Balotelli header sinks England
England’s World Cup campaign opened with defeat against Italy in the steamy heat of the Arena Amazonia in Manaus.
Mario Balotelli’s header just after the break settled an entertaining game after Daniel Sturridge had equalised Claudio Marchisio’s fine strike.
England were undone by defensive vulnerability in a display that deserved a draw and contained plenty that would have pleased manager Roy Hodgson.
The bottom line, however, is that England now face a scrap for survival against Uruguay – and probably Luis Suarez – in Sao Paulo after Oscar Tabarez’s men lost to Costa Rica.
England’s players tired visibly towards the end of a game played in the tropical climate of Brazil’s Amazonian rainforest, and Hodgson must hope not too much energy has been drained from his players.
There was also a blow for England’s backroom staff as physiotherapist Gary Lewin was taken off on a stretcher after being injured celebrating Sturridge’s goal.
Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling made a stand-out contribution after he was selected to start, and England looked a constant threat going forward until they ran out of steam in a humid and oppressive atmosphere.
Italy still produced moments of quality and struck the woodwork through Antonio Candreva and a late free-kick from Andrea Pirlo, who defied his 35 years and the environment to stroll through the game with his trademark quality.
England now fly back to Rio to recover knowing they will threaten any side in their group, but further repeats of defensive frailties could be fatal for their World Cup ambitions.
Hodgson’s decision to play Sterling ahead of Adam Lallana was a bold one – and the Liverpool youngster more than repaid the faith shown in him.
He illustrated exactly why Hodgson had chosen him in the opening moments with pace and a shot that flew inches wide with Italy keeper Salvatore Sirigu, deputising for the injured Gianluigi Buffon, beaten.
Sirigu then saved from Jordan Henderson but Italy, with Pirlo inevitably the orchestrator, were causing problems of their own as the left-sided link of Leighton Baines and Rooney looked very much like a work in progress.
England were a real threat, albeit this was coupled with flaws at the back, and it took a crucial touch from Italy defender Andrea Barzagli to divert Danny Welbeck’s cross away with Sturridge waiting to apply the finishing touch.
The heat of Manaus was making no difference to Pirlo’s languid style, and he was instrumental – without touching the ball – as Italy took the lead on 35 minutes.
Pirlo deceived Sturridge with a clever dummy following a corner, setting up Marchisio to drill a low shot from 25 yards through a crowded penalty box and past a blameless Joe Hart.
England needed a swift response, and delivered it almost instantly. Sterling’s pass cut through the right-hand side of Italy’s defence and Rooney offered up the perfect invitation for Sturridge to steer in his cross at the far post.
In the goal celebrations, physio Lewin injured an ankle and was taken off on a stretcher.
Italy ended the half on top as Phil Jagielka headed off the line from Balotelli and Candreva struck the post from a tight angle.
Hodgson addressed the problems on England’s left flank by switching Welbeck from the right to start the second half – but this was once again the source of problems as Italy regained the lead five minutes after the break.
Baines could not prevent Candreva getting in a cross, and Balotelli escaped from Gary Cahill to score with a simple header at the far post.
Hodgson introduced Everton youngster Ross Barkley just after the hour as England continued to create opportunities.
Rooney pulled a shot wide at the near post after he was played in by Baines, while Barkley ended a weaving run into the area with a shot that was pushed away by the diving Sirigu.
Sirigu also did well to stop a Baines free-kick as conditions finally started to take their toll and players on both sides visibly tired.
Pirlo, predictably, almost had the final say with a magnificent swerving free-kick that rebounded off the bar with Hart motionless.
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