As I wrote my recent article on five reasons Italy should be afraid of Costa Rica, even I had a hard time not considering the Azzurri the heavy favorites in the match. They had turned back an England side that looked better than recent Three Lions teams and showed few of the weaknesses that had troubled them in the lead-up to the World Cup. A dirty secret of Italy is that they play poorly when the stakes are low, and tend to excel when their backs are against the wall in international tournaments.
The Costa Rica match epitomized that, as Italy turned out a poor appearance in a match that would have sealed their advance to the next round. Now they face a dramatic match against Uruguay that does matter, and this Uruguay squad looks miles better than the one that lost to Costa Rica.
Cesare Prandelli, whose tactical knowledge has rightly earned him praise, made a critical change between this match and the England victory. Next to Andrea Pirlo he played Thiago Motta over Marco Verratti, who was a scratch due to flu-like symptoms. Against England and in the friendlies, the PSG midfielder paired well with Pirlo as his passing was good enough that he prevented teams from focusing on the Juventus maestro and allowed Pirlo space to do what he does best. Motta was just not effective, so the gameplan became Pirlo getting the ball and trying to pass it over the top to Mario Balotelli. The strategy worked some in the first half but Costa Rica adjusted to a 5-4-1 formation with a tight backline that saw Italy called offside 11 times in the match.
Prandelli’s substitutions were also questionable. To begin the second half and shake up his formation, he brought in the ageless Antonio Cassno to morph his team into a 4-3-3, which was later reinforced by Lorenzo Insigne and eventually Alessio Cerci. Cassano as a pivot up top was woefully ineffective, and I admit as one of his biggest defenders that match left me embarrassed for my unqualified support. Prandelli should have been more aggressive and brought on Insigne or Ciro Immobile up top to provide more scoring punch and prevent Costa Rica from focusing on Balotelli, or at least have Cerci come on first.
Defensively, Buffon looked healthy enough for Italy but, as feared, Joel Campbell and Bryan Ruiz were a problem for the slower Italian defenders. Positionally Chiellini was fine but he was constantly a step behind the Costa Rican forwards. He will fare better against Luis Suarez but opponents of Italy will have a great game plan from Jorge Pinto to exploit Italy’s defense. Additionally, the speed of Costa Rica saw the Italian fullbacks playing further back and prevented them from ranging forward to provide help on offense.
Heat and humidity played a role in the match but again Italy’s tactics should have accounted for this. A quick goal or two would have allowed Italy to play back and conserve energy, but as soon as no goals came early in the second half, it was apparent it would be near impossible for Italy to climb back.