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World Cup: Balotelli, Italy top England; Costa Rica stuns Uruguay

Italy's Mario Balotelli (9) celebrates with Italy's Marco Verratti (23) after Balotelli scored his side's second goal during group D

Italy's Mario Balotelli (9) celebrates with Italy's Marco Verratti (23) after Balotelli scored his side's second goal during the group D World Cup soccer match between England and Italy at the Arena da Amazonia in Manaus, Brazil, Saturday, June 14, 2014.(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

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Updated: June 15, 2014 2:20PM



With one nod of his head, Mario Balotelli gave Italy a 2-1 win over England and put the four-time champions in position to go far at the World Cup.

The often volatile and often brilliant Italy striker was left unmarked at the far post, giving him plenty of space to head a cross from Antonio Candreva past goalkeeper Joe Hart for the winning goal.

Claudio Marchisio had scored first for Italy, sending a long shot through a crowded area and past a diving Hart in the 35th. Daniel Sturridge equalized for England two minutes later, tapping in a cross from Wayne Rooney.

Ballotelli’s header came in the 50th, but with the heat and humidity at the Arena da Amazonia slowing the pace of play in the second half, it came at just the right time.

“We won, but now let’s keep our feet on the ground, otherwise we’re not going anywhere,” Balotelli said.

The match was played in the Amazonian city of Manaus, the most exotic of the 12 World Cup venues for this year’s tournament. According to FIFA, it was 30 degrees C (86 degrees F) with humidity at 61 percent for the match.

“At times it felt like having hallucinations due to the heat,” said Claudio Marchisio, who scored Italy’s opening goal.

In the other Group D match, Costa Rica beat Uruguay 3-1. So both England and Uruguay, who meet Thursday, have plenty of work to do to advance.

“We all need time to digest what happened on the field,” England coach Roy Hodgson said. “My gut feeling is that we did very good things. There were some very good individual performances.”

Balotelli is one of the most talented strikers in football, but there were some predictions heading into the World Cup that he would be dropped in favor of Ciro Immobile.

Immobile, who plays for Torino, scored a hat trick last weekend in a warm-up match against Brazilian club Fluminense. Coach Cesare Prandelli, however, decided to stick with his main man, and it certainly looked like the right choice.

“He gave everything he had,” Prandelli said.

Prandelli was pleased with both the team performance and the preparations in Coverciano, Italy’s training base back in Florence.

“We played well. It was a tough victory but we maintained supremacy in the middle of the pitch,” he said. “We worked well in Coverciano and you could see that. They (England) had cramps midway through the second half, and that shows that our work paid off.”

Balotelli was born to Ghanaian immigrants and raised by Italian foster parents, and has often been forced to deal with racist chanting in Italy. However, the abuse hasn’t prevented him from becoming a key player for the national team — scoring two goals in the semifinal win over Germany at the 2012 European Championship.

Until Saturday, he hadn’t scored for the national team since October.

“This was a very difficult (game) because England are a good team and there was the climate as well,” Balotelli said. “We suffered, but then that’s typical for Italy — the important thing is to win. “

Balotelli nearly found the net in first-half injury time, running deep into the area and enticing Hart to come off his line. The Italy striker stopped, looked toward goal and sent a chip over the keeper’s head but Phil Jagielka headed the ball over the bar.

England’s attack-minded lineup made frequent runs into the Italy area throughout the match, and came close to scoring several times.

The best of the chances came in the 24th when Danny Welbeck sent the ball across the front of goal but Andrea Barzagli was able to slide in and tip the ball up in the air. Raheem Sterling, who had been running in from the left, jumped for the header but couldn’t reach it, letting the ball go past him as he tumbled into the net.

Italy played without the injured Gianluigi Buffon. The 36-year-old Italy goalkeeper, who can play in his fourth World Cup if he is able to recover from an ankle problem, was replaced by Salvatore Sirigu.

The PSG keeper stepped up and made several good saves, but the best may have come in the 77th when he dived to his left to block a free kick from Leighton Baines.

While the players managed to play through the heat, there was an injury on the England bench when team physio Gary Lewin dislocated his ankle while celebrating Sturridge’s goal.

England and Italy were playing each other at the World Cup for only the second time. They also met in the third-place match at the 1990 World Cup, with the Italians also winning 2-1.

