As England trudged off the pitch full of optimistic hope yet dejected familiar depression, Italy knew they had out thought their common enemy once more. At the heart of their experienced group is the old maestro who has shone brighter than any other once more.
Andrea Pirlo may be hanging up his national boots after the tournament, but even the most bullish and boastful of England followers still warned against any form of complacency against Italy’s conductor supreme.
If only Scotland had a player of Pirlo’s calm composure. Someone to dissect the opposition, to conjure attacking moves and to orchestrate their team’s performance.
But Pirlo is simply irreplaceable. If ever a position were to be named after a footballer, central defensive midfield would receive little complaints if it became ‘The Pirlo’.
35 is considered a pensioner’s age in the world of football. But there are few top flight managers across Europe who would shun the chance to have Pirlo amongst their ranks.
Not only is Pirlo a magician, but he is the power supply behind Italy’s play. His mere presence in the centre of the park offers security to those around him. Against England in the sweltering Manaus heat, Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio had the ability to drive forward and spray passes to their forward players. Pirlo’s positioning and wonderful awareness meant that Marchisio and Verratti had the licence to play higher up the park. His vision and almost graceful style of play means that the speed of game is the speed he chooses to play at. He recycles possession, spots a pass early on, begins every phase of play with ease. In case anybody had forgotten, he can also curl an absolute gem of a set piece, as Joe Hart was reminded on Saturday when a superb effort smacked his crossbar in the first half.
Pirlo will rarely take on three men and blast his way down the wing. He is not an aggressive player as such. He is calm, precise and clever both in possession and without it. In the build-up to Saturday’s encounter, English press sweated and clamoured over how the Azzurri artist would be stopped. Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson were forced to press on him at times, but Pirlo rarely looked troubled by their advances.
But the truth is, no matter how much you man mark and press high on Pirlo, he still ruthlessly dictates the pace of the game. His measured passing and extraordinary vision mean that even the most disciplined and tactically inclined of opposition will struggle to contain him.
Few believe that Italy can challenge for the World Cup. Some even questioned whether they would progress out of a tough group. Some questioned the quality of the current crop of players. But one thing Italy never lack is the intelligence and experience to come out on top – and Pirlo has always been the one pulling those strings.
Verratti seems like he has been hand picked to be Pirlo’s natural successor. The young midfielder, currently at Paris Saint-Germain, moves the ball with excellent accuracy like Pirlo and his technical ability on the ball is reminiscent of the Italy vice-captain. At the age of just 21, Verratti has all the traits to take Pirlo’s throne in the deep halls on Italy’s midfield.
But surely the hole Pirlo leaves after this World Cup will never truly be filled; his role never replicated. There would be no better way for Pirlo to leave his mark on Italian football than to lift the famous gold trophy once more. As he and the rest of the Italy squad prepare to face a resurgent Costa Rica in Recife, Pirlo will once again be the man to stop. He controls games, he wins games – he is the ultimate defensive midfielder of our generation.