World Cup 2014: Italians on their minds

World Cup 2014: Italians on their minds
England must keep an eye on Andrea Pirlo (above, third from left), who is Italy’s most creative player.

If England are afraid of Italy, they're certainly not showing it.

As the clock ticks down to their opening clash in Manaus on Sunday morning (Singapore time), players and manager alike struck a defiant note in front of the press.

England were dumped out of the European Championships by Italy in 2012, inevitably beaten on penalties after a stalemate over 120 minutes.

As this is a group game, there's no chance of a repeat performance, but the stakes are still so high.

In a group as competitive as this, defeat is not an option.

Were Italy to win their opening Group D encounter, England would face Uruguay knowing that another slip-up would end their tournament within seven days of the opening ceremony.

Two years ago, it was Andrea Pirlo who rubbed salt in England's wounds, calmly chipping his crucial penalty straight down the centre of the goal as Joe Hart lunged obligingly out of the way.

Since that day, Pirlo has won two more Serie A titles with Juventus to go with the one he'd just collected in 2012.

He will be, once again, at the heart of the Italian midfield this weekend.

"How are we going to stop Pirlo?" asked Hodgson rhetorically this week.

"What we're going to do first of all is play better this time than we did then."

Jack Wilshere was nice enough to give a rather more detailed explanation of England's game plan.

"We've seen in the last two games that our set-up was with the Italy game in mind," he told reporters.

"We played the two in midfield with one ahead and it will be that man's job to screen him.

There will be times in the game when he gets on the ball and then we have to narrow in and stop his forward balls."

Steven Gerrard has always been an industrious midfielder perfectly for such a role but, at 34 years of age, it's unlikely that his tiring legs will be able to take the strain, especially when he's been on light training after a recurrence of a groin issue.

Liverpool teammate Jordan Henderson, swift and tireless, may be given the role instead, unless Hodgson leaves it to Wayne Rooney.

Perhaps England's key concern shouldn't be Pirlo at all.

Italy, who have struggled to impress since securing qualification, were thought likely to field Mario Balotelli up front.

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