England and Italy set for heated Group D opener
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England and Italy face off for their opening Group D match on Saturday in Brazil’s northwestern city Manaus, where temperatures are expected to exceed 30°C.
Despite the sweltering heat, the game could be another free-flowing classic of the kind that has already lit up this World Cup, manager Roy Hodgson suggested on Friday, adding that he was surprised by the 5-1 hammering the Netherlands dealt defending champions Spain earlier in the day.
“I think the start of the tournament will hopefully be the continuation as well. We’ve seen attacking football, we haven’t seen one team defending for all it’s worth ... we’ve seen both teams going at each other,” he told a news conference.
England are sporting many younger players than the squad that struggled into the second round in the 2010 World Cup before being thumped 4-1 by Germany.
Daniel Sturridge looks set to play alone up front supported by a trio of Wayne Rooney and Adam Lallana and one of either Danny Welbeck or Raheem Sterling, who was sent off in a friendly against Ecuador in Miami earlier this month.
“I think it’s important we keep all our men on the pitch,” team captain Steven Gerrard told the news conference, in a sign Sterling will start on the bench.
Given the heat and humidity in Manaus, Hodgson may decide not to play veteran Frank Lampard in midfield with Gerrard. Instead, he could opt for the younger Jordan Henderson, Gerrard’s team mate at Liverpool.
Ross Barkley, who was electric as a substitute in England’s second Miami warm-up against Honduras, is expected to come off the bench as an impact player.
Gerrard said England’s game plan was to “defend very well and make it really difficult for Italy to play through us and try and limit them to very few chances on goal and then try to be brave and bold and attack.”
England will be boosted by the news that Italy’s goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon has been ruled out of the match after limping out of a training session with a twisted ankle just hours before kick-off.
On his personal Twitter page, Buffon urged fans to make light of his absence and support his replacement, Paris Saint-Germain’s Salvatore Sirigu.
"Life is great... and a missed match or another missed World Cup is not going to change my opinion on that !!" Buffon said.
"And, even if you're not out on the pitch, there are other ways in which you can play an important role. So, go on Salvatore Sirigu !! Go on the lads !! Go on Italy !!"
The loss of one of their best and most experienced players will come as a huge blow to Italy, however. They crashed out in the group stages of the last World Cup in South Africa after Buffon picked up a back injury and was forced to miss the majority of their matches.
Earlier, Italy coach Cesare Prandelli had said that he was confident his team had the know-how to defeat England.
The 56-year-old added that he would keep his squad guessing until the very last minute who will start Saturday's clash.
"It's always good to leave a few lingering doubts among the players because they have to feel that they are competing until the very last moment before I name the team," Prandelli told a news conference on Friday.
"We will be up against an England side different from the one we beat on penalties in the Euro 2012 quarter-finals, with a wealth of attacking talent as well as an organised and creative midfield,” he said. "Their players have great personalities and psychological strength. But we have prepared for this game to win and are confident that we have all the ingredients required to come out on top in what should be a pulsating clash".
"We have seen lots of goals in the opening few games and I believe this will be the tournament's trend. We are looking forward to treating the fans to a soccer feast after such a great reception they gave us here and in last year's Confederations Cup," he added, echoing Hodgson’s comments.
“Controlling the midfield will be the key and what I am looking for from my team is 90 minutes of intelligent football played at a steady pace because nothing less will do against such a strong rival,” he said.
The two teams last met in the quarter-finals of the 2012 European Championship in Ukraine’s capital Kiev, when Italy prevailed on penalties after a 0-0 draw that they largely dominated.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)