With Costa Rica and England a formality—who'd have guessed that before the World Cup?—all eyes should be on Uruguay and Italy in Natal.
Italy enter play needing only a draw to advance. The Italians hold a single goal lead over Uruguay in goal differential, and traditionally, no side is better at grinding out a draw when needed.
On match day two, Costa Rica surprised Italy with a high defensive line. Los Ticos compressed the field against Italy and took Andrea Pirlo, the midfield maestro from whom the Italian offense tends to flow, almost entirely out of the match. The result was a busy day for the right arms of the linesmen. Costa Rica forced the Italians into an offside position 11 times—the highest total in a World Cup match since 2006.
Can Uruguay employ a similar strategy? Highly unlikely. The Uruguayans, who, unlike Costa Rica, play with only two center backs, are older and slower and, frankly, less well-organized. Credit should be given to Uruguayan manager Óscar Tabárez for replacing team captain Diego Lugano. Lugano, who was officially ruled out with an unspecified knee injury (you know, like being too old and slow), was replaced by 19 year-old Atletico Madrid center back José María Giménez. The young defender returned the trust shown by his manager with a steady enough performance. Not many managers would opt against playing their captain in favor of a teenager at a World Cup. That said, against Italy, there is no obvious cure-all for Tabárez.
For their part, Italy should be content to sit back and hit Uruguay on the counter. Expect three center backs from Italy to deal with Uruguay's 4-4-2. Italian manager Cesare Prandelli knows Uruguay now need to be proactive. Prandelli, whose Italy has been built on attacking play, may want to eschew his style in favor of a more classically Italian path to success.
Uruguay are in a tough spot—pressing the Italians, with their technically skilled midfield, could be disastrous and playing a high line should be ruled out given squad limitations. What Tabárez really needs is an early goal. Luis Suárez, arguably the world's best striker, is more than capable of breaking down a good defense. Can he carve up the Italians? That's another question entirely. A big match from Suárez, or his striking partner Edinson Cavani, and Uruguay could be in business. Suárez was good enough to beat England almost single-handedly. He might need to be even better if Uruguay want to advance.
If Uruguay do find a goal, expect an uncomfortable afternoon for the Italians. The Azurri do not possess an attacking game-breaker like Suarez. Mario Balotelli, for all his strengths, is not yet entirely self-sufficient—he heavily relies on teammates. When the service is good and the space ample, he can be devastating; absent service and space, Balotelli is no stranger to the self-destruct button. Alternative striking options for Italy are far less reliable. Antonio Cassano looks to have lost a step and has been ineffective in his appearances so far at this World Cup. Alessio Cerci, Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne have all seen game time but have failed to unlock a defense. Should Uruguay take a lead, a whole host of question marks suddenly appear for Italy.
At the last Brazilian World Cup, Uruguay were one-goal underdogs facing an opponent who needed only a draw in the final. On that day in 1950, La Celeste pulled off one of the greatest upsets in the history of the sport. Uruguay aren't playing in a final and aren't playing at the Maracanã but it would be folly all the same to underestimate them. Like Luis Suarez, Uruguay just don't seem to know when to pack it up and quit.
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