Mario on the mark. How many English players thought to themselves when Mario Balotelli escaped Gary Cahill to head home the winning goal, "Not him again?”
The talismanic striker scored 20 goals in 54 games for Manchester City from 2010 to 2013 while enhancing his reputation for volatile behavior with incidents such as stamping on Scott Parker of Tottenham yet escaping sanction by referee Howard Webb, who apparently didn’t see the incident. He picked up four red cards during the 2011-12 season, which prompted then-manager Robert Mancini to ban him for the remainder of the campaign, but Mancini relented, and it was Balotelli who assisted on the 94th-minute goal scored by Sergio Arguero against Queens Park Rangers to clinch City’s first top-division title since 1968.
His goal against England was the 14th of his international career and the three points it earned gives Italy a solid foundation to advance, perhaps as group winner.
Ruing the Rooney misses. The Wayne Rooney World Cup goal watch continues.
He set up the goal for Daniel Sturridge by which England equalized in the 37th minute, but he labored in a wide position and never seemed settled as England pushed for the second equalizer. A terribly hit cross that flew a dozen yards behind the goal was seeming impossibly poor for a player of such Premier League accomplishments as domestic and European club titles with Manchester United, and he also dragged a shot wide from a good position.
The younger players selected by England manager Roy Hodgson, such as the excellent Raheem Sterling and Sturridge, provided enough energy and workrate to trouble an Italian team more inclined to follow the lead of aging -- yet still amazing -- playmaker Andres Pirlo. In a tight battle against such a savvy, pragmatic foe, England needed its veterans to find a solution, a scheme, a way to avoid defeat. Rooney went scoreless for the ninth time in a World Cup game, and captain Steven Gerrard couldn’t add a dose of guile to his typically yeoman work rate and commitment.
English players are supposedly the kings of crossing, yet it was Antonio Candreva who owned the right flank for more than an hour and delivered the serve from which Balotelli decided this showdown.
Warning signs deep in the Amazon. Both teams wilted visibly in the second half, which suited the more technical and cerebral Italians, though the 81-degree temperatures and 74-percent humidity aren’t unknown to players who sweat and toil through the searing summers of MLS.
After Balotelli’s goal restored Italy’s lead, England pushed hard for about 10 or 15 minutes only for their finishing and crossing to let them down. Italy’s traditional defensive composure surely aided its comfort in riding out the 2-1 lead but along with a glaring lack of ideas, fatigue sapped the energy out of England.
Many teams, including England, took the trouble of training and playing in the U.S. to prepare for the conditions in Brazil, but the size of that country during its winter solstice means games in the north will be warmer than those in the cities further south. Manaus, set deep in the Amazon jungle, will present conditions unique and severe when the USA plays Portugal there a week from Sunday.
Both teams will have five full days to recover after playing Monday, but the key for the U.S. players may be how fast they can recover to face Germany, which will have an extra day of rest for the final day of Group G play June 26. The heavy emphasis imposed by head coach Jurgen Klinsmann on conditioning and playing in hot, humid conditions is a direct product of the daunting circumstances the Americans will face in their second and third games.