Gary Cahill and England suffered defeat in their opening group game against Italy in an entertaining encounter in Manaus.
Both teams started brightly and seemed at ease with the hot and humid conditions offered up by the Amazonian city, something touted as a potential concern before the match.
England lined up largely as expected in a 4-2-3-1. Chelsea’s Cahill played alongside Everton’s Phil Jagielka in a centre-back partnership few can argue with. The surprises however were seeing Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling playing through the middle, with Wayne Rooney shunted out to the left hand side. Southampton’s Adam Lallana, widely tipped to start versus Cesare Prandelli’s Italian side, was dropped in favour of Manchester United’s Danny Welbeck. Vice-captain Frank Lampard was an unused substitute.
The game was in its infancy when England had the first chance. Raheem Sterling tried his luck from 25 yards with an effort that hit the side netting, but had the people in charge of on-screen graphics, and no doubt thousands of fans, fooled as they believed the young Liverpool forward had scored what would have been one of the goals of the tournament so far.
Italian custodian Salvatore Sirigu – a late injury replacement for Gigi Buffon – was kept busy, with Jordan Henderson fizzing in a chance not long after.
The Italians had most joy down England’s left hand side, with Baines often left exposed by his team-mate Rooney. That said, Baines did not exactly cover himself in glory, often getting beaten by Antonio Candreva.
Despite the Italian’s frequently breaching the left flank, it was again England who forged the next best chance. Danny Welbeck played in a teasing ball, with Andrea Barzagli applying a crucial touch to nick it away from a lurking ex-Blue Danny Sturridge.
Italy struck first on 35 minutes, with a well worked corner routine clearly lifted off the training ground deceiving England. Andrea Pirlo’s dummy left Claudio Marchisio to drill home from 20 yards through a crowd of England players beating Joe Hart in goal. It did not take long for England to hit back though.
An England side of old may well have dropped their heads and let Italy roll them over, but not this time. Barely two minutes passed after Italy’s goal when Raheem Sterling played an inch-perfect pass through to Rooney, whose cross was met perfectly by Sturridge, who placed home with great aplomb.
It was a refreshing game for the average England fan. There was no real ‘must not lose’ mentality and caginess from the Three Lions which has all too often been the case with teams of tournaments gone by and there was genuine belief that England could well win in their hardest-looking group game.
However, it was Italy who took the lead 5 minutes after the half-time break. Despite Roy Hodgson swapping Welbeck and Rooney on the wings, Leighton Baines was still left on his own as Candreva turned him inside out and whipped in a beautiful ball for ex-Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli to climb above Cahill and head home at the back post.
Wayne Rooney spurned perhaps the best chance England had to equalise not long after. He found himself played onside and one-on-one with Sirigu, but conspired to drag his effort wide.
Chances came again for England, with substitute Ross Barkley nearly making an instant impact after a weaving run was followed by a shot that a diving Sirigu dealt with. A Leighton Baines free-kick was also stopped well by the PSG stopper, winning only his second cap for the Azzurri.
Conditions soon took their toll, as many England players suffered with cramp as the game worn on towards to the finish. The Italians seemed rather unfazed by the heat, as they continued to deal with the weather and relentless England attacks. Midfield general Andrea Pirlo nearly had the final say, as a delightful free kick clipped the crossbar, failing to add some rather harsh gloss on the scoreline.
England have it all to do if they are to make it out of the groups, realistically needing two wins from their remaining two games, against Uruguay and surprise group leaders Costa Rica. However, with a fresh attacking approach and plenty of pace in the team supplied by a tremendous depth of quality wide players, England players and fans alike will have real cause for optimism that the dream can still very much come true.