On paper, Italy's first match against England was an even matchup, with neither side holding an alarming advantage in any particular facet of the game. However, given Italy's poor performance at the last World Cup and England's public declaration of war on Andrea Pirlo, you couldn't help but feel that the Azzurri were the underdogs. In what was a closely contested matchup, Italy won the day thanks in part to the steadying influence of Daniele De Rossi and, of course, one moment of brilliance from Mario Balotelli.
While Italy's second opponent may be lacking in historical prestige, they certainly aren't left wanting in results. Costa Rica, thanks to some impressive play from Arsenal man Joel Campbell, dusted off Edinson Cavani and Uruguay 3-1, putting them ahead of the Azzurri in Group D on goal differential.
Given that Italy and Costa Rica have never met in a competitive match, what can we expect from Cesare Prandelli and Italy?
Much as he did in the build up to the England match, Prandelli, at least in terms of public appearances, is keeping his opponents guessing. Throughout training this week, Prandelli split his 23-man-squad into two groups, but not in the simple A-team vs B-team fashion. No, Prandelli mixed and matched his starting lineups, splitting Italy's finest as follows:
Group 1: Marco Verratti, Antonio Candreva, Claudio Marchisio, Mario Balotelli, Ignazio Abate, Gabriel Paletta, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, Matteo Darmian and Marco Parolo.
Group 2: Mattia De Sciglio, Andrea Barzagli, Thiago Motta, Daniele De Rossi, Alberto Aquilani, Lorenzo Insigne, Ciro Immobile, Alessio Cerci, Andrea Pirlo and Antonio Cassano.
We can't exactly say that Prandelli is dealing from the bottom of the deck here, since all but two or three of his starting XI is a lock, but this may prove enough of a wrinkle to keep the Ticos from keying in on Italy's tactical preferences.
Darmian, De Sciglio and Abate all featured in training, perhaps hinting that Italy might trot out a more traditional fullback set up, rather than relying on Chiellini to play out of position. This point really cannot be underestimated, as Costa Rica's attack is predicated on speed--hot, nasty, badass speed--so the comparative athletic abilities of Chiellini and Italys actual fullbacks will necessarily limit the extent to which the Ticos can exploit the flanks.
As far as Prandelli's other "hey look over there" strategeries are concerned, look no further than the pair of PSG midfielders in those two groups. Verratti, reportedly suffering from flu-like symptoms, remains in doubt for this fixture, though you wouldn't have guessed it based on their training routines, as he wasn't really restricted from anything. However, at the same time, Thiago Motta has been in the thick of the Azzurri's preparations for Costa Rica, possibly indicating a change in the co-playmaker role alongside Andrea Pirlo in Prandelli's 4-1-4-1.
Or he might completely shuffle the deck with a different lineup and formation altogether. Prandelli has done his best to muddy the waters ahead of this match, revealing just enough to throw the Ticos off his scent.
But what about Costa Rica, what sort of troubles might they cause Italy? For that answer, we turn to Thiago Motta:
Costa Rica played very well, ran a great deal and are not a surprise. They have good players, know what they are doing and it'll be a difficult match for us...They have players in attack who can make the difference. Costa Rica are very quick at passing it forward and also accustomed to these temperatures, so we need to be very careful. The enthusiasm they're running on after that win over Uruguay will also help boost their confidence. We must fact this game as if it were a Final.
Looking at their victory over Uruguay, you have to say, Motta was spot on. Between Joel Campbell, Oscar Duarte, Bryan Ruiz and Giancarlo Gonzalez, the Ticos dictated the pace and location of play, pressing high up the pitch, completing nearly 80% of their passes, 67% of which were forward, and hitting Uruguay with 13 shots. Costa Rica also created twice as many chances as their South American counterparts. They were fast, they were aggressive and they were effective.
Given their pace and attacking talent, Prandelli's tactical schemes and selections carry added weight, particularly in the defensive third, and particularly on the left flank.
With that in mind, lets take a look at...
Who's In & Who's Out
The biggest question regarding Italy's lineup tomorrow is who will start at left back, a matter made more pressing given Costa Rica's proclivity to attack that side of the pitch, which they did 26% of the time against Uruguay.
While Giorgio Chiellini was solid enough as a makeshift left back, the man immediately adjacent to him, Gabriel Paletta, was atrocious, winning only one of four tackles against England. He was just awful and made life that much harder for Chiellini and De Rossi, each of whom had to cover for Paletta's poor tackling and positioning.
When we look at Prandelli's training sessions, left back appears to be the source of his intentional obfuscation. While Paletta is assuredly out, Prandelli has effectively created enough of a smokescreen to keep Costa Rica guessing who will take his place. Does Chiellini revert to his natural position as a centerback, pushing some combination Ignazio Abate, Matteo Darmian and Mattia De Sciglio back into the starting lineup, or will he remain and left back with Leonardo Bonucci taking Paletta's spot in the center of defense?
Given the impressive performance of Campbell and Costa Rica's general ability to attack down the right flank, this may be the choice that swings the outcome of this match. If Italy opts for three nominal centerbacks, the additional defensive fortitude comes at the cost of attacking creativity and simple speed, the latter of which may be more important given the Ticos collective pace.
As Prandelli himself cautioned, Italy must not underestimate Costa Rica, they have enough attacking talent and commitment to their system to shock the four time champions.
Luis Suarez's heroics against England, delivering both of Uruguay's goals in their victory over the Three Lions, have thrown a bit of monkey wrench into Italy's designs on Group D. Where Italy may have had a chance to seal up this group, had England and Uruguay played to a draw, now they're faced with a must win versus Costa Rica. Anything less than three points, and next week's showdown with Uruguay becomes an epic winner-takes-all showdown.
However, in sports, much like life, you can only worry about the devil in front of you. All the calculations and possible scenarios are rendered meaningless if Italy can't handle Costa Rica tomorrow in Recife.