How will England stop magical Pirlo?
Posted Saturday, June 14 2014 at 01:00
When they met in Euro 2012, Italian maestro Pirlo made more passes than all England midfielders.
On one side it is all ocean, backed up by the shoreline of Guanabara Bay. On the other it is Sugarloaf Mountain.
Think back to that scene in Moonraker when Jaws uses his teeth to cut the wires of James Bond’s cable car.
England’s training ground is directly below, at the Urca military training base, and it is here they are preparing to face another super-villain who is known for his bite, though Luis Suárez, strictly speaking, is next week’s problem.
For now the team are planning for tonight’s game against Italy and still getting used to the pounding heat. Chris Smalling had barely been out five minutes when one of the Football Association’s sports scientists, Barry Drust, could be seen bringing out a spray and cooling him down in the way someone might water a geranium.
Rickie Lambert was handed a water bottle and emptied the contents over his head. Inside the dressing rooms the team have an industrial fan that blows water vapour over the players. That will be going with them to Manaus, where the humidity will be even more intense.
Roy Hodgson and his players arrived with a cavalcade of police cars, motorcycles, army trucks, a helicopter and – no kidding – a gunship and a submarine following around the coast.
This was the only time an England training session will be open to the public this week and the FA has even sent people up Sugarloaf to check there are no spying points from the cable cars that take 1,360 people up and down every hour.
In the 2006 World Cup there were opposition spies scaling the trees around England’s Bavarian training camp to watch Sven-Goran Eriksson’s practice sessions. This time it might need someone to abseil down the 1,300ft-high mountain to establish whether Hodgson is planning to use Danny Welbeck or Raheem Sterling on the left side of attack.
Before every tournament a manager likes to say his team are perfectly prepared. Hodgson did not have that luxury when he was parachuted into the job just before Euro 2012 but he says it now and genuinely seems to mean it.
The FA has sent out turf specialists to work on the grass, making sure it is the same length as the team will find at the Arena da Amazônia on Saturday to the millimetre. Scientists from Loughborough University have designed specially tailored recovery drinks for each player depending on their sweat outputs. All that is really left – and this is the old-fashioned thing – is for England to show they can take care of a football better than their opponents.
That was beyond them the last time they faced the Italians in a major competition, the quarter-finals of Euro 2012, when Andrea Pirlo put together more passes than England’s entire midfield quartet.
This time the common view is that Hodgson needs one of his attackers to drop back and make sure the doyen of Italy’s team does not have the space to run the game.
Wayne Rooney is one candidate, Welbeck another. Yet there is another way to prevent another peacock-like spreading of Pirlo’s feathers and that is for England to keep the ball themselves.
“How are we going to stop Pirlo? What we’re going to do first of all is play better this time than we did then,” Hodgson said. “The Italy game was actually our worst performance of that tournament and all the players would agree with me. We didn’t think we played anywhere near as well as we could.
“Against a tiring team Pirlo had a very good game because he’s a very good player. But we did show incredible character, incredible determination and incredible fight because, although we weren’t playing well, we kept a very strong Italian team at bay for 120 minutes and actually gave ourselves a chance of winning on penalties.
“It was a stage of the tournament when we were weary. Our squad was quite small. Steven Gerrard was injured. Both he and Scott Parker in normal circumstances might have come off at half-time.
“What are we going to do this time? First we will play a lot better and we will play with more energy because we will have more energy as it will be the first game in the tournament. We will be even more compact. We’re also going to make certain that Italy have a lot more to concern themselves about with our attacking play, because one of the problems we had in that game is that we weren’t functioning well as an attacking unit.
One of our plans this time is to make certain we do a lot more attacking and that Italy find themselves wondering what they’re going to do about people such as Steven Gerrard or Wayne Rooney.”