England vs. Italy: Key Battles in 2014 World Cup Opener

Garry Hayes@@garryhayesFeatured ColumnistDecember 6, 2013

England vs. Italy: Key Battles in 2014 World Cup Opener

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    England have been drawn in Group D of the 2014 World Cup, facing Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica.

    They kick off their campaign in the Amazonian city of Manaus against the Italians, the team who knocked England out of Euro 2012 on penalties.

    For the weather alone, it's a match that is going to throw up its fair share of conundrums, but there will be plenty of matchups across the pitch that will be even more intriguing, something that wasn't lost on England manager Roy Hodgson in the aftermath of the draw.

    "It’s s tough group, there’s no doubt about that," he said in a TV interview with BBC Sport. "Italy were very unlucky not to be seeded (for the group stages). We know how good they are after losing out to them on penalties at the Euros.

    "It’s (going to be) tough climatically, but it’s against another European team.

    "It’s going to be difficult to put a positive spin on our (group stage) opponents. Even Costa Rica are a very good team and Jurgen Klinsman has warned me how good they were in the qualifiers (against USA).

    "I've never been to the Amazon, so it's going to be an interesting experience (playing there) for me and the rest of the team."

    England vs. Italy doesn't kick off until June 14, but while there may be more than six months to go, Bleacher Report whets the appetite by looking at some of the key battles that will be fought in Arena da Amazonia.

Steven Gerrard vs. Andrea Pirlo

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    When England faced Italy at the European Championships in 2012, the Three Lions hardly had a kick of the ball.

    The Azzurri dominated possession (63 per cent to England's 37), controlling the game as a result. The man who allowed them to do so was Andrea Pirlo.

    It was a midfield masterclass from the Juventus ace, anchoring the Italian midfield and causing England havoc with his vision and expertise.

    Indeed, he completed just shy of an incredible 120 passes throughout the 90 minutes and extra time, with a total of 131 attempted.

    Anyone in doubt of Pirlo's brilliance before that game would have been immediately converted.

    Given the conditions in Manaus, England cannot afford to be chasing shadows once again. If they do, they will be blown out come the end of the game, and Italy's possession-based game will see them through. Roy Hodgson's men will not be able to scrape a 0-0 draw, that's for certain.

    It's vital Steven Gerrard combats the threat of Pirlo when these teams face each other. If he doesn't disrupt his play, it could very well be curtains.

    *Stats from BBC Sport

Gary Cahill vs. Mario Balotelli

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    Mario Balotelli is just as important to Italy's success as Andrea Pirlo is further back in the midfield.

    The AC Milan striker is the most high-profile player in the Azzurri team, providing a creative presence and a lethal goal threat.

    He will give Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka a busy evening at the Arena da Amazonia, that's for sure.

    Cahill needs to ensure he wins this personal battle, as without a fully functioning Balotelli, the Italians will pose a somewhat lesser threat to England's World Cup aspirations.

    Not only that, but like so many talented stars, Balotelli is a volatile character. He's a player who, when things aren't going how he would like, can become more of a problem than a solution for managers.

    England must frustrate him and ensure he doesn't have the freedom to express himself.

Andros Townsend vs. Domenico Criscito

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    Hands up, who would have predicted at the start of the season that Andros Townsend would be so vital to England making it to Brazil 2014? Yep, thought there weren't many.

    The rise of the Tottenham Hotspur winger this term has been phenomenal. From playing in a relegation battle while on loan with QPR last season, he has led the way for club and country.

    His form has plateaued somewhat, but his performances against Montenegro and Poland in England's last two qualifying games were special.

    He is now a marked man on the international stage, however. Once an unknown, defenders will be watching him closely over the next six months to judge how best they can handle him.

    Townsend will need to evolve his game, too, as he will need to rely on more than his pace when it comes to the World Cup.

    Domenico Criscito is an experienced head with over 20 caps for his country. How Townsend fares against him will be an interesting battle in the Amazon.

Wayne Rooney vs. Giorgio Chiellini

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    England's talisman Wayne Rooney will make the list of any key matchups for teams facing the Three Lions simply because everything passes through him.

    Without him fit and ready, England's chances at the 2014 World Cup will be even slimmer than they already appear.

    As talented as he is, he is equally vulnerable to moments of ill discipline, though. He has shown that in previous World Cups, being sent off in 2006 for a stamp on Ricardo Carvalho as England lost out on penalties to Portugal.

    So who better in this Italy team than Giorgio Chiellini to knock Rooney out of his stride?

    The Italian is a fine defender anyway, but he also has a physical presence that can cause England's No. 10 far more problems than man-marking.

England and Italy vs. the Climate

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    We're going to be hearing a lot about this between now and June 14.

    The climate in Manaus is among the most testing of all the World Cup venues with an average of 83 per cent humidity in June. Temperatures average around 31 degrees centigrade, which means the players of both teams will be feeling the effects regardless of how fit they are.

    In the past, dramatic climates have often been used to explain poor performances from English teams, but in 2014, whatever the result, both Italy and the Three Lions will not be able to blame the weather for defeat.

    Indeed, given how alien it will be to both sets of players, we could be setting ourselves for a drab encounter to kick off the competition for both sides.