy's victory over England.
Nevertheless, Pirlo's reduced influence on the match was only partially due to tight marking by Costa Rica. The Costa Ricans, who employed a 5-2-2-1 formation, enacted an effective offside trap that caught the Italians offside on 12 occasions.
That seemed to have a major effect on midfielders Claudio Marchisio and Antonio Candreva, who were in noticeably poor form after playing a major role in Italy's opening matching against England, in which Marchisio netted the match’s first goal and Candreva assisted on the ultimate game-winner scored by Mario Balotelli.
Marchisio didn't make an attempt at goal in Friday's match, while Candreva only completed 47 percent of his passes, including an 0-for-4 tally on short passes, after completing 75 percent of his passes against England.
Italy demonstrated in its loss to Costa Rica that when key players don't perform, the opposition is given a free pass to heckle Pirlo, which dismantles Italy's attack.
That's quite a concern for Italy as it approaches its final group match with the hope of returning to the knockout stage after faltering in 2010 to follow up hoisting up the trophy in 2006.
Its opponent, Uruguay, is recharged after reinserting top striker Luis Suarez into its starting lineup. Suarez scored a pair of goals in la Celeste’s crucial 2-1 defeat of England and is poised to carry his squad again.
Facing a streaking team after putting on a poor performance against a lesser team is far from ideal for Italy, particularly as it prepares for a team that it possesses a losing historical record against (2-3-4).
Nevertheless, all isn't gloomy for the Azzurri.
Thanks to underdog Costa Rica scoring three goals against Uruguay, the Uruguayans are straddled with a negative goal differential, which slates Italy to advance in the tournament with a draw against Uruguay on Tuesday.
Nearly a year ago, Italy did just that in its most recent match against Uruguay, a third-place Confederations Cup game in which both teams were level, 2-2, through 120 minutes. Italy eventually won on penalty kicks thanks to three saves from Gianluigi Buffon.
The Azzurri also possess a positive 1-0-1 record against Uruguay in World Cups past, most recently defeating la Celeste, 2-0, in the round of 16 in the 1990 World Cup.
Additionally, it's doubtful that Mario Balotelli will continue to spoil perfect opportunities at goal as he did twice on Friday.
All is not lost for the Italians, but it's nevertheless imperative that they be in world-class form against Uruguay, particularly after exposing major weaknesses in their loss to Costa Rica.
Manager Cesare Prandelli will have to play a vital role in preparing his squad for its forthcoming important match, and above all, all cylinders will have to be firing for Italy against a dangerous Uruguay team.
Considering what's at stake, Italy shouldn't have any trouble mustering the motivation to exceed Uruguay.
Since 1966, the final World Cup of a 16-year down spell for the boot-shaped country, Italy has never failed to advance to the knockout stage in consecutive World Cups.
Tuesday is a day of paramount importance for Italian football.
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