London – We know seven of the England team Roy Hodgson will select for the opening 2014 World Cup final tie against Italy. Two others are virtually certain. It is the Manaus Two that have kept the media guessing, looking for the tiniest of tips that would complete England’s starting XI.
Hodgson has been dropping hints and red herrings in equal proportions, keeping his cards super-glued to his chest because the line-up will also reveal his tactics for England’s Italian job, and like his opposite number, Cesare Prandelli, he will give less than nothing away, if that were possible.
Joe Hart will be in goal with a back four of Glen Johnson, Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka and Leighton Baines. Steven Gerrard will be the midfield orchestrator with Daniel Sturridge the lone striker. So far, so good.
Jordan Henderson is the obvious partner for Gerrard in a 4-2-3-1 formation which, unless Hodgson is going to surprise — make that stun — everybody by opting for something different, will be how England will play.
Wayne Rooney has his critics, but he has been in a bullish mood, keen to break his World Cup finals scoring duck and as England’s most reliable scorer in recent years it would be staggering if Hodgson left him out, though Italy would no doubt be delighted. Rooney would play as one of the three behind Sturridge, probably on the left, a role he endures rather than enjoys.
It is the two remaining attacking places that are uncertain with Adam Lallana, Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere, Frank Lampard, Raheem Sterling, James Milner and Ross Barkley the candidates. Welbeck missed two days training this week because of a thigh strain, but is expected to be available for selection, and if he is, the Manchester United forward will play just behind Sturridge with Sterling on the right.
Hodgson may go for the more defensive qualities of Milner rather than Sterling given that this is a must-not-lose match, but the Liverpool speedster has been forgiven for his red card against Ecuador and has won praise from the manager for his performances in training.
Hodgson, like Prandelli, knows that since 1998 when the finals were expanded to 32 teams and two qualified from each group, an opening loss makes qualifying for the knockout stage difficult going on impossible. Only 9 percent of teams who were defeated in their first game advanced and one of those was Spain, beaten 1-0 by Switzerland in South Africa.
Italy knows its way around major finals, despite its blowout four years ago. The Italians are past masters of doing whatever it takes to make their way toward the final, and despite some indifferent friendly results the Azzurri will be battle-hardened, physical and technical opponents.
Gigi Buffon is the best goalkeeper this correspondent has ever seen and at 36 remains as good a stopper as there is in world football. The Italy captain has three members of his Juventus defense in front of him — Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci — with AC Milan’s Ignazio Abate at right-back.
In midfield there is the peerless Andrea Pirlo, who ran the show when England drew with Italy at Euro 2012. Former Liverpool and Chelsea manager Rafa Benitez, now coach of Napoli, believes man-marking the midfield maestro is virtually impossible.
Benitez said: The simple idea is to man-mark Pirlo. Simple in theory?
Maybe. Simple in practice? No. Even if somebody like Danny Welbeck is sent on to the pitch with the job of stopping Pirlo — chasing and chasing, closing him down — the Italian will still have the ability to find space and put in the pass that can change everything.
“It was the same last season when my Napoli side played his Juventus team,” said Benitez. “We started with a strategy to stop Pirlo as much as we could, controlling the space around him and limiting the possibilities of him creating serious danger.
“Whatever you do against him, he will probably always have his moment to put in the important pass.”
Or the important free kick, because there are few, if any, better at this art than Pirlo.
Alongside the 35-year-old is likely to be Marco Veratti, who could be a star of Brazil 2014. The midfield anchor will be Daniele De Rossi with Thiago Motta of Claudio Marchisio completing the heart of the Italy side.
In attack, Prandelli can choose Mario Balotelli, though nobody ever knows whether Mad Mario or Brilliant Balotelli will turn up. There is also Antonio Cassano and the hugely promising Torino striker Ciro Immobile, who plays nothing like his name suggests.
England goes into the Manaus Matchup confident, but not over-confident.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.