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England 1 Italy 2: Hodgson's boys left feeling blue

IT has been some time since England were in a position to expect anything at a World Cup.

Mario Balotelli directs a header beyond Joe Hart early in the second half as England suffered defeat in their opening group match in Brazil		            Photograph: Reuters
Mario Balotelli directs a header beyond Joe Hart early in the second half as England suffered defeat in their opening group match in Brazil Photograph: Reuters

They showed last night that they can at least anticipate giving it a go, a bold performance against Italy ending in defeat but also no loss of confidence in Group D.

The narrative of England's opening World Cup fixture was set in the Amazon. It encouraged an image of Roy Hodgson leading his players through a thicket just to get to the dressing room - an inaccurate notion since Manaus is known locally as "the Paris of the Jungle" - but England did hack away at their opponents with the industriousness of a backpacker with a machete and a reliable sense of direction.

Raheem Sterling wandered into space in midfield after only four minutes to whip a shot into the side netting, while Jordan Henderson also clattered an effort at goal which was parried by Italy goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu. The Paris Saint-Germain player replaced the injured Gianluigi Buffon.

These moments brought a frisson of excitement to England, and all before a commentator could make mention of 1966. This was an attempt to rewrite a script, but it would end in the tragedy of defeat.

"Italy are a good team and we knew how they were going to play," said Steven Gerrard, the England midfielder. "They didn't surprise us and it is disappointing that we have come away with nothing. Anyone who was watching could see that we tried to create . . . we just didn't get anything out of it."

England could retreat knowing that they played their part and are now able to approach matches with Group D rivals Uruguay and Costa Rica with some optimism. A common reaction to an England defeat in a major tournament is to make accusations against a partially-sighted match referee or a partially-competent team manager. Neither Bjorn Kuipers nor Hodgson were in danger of being taken out into the jungle and left there last night, though.

Hodgson was under scrutiny with his first team selection and the England manager dared to be bold. He has peopled his squad with young players capable of shrewd attacking ambition and showed them off against Italy. Sterling was a pest in attack and Daniel Sturridge played with the sort of impetuosity which has endeared him to Liverpool supporters. Everton's Ross Barkley was also granted a cameo appearance after an hour and marked his introduction with a snap-shot at Sirigu.

At times the Italian defence bridled - and once it buckled altogether - yet they endured with the experience of players who have seen it all before. At 35, Andrea Pirlo is not yet troubled by grey hairs and instead remains a carefully trimmed talent.

The Italy captain has earned more than 100 caps for his country and has expressed his intention to retire at the end of this World Cup. It might seem apposite to suggest that the midfielder - who won the tournament in 2006 - would then find time to relax, were he not inclined to stroll through matches like a man on his holidays. It was his dummy on the edge of the penalty area which caught England out after 35 minutes, and that stole a moment for Claudio Marchisio to take aim and fire the ball low into the net.

Italy had soaked up the early pressure and then wrung it out on to England. Suddenly, they had been made to feel uncomfortable, had become stuck in a pitch that last week was coated with sand and then painted green. There was a moment of consternation but it past in the blink of an eye and the flick of Sturridge's left boot.

An adventurous Italian attack left space in their own half and this was gobbled up hungrily by Wayne Rooney as he broke from his own half, before clipping the ball across goal for his young team-mate to steer into the net.

His goal after 37 minutes brought a flurry of cheers from the England technical area and one cry of anguish since Gary Lewin, the team physio, fell during the celebrations and is understood to have suffered a dislocated ankle.

Italy spent the latter stages of the first half trying to apply an ice-pack to England's swelling confidence. First Mario Balotelli chipped the ball over the head of Joe Hart only for Phil Jagielka to nod it back off the line, then Antonio Candreva struck a post with a volley. This Italian side can at times appear relaxed in their approach but they are also dangerous when provoked.

Their momentum was unbroken by half-time and it took Balotelli only five minutes to mark the match indelibly. The striker - once of Manchester City and now at AC Milan - made a timely run into the penalty area and nodded the ball beyond the grasp of erstwhile City team-mate Hart. Another charging run on the hour mark almost allowed him to turn in a third goal.

England became stifled by the heat and also Italy's midfield, a number of honest endeavours breaking against a Italian team which was aware that they had done enough. When Pirlo clipped a late, delicious free-kick on to the crossbar, England held their breathe. They can reflect that defeat has not left them out of puff in Brazil quite yet.

Contextual targeting label: 
Football

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