Italy faces battle of the champions in Brazil

Ahead of the World Cup opening in Brazil today, we take a look at the challenges faced by Italy in the group stage, with the team up against rainforest heat and two former world champions.

Italy faces battle of the champions in Brazil
Italy coach Cesare Prandelli in Brazil, ahead of the World Cup opening on Thursday. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

Group D is the only one at the World Cup to contain three former world champions in England, Italy and Uruguay. Costa Rica complete the line-up.

The tone will be set by the opening game between Steven Gerrard's England and Gianluigi Buffon's Italy in the heat and humidity of Manaus on Saturday.

Given the presence in the group of reigning South American champions Uruguay, spearheaded by the prolific Luis Suarez, defeat for either side could prove fatal.

England and Italy last met at the quarter-finals of the 2012 European Championship, when Cesare Prandelli's side won on penalties after bossing proceedings in a 0-0 draw.

Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and midfield metronome Andrea Pirlo remain from the Italy team that tasted glory at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, but there is uncertainty over the team's attacking configuration.

Playmaker Riccardo Montolivo has been ruled out with a broken leg, while the absence of Giuseppe Rossi due to fitness concerns means that Mario Balotelli may have to shoulder much of the goal-scoring burden.

"We know we're in a particularly tough group," says Prandelli, whose side habitually line up in a 4-3-1-2 formation but can operate with a three-man defence.

"Our first objective is to qualify, and then we'll see."

Like Italy, England finished unbeaten in European qualifying, but optimism was tempered by back-to-back friendly defeats at home to Chile and Germany last November.

England manager Roy Hodgson has selected only six players with previous World Cup experience and his squad has a youthful edge.

Winger Raheem Sterling, 19, could start against Italy after a breakthrough season with Liverpool, while 20-year-old Everton midfielder Ross Barkley will also hope to make an impact.

Suarez concern

Given the conditions and the expectation that Italy will dominate possession in Manaus, Hodgson must decide whether to keep faith with a tried-and-tested 4-2-3-1 system or pack central midfield with a 4-3-3.

"There are a lot of very mobile, athletic, pacy players in the team," says Hodgson.

"I don't want to be quoted as saying, 'We're going to play a high pressing game,' because that automatically assumes every time their goalkeeper rolls the ball out to someone level with him, 100 yards from our goal, that we're going to fly our back-line up to the halfway line."

Uruguay's chances of success may rest on the fitness of star striker Suarez, who will lead the line alongside Paris Saint-Germain's Edinson Cavani if he recovers from knee surgery in time.

Suarez has had a sensational season with Liverpool in which he scored 31 goals in the Premier League.

Oscar Tabarez's settled side were surprise semi-finalists at the 2010 World Cup, losing to the Netherlands, but they laboured in qualifying and had to come through a play-off against Jordan.

"Our style has always remained the same since 2006, when we started working together," says centre-back Diego Godin. "Our goal is to advance to the second round – every team aims for the same."

Costa Rica qualified in second place behind the United States in the CONCACAF region, but they will have their work cut out to repeat their shock last-16 showing from their maiden World Cup in 1990.

Colombian coach Jorge Luis Pinto, who favours a five-man defence, has a reputation for producing tactically well organised teams and is also blessed with some gifted forward players.

Elegant skipper Bryan Ruiz and Arsenal wide player Joel Campbell will supply plenty of invention, but striker Alvaro Saborio, Costa Rica's top scorer in qualifying, misses out with a broken foot.

SEE ALSO: Ten videos of Italy's golden World Cup moments

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Euro 2020: Concern about virus spread after Italy players’ ‘unauthorised’ victory parade through Rome

Italy’s national football team reportedly insisted on taking an open-top bus tour through Rome to show off their European Championship trophy to crowds of fans - despite city authorities forbidding it amid concern about the spread of coronavirus.

Euro 2020: Concern about virus spread after Italy players' ‘unauthorised’ victory parade through Rome
Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

The team’s bus parade through the city on Monday night following their Euro 2020 triumph “was not authorised”, according to Matteo Piantedosi the head of Rome’s prefettura (the public safety authority).

Thousands of fans packed the streets of central Rome to see the team celebrate their cup win after beating England on penalties in the final.

READ ALSO: ‘Football came home’: Italy celebrates Euro 2020 victory over England

Piantedosi told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera on Wednesday: “We had denied permission to celebrate Italy’s victory in the European Championships on the open bus, but the pact was not respected.”

Piantedosi, who is Rome’s top public security official, said police had “no choice” but to let the parade go ahead after players Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci insisted on it.

Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

A meeting had been held on Friday with the Italian football federation (FIGC) to discuss plans for the celebrations if Italy won, said Piantedosi.

“I had agreed the line with Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese and Chief of Police Lamberto Giannini,” he said.

“It was clearly explained that [the parade] was not possible. We said we could not authorize it.”

Piantedosi said the Italian football federation (FIGC) initially agreed to hold a “controlled” ceremony in Rome’s central Piazza del Popolo instead of the parade.

After players insisted on the bus tour on Monday however, Piantedosi said, authorities reluctantly let them go ahead due to fears of sparking public disorder.

“At that point we had no choice but to acknowledge the situation and handle it in the best way we could,” he said.

READ ALSO: Covid cases on the rise in Europe once again as WHO warns of Euro 2020 risk

Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

In a statement on Wednesday, the FIGC said it had acted responsibly but decided not to disappoint fans who had come to celebrate with the team.

Footage of large crowds thronging the bus carrying the ‘Azzurri’ and the European Championship trophy through the capital however fuelled concerns about new outbreaks of coronavirus, after Italy’s infection rate began to rise again last week.

The World Health Organization warned earlier this month that crowds and gatherings connected to football matches will fuel a new rise in cases across Europe this summer.

READ ALSO: Delta variant in Italy will be ‘prevalent within 10 days’: health official

Italy’s health minister Roberto Speranza also voiced concerns on Monday about the consequences of people gathering to watch sporting events.

He said the European football championship win was “a great joy after terrible months,” but “even in these moments of national pride we can’t forget that our ‘game’ to defeat Covid is not yet won.”

There are currently minimal health restrictions in place across Italy, however masks are supposed to be worn in crowded public places, including outdoors.

“Footage shows that police were virtually the only ones [in the crowd] wearing masks,” said Piantedosi.