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Ecuador’s forward Enner Valencia (left), and Switzerland’s defender Johan Djourou vie for the ball during a Group E football match between Switzerland and Ecuador at the Mane Garrincha National Stadium in Brasilia the 2014 FIFA World Cup on June 15. (AFP)
Super Mario sinks England Elephants comeback leaveS Japan stunned

MANAUS, Brazil, June 15, (Agencies): A cool-headed Italy proved too clever for England on Saturday, scoring two well-crafted goals and defending doggedly in the Amazon heat to grab a 2-1 win in their opening World Cup Group D game. Italy grabbed the winner in the 50th minute when midfielder Antonio Candreva outfoxed England left back Leighton Baines and chipped a cross deep into the area for Mario Balotelli to head in from close range at the far post. England otherwise dominated the second half but could not find a way past back-up keeper Salvatore Sirigu, deputising for the injured Gianluigi Buffon.

Italy are joint top of the group with Costa Rica while England must beat Uruguay in their next game to retain realistic hopes of reaching the last 16. The result was fair and reflected well on both teams, who did not shirk in high humidity and temperatures that were still 30 Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) at kickoff. “We played well. It was a hard fought victory but we kept control of the midfield,” Italian manager Cesare Prandelli told reporters. The Italians started with five men in midfield in a bid to clamp down on fleet-footed English forwards Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck.

England began well but some players, including Wayne Rooney and Baines, had games to forget. Baines often looked out of his depth with Italy regularly mounting dangerous raids down their right flank and Prandelli`s team took the lead in the 35th minute after a cleverly worked corner. When the ball was played into Andrea Pirlo the veteran midfielder let it run under his boot and Claudio Marchisio had time to hammer home a 25-metre right-foot shot.

England recovered quickly and two minutes later a lovely pass from Sterling sent Rooney haring down the left and his curling cross was met by a sweet half-volley from Sturridge. Italy, though, came close to scoring again in first-half stoppage time. Balotelli chipped the ball over goalkeeper Joe Hart, only for Phil Jagielka to head it off the line, and seconds later a clever pass found Candreva alone in the area but he crashed his shot against Hart’s right post. Sirigu was in good form in the second half, palming away fierce shots from Welbeck and substitute Ross Barkley as well as a free kick from Baines. “It is a very disappointing result and there is no reason take positives when you have lost,” England manager Roy Hodgson said. England eventually paid the price for their efforts in the heat. Among others, Gerrard and Sturridge went down with cramp.

“It was a tough night. It was warm, sticky - it was a tough pitch - it was dry. But they’re excuses. Italy were very good,” said Gerrard. Pirlo almost made it 3-1 in second-half stoppage time but his swirling 30-metre free kick crashed against the bar. The players appeared to have no problems with the pitch, which had been damaged by humidity in the months running up to the tournament and required special repairs. But Prandelli said it was “madness” not have an officially sanctioned time out in the brutal conditions.

Ivory Coast 2, Japan 1
In Recife, Brazil, Didier Drogba came off the bench to again show his inspirational qualities as the Ivory Coast recovered to beat Japan 2-1 on Saturday and boost their bid to reach the World Cup knockout stages for the first time. It had shaped up to be another disappointing occasion for the African side, who frequently flatter to deceive, when Keisuke Honda powered Japan into a first-half lead. Yet Drogba’s introduction was swiftly followed by quickfire headed goals from Wilfried Bony and Gervinho in the space of three second-half minutes that turned the match on its head. The victory at the Pernambuco arena moved the Ivorians level on three points at the top of Group C with Colombia, who beat Greece 3-0 earlier on Saturday.

With coaches so often judged on their ability to make brave decisions, Ivory Coast’s Sabri Lamouchi put his neck on the line by leaving out Drogba, for so long a talismanic presence in the lineup, in favour of the in-form Bony. He claimed after the match it was partly due to the striker’s lack of fitness, but he also admitted it was a tactical decision. It initially looked a poor call as Japan had the better of the first half, but the striker’s appearance proved decisive in wrestling the momentum towards the Africans. Within seconds of coming on he had driven at the heart of a swiftly retreating Japanese back four, inspiring panic in the massed blue ranks that had been previously unthreatened.

