Neither England nor Italy impressed in their World Cup preparation games. England cruised past an unimpressive Peru before labouring to draws against Ecuador and Honduras, while Italy were held by Ireland and minnows Luxembourg before finally beating Brazilian club side Fluminense. But while the Three Lions have a tradition of continuing such mediocrity into major tournaments, the Azzurri always seem to come alive on the big stage.
Their opening World Cup game will test whether this old adage still holds true, as these two storied footballing nations clash in Manaus. True to history, Italy head in as favourites, though Roy Hodgson's surprisingly exciting, surprisingly inexperienced squad adds an element of surprise that could pay dividends, and see England exact revenge for their elimination via penalties in the quarterfinals of the European Championships two years ago.
Setting up in a fairly rigid 4-2-3-1, Roy Hodgson's England lineup is pretty predictable. The goalkeeper and back four have all but cemented their places, and a lack of better alternatives means a midfield pivot of Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson will try to stem the Azzurri flow. Wayne Rooney is seemingly undroppable, while Daniel Sturridge is the best English striker around at present. He'll likely be flanked by Danny Welbeck and Adam Lallana, with the more inexperienced Ross Barkley and Raheem Sterling set to start from the bench.
By contrast, predicting how Italy will shape up and set out is much more difficult. Coach Cesare Prandelli has used a variety of formations and lineups since taking charge, from experiments with a Juventus-esque defensive trio at Euro 2012 to the 4-3-2-1 he's tended to favour since using it with some success at last summer's Confederations Cup. It's most likely he'll try it again here, with Claudio Marchisio and Antonio Candreva drifting behind Mario Balotelli, and playmakers Andrea Pirlo and Marco Verratti flanking destroyer Daniele De Rossi deeper in midfield.
With Mattia De Sciglio likely to miss out through a calf injury, Giorgio Chiellini could be shifted across to left-back, with Gabriel Paletta coming in to cover at centre-back. Matteo Darmian could get the nod ahead of Ignazio Abate on the right of defence. England will hope to have Danny Welbeck available after a midweek injury scare.
Projected lineups (left to right)
England (4-2-3-1): Joe Hart; Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka, Gary Cahill, Glen Johnson; Jordan Henderson, Steven Gerrard; Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney, Adam Lallana; Daniel Sturridge.
Italy (4-3-2-1): Gianluigi Buffon; Giorgio Chiellini, Gabriel Paletta, Andrea Barzagli, Matteo Darmian; Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi, Marco Verratti; Claudio Marchisio, Antonio Candreva; Mario Balotelli.
England's pivot vs. Claudio Marchisio and Antonio Candreva - England's lack of success at major tournaments over the years is probably less to do with a pure lack of talent than it is a dearth of footballing intelligence; the presence of two box-to-box midfielders without a true holding player ensuring they're consistently overrun in the centre of the pitch. Unfortunately for the Three Lions, things don't look much better here, with Gerrard and Henderson expected to anchor the midfield.
Gerrard isn't quite as defensively weak as he once was, mainly because his legs are now 34 years old. But he's still not positionally great, and could be left exposed if his younger teammate goes walkabout. Should Marchisio and Candreva find pockets of space around England's pivot, they could prove dangerous.
England's counters vs. Italy's immobile midfield - However, a similar thing could be said of Italy, who look set to use two immobile deep-lying playmakers, Pirlo and Verratti, in their midfield trio. With neither of these players ever keen to run -- either with or without the ball -- England could take advantage of their immobility from deep in both phases of play. The absence of a box-to-box player to burst into space through the middle will ease pressure on Gerrard and Henderson defensively, while the Three Lions' pace on the counter could expose De Rossi. England may have weaknesses in midfield, but so do Italy.
Wayne Rooney vs. himself - When on top form Rooney is an excellent player, capable of producing moments of magic that win games single-handedly. The problem, however, is that he's on such form with such irregularity that onlookers are left wondering whether he's an average player with an eye for the audacious, or a mercurial genius worthy of the footballing elite. Perhaps to their detriment England have decided on the latter, though should -- by some miracle -- Rooney turn up at his best, the Three Lions should never be counted out.
This game will likely be a cagey, tactical affair with neither side willing to run too many risks in such a tight group Both sides' weaknesses mean we could see goals, though probably not many of them. 1-1.