June 21, 2014

NATAL, Brazil (AP) Italy boasted for weeks about its physical fitness preparation for this World Cup.

Coach Cesare Prandelli constantly said he wanted to bring not just 23 players to Brazil ''but 23 athletes.''

Players' fitness levels were monitored down to the most minimal details for months. Specially trained nutritionists selected all the food and liquid that the Azzurri consumed.

So how did Italy go from physically dominating England in the Amazonian venue of Manaus to getting out-run and out-played by unheralded Costa Rica in a 1-0 loss Friday in Recife?

While it was nowhere near as hot as Italy feared against Costa Rica - 29 C (84 F) and 70 percent humidity according to FIFA - the Azzurri struggled to keep up with the speedy Ticos for long stretches.

''We did everything we could to prepare, but matches are an entirely different matter,'' team physican Enrico Castellacci said Saturday.

Midfielder Claudio Marchisio scored the opening goal in the 2-1 win over England and said the conditions in that game made him hallucinate at times. He also felt the heat against Costa Rica.

''You can say all you want but we played against a squad that is more used to this climate,'' Marchisio said. ''Sure there were some key chances that we didn't take advantage of and would have changed the match. But in the second half the heat was the difference, that's for sure. It's not an alibi.''

Midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo shined against England, too, but had trouble making an impact against Costa Rica - Ticos coach Jorge Luis Pinto revealed afterward he'd designed a special defensive web to contain the passing wizard.

''The conditions were worse than Manaus,'' Pirlo said.

Perhaps it's also worth considering that Italy traditionally struggles against lesser-known opponents - as seen in its seven-match winless streak entering the tournament, which included draws with Denmark, Armenia, Nigeria and even tiny Luxembourg.

Fortunately, the four-time champion can still advance with either a win or a draw against Uruguay in its last Group D match on Tuesday in Natal.

''If it's true that Italy knows how to revive itself in tough times it will show that against Uruguay,'' Gianni Mura of Italian daily La Repubblica wrote. ''But you can't hide the fact that Italy knows how to get distracted in positive times.''

Captain Gianluigi Buffon was one of the few Azzurri not to place the blame on the heat.

''We can't look for alibis,'' said the goalkeeper, who is in his record fifth World Cup squad. ''Most of all, we need to make a `mea culpa,' and turn the page, because there's a game to win now.''


Andrew Dampf can be followed at www.twitter.com/asdampf

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