Costa Rica 3, Uruguay1

FORTALEZA, Brazil — Costa Rica came from behind to stun Uruguay 3-1 Saturday at the World Cup, opening the tough Group D with a major upset.

Uruguay left star striker Luis Suarez on the bench but went ahead when Edinson Cavani scored a penalty in the 24th minute.

The Central Americans fought back after the break and lone striker Joel Campbell drive in a ball headed down by Celso Borges in the 54th to beat goalkeeper Fernando Muslera.

Oscar Duarte dived past the outstretched foot of Uruguay’s Cristian Stuani to head in the winner for the underdogs, and substitute Marcos Urena added the third with six minutes left, catching out Muslera to slot the ball in from a tight angle.

It was Costa Rica’s first World Cup victory since beating China in the group stage in 2002.

Uruguay started with striker Diego Forlan alongside Cavani but the 35-year-old made little impact and was substituted on the hour for Nicolas Lodeiro.

Uruguay — the highest-ranked team in a group that also includes England and Italy — ended their disastrous night with 10 men after Maxi Pereira was sent off for a clumsy injury time foul on Campbell. Pereira will be suspended from the next game against England.

Suarez is still recovering from knee surgery and never came off the bench — indicating that the Liverpool forward is still far from match fitness.

Ivory Coast 2, Japan 1

RECIFE, Brazil — Didier Drogba came off the bench to inspire Ivory Coast to a 2-1 comeback victory over Japan in a World Cup Group C match on Saturday.

Drogba, who had been carrying an injury, came on in the 62nd minute when his team was losing 1-0.

The talismanic striker’s arrival immediately lifted the Ivory Coast team and Wilfried Bony and Gervinho scored with headers two minutes apart. Both goals were set up by curling crosses from defender Serge Aurier.

Coach Sabri Lamouchi’s inspired substitution negated Keisuke Honda’s first half goal that had given Japan the lead in a group that also includes Colombia and Greece. Colombia beat Greece 3-0 earlier on Saturday.

Colombia 3, Greece 0

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil — Colombia started its first World Cup campaign in 16 years in dazzling fashion, beating Greece 3-0 to open Group C on Saturday in front of a big, loud pro-Colombian crowd.

Left back Armero opened the scoring in the fifth minute when his deflected shot rolled past Greece goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis. Striker Teofilo Gutierrez poked in Colombia’s second goal from a deflected corner in the 58th and James Rodriguez capped it off with a low shot in stoppage time after a slick backheel flick from Juan Cuadrado.

Colombia’s pace and trickery were too much for Greece to handle in the latter stages as the 57,174 crowd, most dressed in bright yellow shirts, chanted “Ole, ole” at Estadio Mineriao.

“It was a good debut with players who had never played a World cup. It’s a big satisfaction”, Colombia coach Jose Pekerman said. “This is how we planned this match. Some things turned out the way we wanted, some things didn’t, but we were very concentrated and showed that we’re here to play a good World Cup.”

Rodriguez said the result showed Colombia was on the right path.

“It’s a good start, but we have to be calm for what’s ahead, which will be even more difficult,” he said, looking ahead at Group C matches against Ivory Coast and Japan.

Greece had the majority of possession with 54 percent, but whenever Colombia players got hold of the ball, they blazed down the flanks and through the middle of the pitch, disorientating their opponents.

The Greeks had a chance to pull a goal back after Gutierrez scored, but an unmarked Georgios Samaras rattled the crossbar from two yards out.

There were other chances, too. Panagiotis Kone’s shot went just wide in the first half. Colombia goalkeeper David Ospina then made an outstanding reaction save to deny Kone just before halftime.

“You can’t make excuses when you lose 3-0,” Greece coach Fernando Santos said. “We had good spells of play and all we can do now is look at the next matches.”

Kone said Greece didn’t make the most of its possession and the chances it created.

“The score doesn’t show it, but I think we played well,” he said. “But these games are turned on the details, and they didn’t work for us today. We’re still proud to be here, and we’ll continue to play hard.”

Greece defenders started getting frustrated with Colombia’s pace in the second half and began to foul the South Americans, with two players picked up yellow cards within minutes.

The result will give Colombia confidence that it can win competitive matches without star striker Radamel Falcao, who was ruled out after failing to recover from a serious knee injury. The other Group C teams, Ivory Coast and Japan, were playing later Saturday.

Greece will now have to regroup ahead of its second match against Japan after its notoriously solid defense leaked three goals.



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