It was supposed to be the Italians who intimidated the English coming into this one - Mario Balotelli's speed and power up top, Andrea Pirlo's singular brilliance in midfield, and decades of "they just get it done in the World Cup" know-how. This England, this Three Lions in the afterglow of a Golden Generation that never was, weren't supposed to be fit to set foot on the same field as the Azzuri.
But it wasn't Italy that put the fear of God into England. It was the weather. They were unable to push the game at all, they were comically bad in the final 20 minutes when they needed to chase a goal, and they were beaten by Manaus and their own inattention to detail.
It was 2-1 to Italy. Let's take a look at a few things from this one:
1. Pirlo controls the game, but doesn't break it open
Credit to Roy Hodgson for coming up with a pretty workable gameplan for keeping Pirlo in check. Simply put: England played an incredibly low block, determined to make Pirlo split all 10 men - not just four or five - if he was going to change the game.
England eschewed the type of man-to-man pressure that we saw the Dutch use to flummox Spain on Friday, and while it obviously wasn't as effective, it wasn't half bad, either.
Pirlo was particularly active in the first 45:
Andrea Pirlo completed a game-high 65 (of 69) passes in 1st half, sending them everywhere: pic.twitter.com/hTLhwwL7xz— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) June 14, 2014
But that low England defensive block made certain he had few chances to make a game-deciding pass.
He only completed one pass into the box - which Balotelli almost scored after Joe Hart Leeroy Jenkins'd off his line - which is a good day's work for any defense.
So Hodgson's team got the hard stuff right. The other stuff...
2. Lapses in concentration spell doom
The first was a goal off a set piece when none of the English defenders recognized the danger of Claudio Marchisio lurking about 25 yards out. Pirlo's dummy on the play was delicious, by the way - but predictable:
That is poor for England. That's the 3rd dummy from Pirlo this game. Recognize.— Matthew Tomaszewicz (@shinguardian) June 14, 2014
The second Italian goal came after the eight millionth attack down the English left. This was the price Hodgson paid for his ultra-aggressive attacking lineup, which featured a lot of guy who are more naturally second strikers than wingers. And so they didn't defend well out wide:
What a ball, what a header — but it comes from Candreva pulling wide. Like first part of opening half, overwhelming Baines' side.— Zack Goldman (@ThatDamnYank) June 14, 2014
Gary Cahill could have been more attentive, could have gotten a body on Mario Balotelli and covered up his teammates' mistakes and a bigger, more worrying systemic flaw. And Joe Hart could probably have gotten to the near post fast. But it wasn't to be, so Mario did what Mario does:
The disappointing thing for England has to be that they did the hard work. The part that they weren't supposed to be able to do? That actually came pretty easily to them in this one.
But they were so focused on that part of the job they neglected to notice the big, obvious obstacle right in their path:
3. Italy have some worries of their own
The pace suited them, but they will have to be much crisper in the next two games against a Costa Rican side that can't find a single damn to give about the heat and humidity, and a Uruguay team that will be desperate and probably has a certain Mr. Suarez dying to get back into the picture.
And both those teams love to attack from out wide when fullbacks leave space to exploit:
Every time England got the ball wide, and got into transition, they ripped the relatively young Italian defense apart. They really should have had more than one goal from this one - by halftime.
Cesare Prandelli adjusted by bringing out a low block of his own in the second 45, one that asked a bit more of England in terms of precision. Obviously they weren't up to it, but giving up any sort of high pressure - which Italy definitely did - and defending almost exclusively in the final third has always been a dangeorus game.
England didn't make them pay. The rest of Group D probably won't be as kind.