MX23RW : Sunday, April 21 04:50:18| >> :600:153064506:153064506:
Jun 14, 2014 at 11pm UK at ​Arena Amazonia, Manaus
Sturridge (37')
FT(HT: 1-1)
Marchisio (35'), Balotelli (50')

England vs. Italy: Five key factors

Ahead of England's World Cup opener against Italy this evening, Sports Mole picks out five factors that could have a telling impact on the final result.

After two days of enthralling World Cup action, England finally get their campaign underway tonight as they take on Italy in Manaus.

The Three Lions come into the tournament with unusually low expectations, a result of uninspiring recent performances and a tricky draw that sees them also lumped with Uruguay and Costa Rica.

Italy's hopes of repeating their 2006 heroics also look to be slimmer than normal, with the Azzurri having suffered a run of seven international matches without a win in the build-up to Brazil.

The two heavyweights go head to head in what could be a crucial encounter at the Arena Amazonia this evening and, with that in mind, Sports Mole has outlined five factors that could have a bearing on the result.

1. The conditions

Arena Manaus football stadium in Manaus, Brazil on December 10, 2013© Getty Images

A lot has been said and written about the conditions in Manaus, and they could well have a telling impact on the final result tonight. The heat is not likely to be the main problem, with temperatures expected to be cooler than those England faced in Miami during their final warm-up match against Honduras.

It is the humidity that will have the biggest effect on the players, with suggestions that levels could top 80%. In such conditions, the muscles tire at a vastly accelerated rate and players could lose up to six kilograms in a 90-minute match. Regardless of how long England and Italy spent in their respective warm-weather camps, the conditions in Manaus will pose a new test for the vast majority of them.

The match will call upon players to dig deep into their reserves of energy and willpower. The result could hinge on whether one player pushes himself further than he thought he could to make a vital tackle or block, or whether another simply feels too tired to track an opponent's run into the box. It will be a battle of attrition at the Arena Amazonia.

2. The pitch

Picture taken from a smartphone from the Press tribune of Manaus stadium showing the pitch of the Amazonia Arena on June 10 2014© Getty Images

As if the conditions weren't enough to contend with, it has emerged over the last few days that the pitch at the Arena Amazonia is in poor shape. An excessive use of fertiliser has been blamed for the state of the playing surface, which has even drawn criticism from its own groundsman.

Reports suggesting that it has been spray-painted green in order to get rid of the numerous brown patches only served to add to the saga as officials hurried to get it in a fit state for England and Italy to play on it.

England boss Roy Hodgson has played down concerns over the surface, saying that he is "perfectly happy" with it, but it is certainly not ideal for what is already expected to be a slow match given the heat, humidity and respective styles of the two teams involved.

3. Andrea Pirlo

Juventus' midfielder Andrea Pirlo celebrates after scoring during the UEFA Europa League quarter-final football match Juventus vs Olympique Lyonnais, on April 10, 2014© Getty Images

Even at the age of 35, Andrea Pirlo remains the conductor and orchestrator of the Italian team. He has been earmarked by almost everyone as central to Italy's chances of success tonight, and in the tournament as a whole. There is good reason for England's concern regarding Pirlo's influence after he inspired his side to success over the Three Lions two years ago in Euro 2012, albeit via penalties.

While England will not want to get too hung up on one player when Italy have the likes of Mario Balotelli, Daniele De Rossi and Ciro Immobile who can also hurt them, special players often call for special plans, and that is a category that Pirlo certainly falls into.

If you can stop the veteran playmaker from spreading passes from deep then you go a long way towards stopping Italy. Roy Hodgson could be tempted to plant one of his more energetic players, such as Jordan Henderson or Wayne Rooney, on Pirlo for the entire match, with no other job but to shadow the Juventus man and give him no time on the ball.

While putting Rooney in that role may take something away from his attacking game, it is an avenue worth exploring for Hodgson. Pirlo doesn't have the pace or stamina to get away from Rooney who, if he was disciplined enough, would be able to hound him at every turn. Such a tactic would have a mark of 1966 and 1970 about it, when Alf Ramsey told his best player, Bobby Charlton, to shadow West Germany's Franz Beckenbauer everywhere.

4. Wayne Rooney

Wayne Rooney of England celebrates scoring their first goal during the International friendly match between England and Ecuador at Sun Life Stadium on June 4, 2014© Getty Images

Despite having the ability to stunt Pirlo's influence on the game, it is unlikely that Wayne Rooney will be deployed in that role by Hodgson. Indeed, the role of the Manchester United man has been a subject of fierce debate in the build-up to the tournament, with the England manager trying him out in a number of different positions in the warm-up matches.

There are those who believe Rooney should be dropped for the opening match and, while it is true that he is yet to shine at a major international tournament since his breakout at Euro 2004, he is still capable of providing the moment of magic that could end up deciding what is likely to be a tight affair.

The next question, then, is where he plays in the front four. With Raheem Sterling, Adam Lallana and the fit-again Danny Welbeck all competing for places to start behind Daniel Sturridge, Rooney may be forced into a more unfamiliar role depending on who Hodgson selects. There has been talk of Sterling leading the diamond as he did so effectively for Liverpool towards the end of last season, but Welbeck's fitness boost could see him move into his usual spot on the left wing.

Wherever Rooney does start the match, the time has come for him to shine on the biggest stage. He is England's highest-ever goalscorer in World Cup qualifiers but has never found the net at the tournament itself. For once, he is coming into this campaign relatively free of injuries and clear of suspension, and with his advancing years he will never get a better chance at the big time. Should he perform at his best then England will have a good chance of winning tonight and, who knows, maybe even going quite far in the tournament.

5. Hodgson's use of youngsters

Ross Barkley in action during the International friendly match between England and Ecuador at Sun Life Stadium on June 4, 2014© Getty Images

There has been a lot of talk surrounding the youngsters included in England's squad, with the likes of Sterling, Ross Barkley and Luke Shaw earning their places on the plane after fine domestic seasons for their respective clubs. Whether they can make the step up to World Cup level remains to be seen, but the signs so far have been promising.

Barkley arguably impressed more than any other England player during the three warm-up matches, injecting positivity and energy into the team's performances. He has been something of a breath of fresh air for the Three Lions, but his ball retention and decision-making is not yet good enough for him to start in a match where keeping the ball will be so important.

Should Barkley start the match and play as he did against Ecuador in the opening 20 minutes then he would be exhausted by half time, and Italy would take full advantage of that. Instead, Hodgson is likely to introduce the Everton man as an impact sub for the final 20 minutes, and that could be a clever ploy against what will be a tiring Italian defence.

The pace of Sterling will also be a useful weapon against tired legs, although the Liverpool youngster is more likely to start than his Merseyside counterpart. He played a surprisingly limited role in the warm-up matches - a result of a harsh red card against Ecuador - so Hodgson may be wary of throwing him into the starting lineup after just four caps.

However, there is also the possibility that Hodgson sees Sterling as something of a secret weapon to use against teams this World Cup. There is little doubt that he warrants a place in the side judging purely on form from last season, and it would be very surprising if he played no part this evening.

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Wayne Rooney of England celebrates scoring their first goal during the International friendly match between England and Ecuador at Sun Life Stadium on June 4, 2014
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