Despite this being one of the most highly anticipated European matches of the tournament’s early stages and a battle of former champions, there is plenty of doubt surrounding both Italy and England heading into this contest in the heart of the Amazon. Can either team rise to the occasion and get their tournament off to a strong start?
HIGH PITCH PROBLEMS: Much of the talk surrounding this game (and subsequent games at Arena Amazônia in Manaus) has been about the condition of the pitch. Whether it was too much fertilizer or not enough, the stadium’s remote location creating problems with bringing in the appropriate equipment or just shoddy preparation, the grass is reportedly sparse and dry in locations throughout the pitch.
Throw in the fact that the early evening local kickoff time should make for extremely steamy conditions, and this game could be a pressure cooker. The USMNT are likely paying attention, considering they play at the same venue against Portugal on June 22.
LAST HOORAH: This game will offer up a midfield meeting between two of their countries’ most important players in recent history, both playing in their last World Cup. England’s Steven Gerrard, 34, and Italy’s Andrea Pirlo, 35, both are the straw that stirs their countries’ drink. But with more than 100 caps apiece, they are expected to hang up their international boots after the tournament. In this game, they’ll also be two of the most important players on the pitch.
FIT FOR DUTY: England manager Roy Hodgson insisted earlier this week that Danny Welbeck will be ready to take on the Italians after suffering a thigh injury during training this week. But do the Brits have another concern over a player’s fitness in longtime striker Wayne Rooney? There have been growing calls for his exclusion from the lineup.
SOMETHING EXTRAORDINARY: Italy knocked England out of the quarterfinals of Euro 2012, the 2006 champions appear to have their fair share of confidence heading into the tournament, with center back Andrea Barzagli explaining to the press that Italy are expecting to do “something extraordinary” in the tournament.
THE STAR YOU KNOW
- Mario Balotelli, forward, Italy – The mercurial striker is likely the key to Italy’s World Cup fate, just as he was during their run to the 2012 Euro final. He has the ability to change the shape of a game at any point. How will the 23-year-old handle the pressure of soccer’s biggest stage?
THE PLAYER WHO WILL SURPRISE YOU
- Raheem Sterling, winger, England – Likely to come off the bench if England need a spark, the 19-year-old possesses game-changing speed and skill, all of which was on display during his breakout season with Liverpool.