Manaus slow dance awaits for England, Italy
The sauna of Manaus's Amazonia Arena will provide the backdrop for a battle of cautious counter-punching on Saturday when powerhouses England and Italy face off in their World Cup opener.
The Amazon rainforest humidity, coupled with the mutual respect between the teams, is likely to produce a cagey encounter, where time on the ball will be cherished and pressing rationed out carefully.
With South American champions Uruguay also awaiting in Group D, along with Costa Rica, both Roy Hodgson's England and Cesare Prandelli's Italy approach the game knowing they can scarcely afford to lose if they are to reach the last 16.
Concerns about the dry playing surface have, for now, been put to one side, after both teams trained on it on Friday evening, but vigilance will still be the buzzword as the two former world champions collide.
The teams last met in the quarter-finals of the 2012 European Championship in Kiev, when Italy prevailed on penalties after a 0-0 draw that they largely dominated.
Possession will be crucial amid the stifling conditions, but despite Italy boasting central midfielders of the calibre of Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi and Marco Verratti, Hodgson believes his team can compete in that domain.
"We always look to be dominant," the England coach said on the eve of the game.
"We've been studying Italy since the draw was made and we know quite a lot about the Italian players, where they like to play and what they're good at, and we've tried to give the players the best picture we can.
"It's a very good Italian team with very good Italian players. We'll have to do all the things we can do at our best if we're going to win the game tomorrow (Saturday)."
Danny Welbeck's return to fitness after a thigh complaint means that Arsenal midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who has a knee injury, will be England's only absentee.
- 'Midfield will be key' -
Manchester United forward Welbeck will compete with Liverpool tyro Raheem Sterling and Southampton's Adam Lallana for the two available places alongside strikers Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge.
The bench will also offer options to Hodgson, with 20-year-old Everton midfielder Ross Barkley a potential impact substitute after giving thrilling hints in England's warm-up matches that he is ready to influence games at international level.
Seeking to atone for a disastrous showing at the 2010 World Cup, when their title defence ended in the group phase, Italy must improve on the draws they registered in their only official warm-up matches against the Republic of Ireland and Luxembourg.
Italy coach Prandelli has identified the midfield battleground as the area where the game will be won and lost and also expressed admiration for the youthful exuberance of Hodgson's new-look England.
"I don't want to talk about the opposition too much, but they have personality and psychological strength, they're good at running, are a fast team, and recently I've seen players with great technical skills and a lot of creativity," he told Friday's pre-game press conference.
"The attackers in particular are able to exploit space, so we are going to have to be very careful in our marking. Controlling the midfield will be the key."
Prandelli said that goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon would be able to play despite twisting his ankle in an eve-of-match training session, describing the injury as "nothing serious".
Full-back Mattia De Sciglio has already been ruled out due to a thigh injury, with his AC Milan club-mate Ignazio Abate in line to deputise.
Under Prandelli, who succeeded World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi in 2010, Italy have become accustomed to using several different playing systems and there is now a more proactive bent to their tactics.
They are predicted to line up in a 4-1-4-1 shape, partly to counter England's pace in wide areas, with Milan's Mario Balotelli -- familiar to English fans from his time at Manchester City -- the lone striker.