Italy defeated England by a slender margin of 2-1 as Mario Balotelli’s second half header proved to be the difference between the two former champions in a humid evening at the Arena Amazonia in Manaus. Claudio Marchisio gave the Azzurris the lead in the 35th minute, only to see England equalize quickly as Daniel Sturridge scored on his World Cup debut. It was a very entertaining end-to-end game, and the result will probably reflect harshly on the spirited Lions.

Teenager Raheem Sterling was opted ahead of Adam Lallana in England’s 4-2-3-1 setup, with the rest of the England line-up on expected lines. Steven Gerrard, who was the only English player in the squad with a World Cup goal, started in his now-customary deep midfield role.

Italy’s injury problems meant that Giorgio Chiellini had to shift to left-back with Matteo Darmian getting his World Cup debut on the opposite flank. Inexperienced Gabriel Paletta started alongside Andrea Barzagli as Italy opted for a narrow 4-3-3, expecting Andrea Pirlo to run the show. Captain Gigi Buffon was unavailable through an ankle injury, as Salvatore Sirigu took his place in goal.

Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson had good early chances to put England in front, but as the half progressed, Andrea Pirlo controlled the game more as England sat deep with a view to counter-attack with pace. England’s reactive strategy almost made Italy pay as the frontmen of Sturridge, Welbeck, Sterling and Rooney looked dangerous. Mario Balotelli on the other hand was relatively anonymous and was easily stifled by the English centre-backs, Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka.

The breakthrough arrived in the 35th minute when Pirlo’s brilliant dummy freed up space for an unmarked Marchisio outside the England box, and his inched perfect shot rolled past a helpless Joe Hart as Italy got their just rewards for a period of sustained possession and relative dominance.

But England had other ideas as Raheem Sterling’s brilliant work in midfield and his swivel and pass to find Rooney in space on the left was a work of genuine brilliance. The free Rooney found Sturridge with a cross as England levelled the score in the 37th minute. The game petered out towards half-time, but Pirlo and Balotelli had other plans. Only a goalmouth clearance from Jagielka saved England from going down again and the post further saved the blushes as Antionio Candreva crashed a fierce shot a little off the mark.

The second half started much the same way as the first, but Mario Balotelli’s easy glancing header from Candreva’s brilliant cross proved to be the difference at the end. Candreva sold Leighton Baines with little shimmies, and crossed beautifully with his weaker left foot to find Balotelli at the far post. Gary Cahill had no chance with the cross, and Italy regained their lead in the 50th minute.

England pushed forward as the game progressed, often running into massed Italian ranks. Sirigu made some vital saves too to keep the scoreline intact. Andrea Pirlo’s injury-time free kick that crashed the crossbar was the last notable piece of action in a highly entertaining match.

With this result, Italy now have 3 points and are second in group D, behind Costa Rica on goal difference. England have their next fixture against Uruguay, a match that could well decide which way the group heads.