“When Didier Drogba came on the pitch everything changed,” Frenchman Lamouchi told reporters. “When you have this calibre of player on the pitch you are very lucky. “Of course, he was frustrated to be on the bench but if you saw the joy when he finished the match... he is a champion.” At 36 years old, Drogba is nearing the end of a career where he has made a habit of bullying defences into submission. Nonetheless, he had the look of a man who feels he still has unfinished business playing for his country.
While he has led them to the last two World Cups and five straight African Nations Cups, his international career has been marked by frequent and bitter disappointment, typified by the Ivorians’ failure to emerge from their group in 2006 and 2010.

Swiss 2, Ecuador 1
In BrasÌlia, Haris Seferovic scored in the last minute of injury time to grab Switzerland a dramatic 2-1 win over Ecuador in their Group E game at the World Cup finals in Brasilia. Seferovic’s winner capped a remarkable comeback by the top seeds in the group as fellow substitute Admer Mehmidi had taken just 121 seconds to make his mark as he levelled the game in the 48th minute. Enner Valencia had given Ecuador the lead midway through the first-half as he scored for the fifth successive game for his country. Victory was Switzerland’s first over South American opposition in the World Cup finals having lost their previous four and the win had even veteran coach Ottmar Hitzfeld jumping up and down for joy in what is his farewell tournament.

Ecuador had started the brightest and it was little surprise when they went ahead in the 22nd minute as former captain Walter Ayovi whipped in a superb freekick from the left and the unmarked Enner Valencia rose to send his header past Diego Benaglio and into the net. The Swiss were finding it hard to settle and it took them almost half an hour to conjure up their first chance as Valentin Stocker beat his marker to a corner but his header went just wide. That seemed to give them some confidence and 10 minutes before half-time captain Goekhan Inler worked some space and unleashed a vicious low shot that Ecuador goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez did well to get down to and turn away for a corner.

However, Dominguez was all at sea for the Swiss equaliser losing himself behind two defenders as the corner came in from Ricardo Rodriguez and Mehmedi, who scored 13 goals for Freiburg in the Bundesliga last season, rose above Carlos Gruezo to head home for his second goal for his country.
The lively Enner Valencia then produced a lovely piece of skill and unleashed a fine effort from outside the box which went narrowly wide of the Swiss goal. The equally impressive Jefferson Montero then tore into the right flank of the Swiss defence and created a good opportunity for himself which Benaglio got down to turn away for a corner.

The Swiss countered and thought they had taken the lead when Josip Drmic, who Hitzfeld had preferred to Seferovic, put the ball into the net after a neatly worked move but it was ruled out for offside. Both teams were not content to settle for a draw even as the match entered time added on and it was Ecuador who looked like they had grabbed the three points when Michael Arroyo was shaping up to shoot inside the area only for a superb tackle by Valon Behrami to dispossess him. Behrami showing the hard-headed experience of a man appearing in his third World Cup finals, then pushed forward and although he was subject to a crunching tackle in the middle of the pitch the referee played a brilliant advantage in waving play on. The ball was worked out to the left flank and when it was whipped in Seferovic was on hand to tuck the ball inside the near post and send the Swiss contingent wild.

France 3, Honduras 0
In Porto Alegre, Brazil, A moment of madness in the first half and a landmark goalline technology ruling in the second helped France to a 3-0 victory over Honduras in their Group E World Cup clash. Wilson Palacios charged into French midfielder Paul Pogba seconds before the break in a reckless challenge that had him sent-off for a second booking, and Karim Benzema smashed home the resulting penalty to give France a lead they deserved having dominated the first 45 minutes. France doubled their advantage after 48 minutes when Benzema lashed the ball against the inside of a post and saw it rebound against keeper Noel Valladares and though he scooped it clear, the goal was awarded after the intervention of goalline technology that said the whole ball had crossed the line. Benzema made it three with a piledriver in the 72nd minute to complete the win that put France top of their group on goal difference ahead of top seeds Switzerland, who beat Ecuador 2-1 in the dying seconds of their clash in Brasilia earlier on Sunday.

More than 15 million people in Britain watched England’s 2-1 loss to Italy in their opening World Cup match in Brazil, the BBC said Sunday. The television audience peaked at 15.6 million people shortly before half-time, said the British Broadcasting Corporation, which carried Saturday’s game. Despite this, the entire programme pulled in an average audience of 11.5 million, making it one of the most-watched programmes of the year so far in Britain, the BBC said. England has a population of 53 million, with a further 10 million living in the rest of the United Kingdom (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).

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