Past World Cup champions and European foes England and Italy put on an entertaining show on the much-maligned field at Arena Amazonia in Manaus, with the Azzurri taking a 2-1 win to pull level on points with Costa Rica (What? That's right. Costa Rica.) atop a deep Group D on Saturday.
Claudio Marchisio and Daniel Sturridge traded first-half goals in a three-minute span late in the first half, before Mario Balotelli scored the eventual winner on a 50th-minute back-post header from a first-class cross by Antonio Candreva.
Both sides showed well (before the humidity and exhaustion appeared to set in), with England attacking with a new-found verve behind Sturridge, Danny Welbeck, 19-year-old Raheem Sterling and substitute Ross Barkley. Italy displayed its class on the ball, comfort in possession and finishing ability. All things told, Group D is going to be a dogfight -- and not just a three-team one -- and the Azzurri have taken a necessary step forward, while the Three Lions have some work to do.
Here are three thoughts on the match:
• Gianluigi Buffon's absence was a non-story
In the immediate build-up to the match, much was made of veteran Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon's injury absence, and while he clearly instills confidence and remains a world-class goalkeeper, his backup did just fine. Salvatore Sirigu stepped in for Buffon and performed admirably. The PSG backstop robbed Jordan Henderson in the sixth minute with a brilliant diving save low and to his left to build some early confidence, and he appeared sure-handed from that point forward. More sure-handed than his counterpart, Joe Hart, who brought back flashbacks of Robert Green by spilling an early shot from distance (though forwards to a teammate, not backwards into his own net) and had an all-around shaky showing.
Sirigu was certainly helped by Andrea Barzagli, whose sliding intervention prevented Welbeck's cross from finding Sturridge on the doorstep in the 23rd minute, but what goalkeeper doesn't need to lean on his defense from time to time? There was little he could do about Sturridge's eventual goal, and he answered the bell when called upon from that point forward -- especially on Leighton Baines' 77th-minute free kick that had eyes for the back of the net.
Italy is obviously better off when Buffon is on the field, given his leadership, vast experience and skill. But for one night in the Amazon, the Azzurri were just fine without him.
• Wayne Rooney didn't score, he made an impact, but was it enough?
Roy Hodgson deployed a 4-2-3-1 with Wayne Rooney stationed wide left, and while the Manchester United star has come under fire for his inability to score in World Cup games, his manager did him no favors at the start. Rooney was forced to man the wings and maintain a defensive posture, and he appeared to be frustrated during the opening half hour.
While Rooney didn't score yet again, he managed to make an impact, but will that suffice for England fans? His pinpoint cross to Sturridge gave England a lifeline two minutes after conceding the opener, a time when England's mental strength was put to the test. He nearly found the back of the net moments after Italy went ahead again with a difficult shot from distance, going across his body with his right foot and aiming for the left post. Rooney likely should have done better with a 62nd-minute chance to equalize from inside the box, though, one that drew a pained grimace from Hodgson on the sideline.
One would have expected Rooney's assist to clear any nerves and set him on track, but Club Wayne Rooney likely finishes that chance. International Wayne? Not so much. Rooney, who completely shanked a corner kick at one point, skied an 87th-minute chance (of greater difficulty) to level the score as well, venting his dismay after the miss. His great assist put England on the board, but for Three Lions supporters that's going to be of little consolation.
• Andrea Pirlo will never lose his skills
Why Andrea? Why are you retiring from the Italian national team after this World Cup?
The magical Juventus midfielder was at his typical finest, picking out teammates with ease and class (completing 103 of 108 passes) and drawing fawning tweets from many MLS and U.S. men's national team players and countless fans and peers throughout the contest. His dummy off a routine short corner gave Marchisio the time and space to fire home the opening goal from long range, and he maintained control over the midfield nearly to the extent that he did against England in the 2012 European Championship quarterfinals.
If there was ever a star suited for the humidity and extreme conditions of Manaus, it's Pirlo, who can be so effective while hardly covering acres of space. His calmness on the ball in second-half stoppage time, when he could have booted a clearance, but instead made a pinpoint chipped pass that drew a foul and killed off even more time, was just an example of the level he is on. The 35-year-old -- who pinged the crossbar with a 94th-minute free kick -- brought it like usual on Saturday. It's a shame that he'll only do so for a handful of more international games.