When the fixtures for the 2014 World Cup was released six months ago, there was a clamour from both the England and Italy camp, about the timing and the 'inhumane' conditions they would have to endure in the first match of Group D in Manaus, right in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest. They cried foul, but too little to impress FIFA. So they had to accept the reality and prepare themselves for the crucial opener of the group which had been dubbed the Group of Death.
Italy Coach Cesare Prandelli ran his team's training in a sauna-like atmosphere back in Florence to give the players a feel of what they were going to go through in Manaus. However, the suffocating, scorching heat and sapping humidity was not the only concern for Prandelli, he had to make do without the first-choice left-back Mattea de Sciglio and inspirational goalie Gianluigi Buffon due to last-minute injuries. Prandelli was also aware of the breakneck speed at which the English players usually operate, and the age difference between the two sides. So, he gave his fittest players a chance in the starting eleven and packed the midfield with players who can run tirelessly throughout the ninety minutes.
Prandelli employed a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Danielle de Rossi shielding the two centre-backs and Andrea Pirlo and Marco Veratti playing in a dual-playmaker system with Claudio Marchisio and Antonio Candreva behind Mario Balotelli in roving positions to draw out the English defenders. In the end, all these tactics and pre-match plans proved just enough to edge out an England side.
England, on the other hand, despite employing a four-man forward line, seemed a little too timid to come out of the blocks and surprisingly those young English legs ran out of steam faster than the Italians'. However, they created enough opportunities for themselves to eke out a result -- as many as nine corner kicks and a few free-kicks from dangerous positions -- only to be wasted ruefully. Much was expected, as always, of Wayne Rooney, who despite setting up Daniel Sturridge for the equaliser, failed to get a goal for himself and prolonged his wait for his first World Cup goal.
The brightest spot for England was the performance of 21-year-old Raheem Sterling, whose speed and dribbles unsettled the rhythm at the Italy backline many a time. The Liverpool forward gave enough evidence that, if given a free role, he could cause trouble to a lot of teams.
Like Sterling, Saturday unleashed another star in Joel Campbell of Costa Rica, who happen to sit atop Group D after a 3-1 thrashing of Uruguay. The 21-year-old Arsenal forward loaned out to Olympiacos was inspirational as he scored one, set up another and conjured many a rasping shot to send shockwaves through the defence of Uruguay. The two-time champions, missing Luis Suarez, looked disjointed, disorganised and completely unprepared for the surge of pace and power from Campbell.
Age and speed is certainly one thing in favour of Campbell and Sterling, but for some others, like Andrea Pirlo, age is only a number. The 35-year-old Juventus midfielder proved again that he can dictate terms and pace of the game on his own. Pirlo did not have an awful lot to do the entire game against England, but when he did, it was worth all the admiration. That audacious dummy which set up Marchisio for the opener, the defence-splitting pass to set up Balotelli for an outrageous attempt at goal and last but not the least, the rasping free-kick which thudded the upright over Joe Hart's head, left the Manaus audience taking a bow to the master.