By DAN KARELL
Italy sits on the verge of qualifying for the knockout rounds after just two games, but faces another tough test in the heat of Recife on Friday (12 p.m. ESPN).
The Azzurri take on Costa Rica, which stunned the world when it took down a Luis Suarez-less Uruguay, 3-1, on Saturday. Interestingly, the Italians will see some of their national culture and identity at the Arena Pernambucano when they look across the field.
Under coach Jorge Luis Pinto, Costa Rica has transitioned into a defensively hardened team with a five-man back line that will make life difficult for opposing teams trying to move the ball through the middle. On the counter attack, Celso Borges and Yeltsin Tejada play key roles driving the ball forward, and of course we’ve all seen the kind of performances Joel Campbell can put forth if given time and space.
Italy on the other hand has taken advantage of an abundance of top-notch midfielders, moving to a more passing-oriented system. In the opener against England, Italy completed 606 passes with an 89 percent passing completion rate, with central midfielders Daniele De Rossi and Andrea Pirlo controlling the tempo.
With the way Colombia is playing right now, Italy will be extra motivated to beat Costa Rica so that the Azzurri finish at the top of Group D and face either Ivory Coast, Japan, or Greece.
Here are some more notes on Friday’s slate of games:
SWITZERLAND vs. FRANCE
Two nations sharing a common border and common national team identities face off on Friday at the Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador (3 p.m. ESPN)
Both Switzerland and France are coming off opening match wins, though they came by different circumstances. Switzerland struggled to break down Ecuador’s defensive line and will have an even tougher time against Raphael Varane and Laurent Koscielny.
France on the other hand had no issues dealing with Honduras, completely dominating possession from the get go with the midfield trio of Yohan Cabaye, Paul Pogba, and Blaise Matuidi putting in terrific performances. Switzerland’s holding midfield duo of Valon Behrami and Gohkan Inler will need to put together a better performance to keep their nation in the game against France.
The two nations also feature a whole host of dual nationals who represent their multi-cultural societies. A win for either team puts them in pole position to finish at the top of the group, likely avoiding Argentina in the knockout round—assuming the Albiceleste finish first in Group F.
HONDURAS vs. ECUADOR
Both Honduras and Ecuador are looking to pick themselves off the floor after demoralizing defeats in their opening matches.
The positive for neutral spectators is that both of these teams need a win, and when they meet up at the Arena da Baixada in Curitiba (6 p.m. ESPN), there should be some flowing attacking soccer on display. Ecuador’s wingers Antonio Valencia (right) and Jefferson Montero (left) will need to step up their performances. At their best, both can be world beaters.
Honduras will have to be on guard on the outside, with Marvin Chavez and Roger Espinoza tracking back to help right back Bryan Beckeles and left back Emilio Izaguirre. But the middle of the field is where Honduras could win the battles, especially if Oscar Boniek Garcia is ready to go.
What do you think of today’s slate of matches? Do you see Italy overcoming Costa Rica in Recife? Think that France can keep up their strong run of form? Who do you see winning the Ecuador versus Honduras match?
Share your thoughts below.