Italy, England set for marquee World Cup tussle

Mario Balotelli in action for Italy. (Luca Bruno/AP)
June 14, 2014, 9:17 AM

Day Three of the 2014 FIFA World Cup is headlined by an all-European battle in Group D between England and Italy.

The last time these sides met at a major tournament sparks flew as the Azzurri emerged victorious in a penalty shootout in the quarterfinals of Euro 2012.

Uruguay and Costa Rica face each other in the other Group D match on Saturday. Meanwhile, Group C also gets underway with Colombia taking on Greece and Japan squaring off with Ivory Coast in the late game.

Here are four keys for all four matches.


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Colombia’s unpredictability

Unlike their opponents, Colombia won’t be easy to figure out. With the absence of Radamel Falcao up front, no one except manager Jose Pekerman knows how his side will operate in the final third.

Greece, like they’ve done since their Euro 2004 triumph, will set up to defend deep and counter whenever opportunities present themselves. That means that Colombia will have control of the possession. It’ll be up to the likes of Carlos Bacca, Teofilo Gutierrez, James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado to deliver, especially the latter two.

Rodriguez may start out wide, but will often cut inside and play in behind Gutierrez and Bacca. Cuadrado will operate as an out-and-out winger on the right flank, but instead of playing as a wingback like he does at Fiorentina, the 23-year-old will only be needed in attack thanks to Juan Zuniga being deployed as a fullback.

Pekerman has a wealth of options, even the aforementioned four who will most likely start up front can play in multiple roles. However, they’ll be playing against a frustrating side to break down, and it’ll be up to Rodriguez and Cuadrado to unlock the tight-knit Greek defence.

Will Uruguay’s age finally catch up to them?

La Celeste’s average age of 28.2 years is the fifth oldest out of all 32 teams in the World Cup. Diego Lugano is 33 years old and will be starting in the centre of the defence and is the clear target for Costa Rica on the counter.

Diego Perez and Arevalo Rios are tipped to be starting in the midfield—they’re 34 and 32, respectively. Both lack pace, which will leave Uruguay exposed on counter-attacks as mentioned. Costa Rica tends to play with a back five and two holding midfielders, so if either of them get ahold of the ball, Perez and Rios will have trouble dictating the match.

The positive for Uruguay is that manager Oscar Tabarez has switched away from his usual 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 with Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani up top. This will especially benefit Cavani whose primary role is in the centre. Since he’ll be playing off of Suarez, the PSG forward will get space and could be just as crucial going forward as his strike partner.

Which defence will crack: England or Italy?

The cliché to describe Italy over the years is that they’re a defensively organized team that sacrifice goal scoring for tidy performances in their own half of the pitch. Times have changed in the Cesare Prandelli era.

Now club academies are developing more talented attackers than defenders. While Giorgio Chiellini is one of the top centre-backs in the world, he doesn’t have a lot of help. His Juventus teammates Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci got called up, but have struggled in a back four with the Azzurri over the last couple of years.

Mattia De Sciglio is injured for the game, so that leaves Prandelli with a dilemma at fullback. Matteo Darmian is expected to get the nod, but who starts on the opposite flank remains a mystery.

England’s back line on paper is a little more gung-ho than Italy’s and doesn’t have a defender like Chiellini. Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are all risks defensively. Going up against someone like Mario Balotelli, Ciro Immobile or Lorenzo Insigne will cause a lot of problems for The Three Lions.

Both teams have fast, young players capable of unlocking any defence. Italy may have the majority of possession much like in the Euro 2012 quarterfinal, so they must be aware of players such as Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge, who feasted on Premier League backlines all season with Liverpool.

Ivory Coast must use balanced attack

Japan vs. Ivory Coast may not be appealing to some fans, but it has all of the makings to be an entertaining match. The Japanese are extremely quick and are very well organized under Italian manager Alberto Zaccheroni. Meanwhile the Ivoirians have one last chance of achieving something noteworthy at a World Cup with this current generation of players.

Ivory Coast’s leading scorer Didier Drogba leads the line. Even at 36, he’s still capable of starting and justifying it. Drogba scored 10 league goals in 24 appearances for Galatasaray this past season and with Gervinho, Salomon Kalou and Yaya Toure behind him, the Elephants could make an impact.

They’re physically stronger than Japan, and since the Japanese have traditionally struggled to find a consistent goal-scoring striker, this is the chance for Ivory Coast to impose itself early in the tournament.

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