England begin their 2014 World Cup campaign with a difficult match against Italy in Manaus on Saturday (23:00 BST, live on BBC1).
England and Italy are joined in Group D by Costa Rica and Uruguay, who will square off in the group’s opening fixture a little earlier on Saturday. It is the only group to feature three previous World Cup winners and it is vital for England to get off to a good start.
Roy Hodgson’s (pictured) squad have had a mixed build-up to the tournament. They defeated Peru 3-0 at Wembley in their farewell to the English public but drew both of their subsequent warm-up matches in Miami – 2-2 against Ecuador and 0-0 against Honduras.
Hodgson employed what many assume to be his preferred starting lineup in the last-mentioned match, but England nevertheless struggled to break down a defensively minded Honduras side. It was a bitty match, interrupted in the first half by lightning and throughout by a series of increasingly physical fouls. Honduras played the last half hour with 10 men.
There were a couple of positives to emerge, most notably the solidity of England’s defensive unit. Hodgson’s backups had performed somewhat erratically in the draw with Ecuador, but his first-choice back four were far more assured. Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka were strong in the centre, while the full-backs adequately fulfilled their defensive tasks and also contributed in attack.
Hodgson will also have been relatively pleased with the final-third combination play between Daniel Sturridge and Wayne Rooney during the first half, although less thrilled by Sturridge’s profligacy in front of goal. The pair will start on Saturday, with Adam Lallana and one of Danny Welbeck or Raheem Sterling likely to join them in England’s front four.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (knee) will miss this match and could yet be replaced in the squad. Welbeck (thigh) was absent from training on Wednesday and is a doubt. Hodgson has confirmed that his players have taken malaria tablets ahead of their trip to the Amazon and his medical team will be alert to possible side effects, which can include stomach cramps.
Italy secured their place in Brazil by topping their qualification group ahead of Denmark, with an undefeated record of six wins and four draws. They do, however, come into the tournament itself having drawn seven and lost one of their last eight internationals.
Cesare Prandelli, who led the Azzurri to the final of Euro 2012, is famed as an experimental, attack-minded coach, and he has employed various formations in their warm-up matches. Disappointing draws against the Republic of Ireland and Luxembourg were followed by a 5-3 win over Brazilian club side Fluminense last Sunday.
Prandelli benefits from the same solid defensive base that has taken Juventus to three consecutive Serie A titles. His defenders are comfortable playing in a three-man or four-man back-line, further increasing his tactical options. He also has plenty of talent in midfield, including Andrea Pirlo, whose extensive passing range will be key to Italy’s play this summer.
Up front, Ciro Immobile scored three goals and provided two assists in the victory over Fluminense. Serie A’s top scorer will be pushing for a starting berth, either alongside Mario Balotelli or as a replacement for the former Manchester City striker. Alessio Cerci, Antonio Cassano and Lorenzo Insigne are the other offensive options available to Prandelli.
Giorgio Chiellini was on the end of a strong challenge from Cerci during training on Wednesday, but he is not considered an injury doubt for this match. Marco Verratti has been struggling with a fever, but he, too, is expected to be fit. Prandelli otherwise has a full squad to pick from.
England vs Italy Betting Tips Verdict
England and Italy have met on 24 previous occasions, with England winning eight, Italy winning 10 and six matches ending in draws. Italy triumphed on penalties when they met in the quarter finals of Euro 2012 and were also victorious the last time they squared off in a World Cup, winning 2-1 in the third place playoff at Italia ‘90.
Italy will seek to control possession and make England do all the running in the heat and humidity of Manaus. Pirlo dictated the tempo of the game in their meeting during Euro 2012 and England have to ensure that he is not allowed to do so again. The attacking midfielders will also be required to drop back and assist the central midfield duo.
For all their attractive play, Italy do sometimes lack a cutting edge in the final third and Hodgson is likely to be relatively content for his side to sit deep and hit the Italians on the break. Neither side will want to start the tournament with a defeat and we believe a low-scoring draw is the most likely outcome.
- Back the draw @ best odds of 2/1 with Bet365, Betfred, Ladbrokes or Betfair Sportsbook.
- Both teams are likely to feel each other out in the early exchanges, unwilling to give up the early goal that would see them forced to chase the game thereafter. With this in mind, back ‘after 31 minutes’ in the time of first goal market @ 23/20 with BetVictor.