In a sentence few people expected to read at this World Cup, four-times champions Italy faced two-times champions Uruguay to see who could finish behind Costa Rica in Group D. It was a straight head-to-head, with the odds stacked in Italy's favour: thanks to a more favourable goal difference, the Azzurri could afford to draw the match, while the South Americans had to win.
It was Cesare Prandelli, however, who shuffled the pack. Four new faces came in as Italy - possibly because of an injury to deep-lying midfielder Daniele De Rossi - switched to the all-Juventus back three they've often used in the past. Leonardo Bonucci slid into central defence between Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini, Mattia De Sciglio took over at left-back, Marco Verratti was restored to the midfield and Serie A top scorer Ciro Immobile was picked to make Mario Balotelli a less isolated figure in attack. As well as De Rossi, Ignazio Abate, Thiago Motta and Antonio Candreva were the players to make way.
Uruguay remained unchanged, sticking with a 4-4-2 diamond formation, Egidio Arevalo Rios protecting the defence while Nicolas Lodeiro operated behind Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez.
Although it was Uruguay who needed to win in order to progress at their expense, it was the Azzurri who enjoyed most of the possession in the game's early stages - nearly 75%, in fact.
Very much at the heart of that was, naturally, Andrea Pirlo. The Italians' game plan was clear: sit back and keep possession, because as any coach will tell you, from Serie A to Sunday League, the opposition can't score if they don't have the ball.
As a result, the first quarter of the match was extremely quiet. On 22 minutes, Balotelli was booked for what you'd generously call a clumsy aerial challenge, and less generously an accidental booting of Alvaro Pereira's head. It wasn't his first foul - nor his last - and the yellow card meant he'd miss Italy's match in the last 16 if they were to qualify. If...
The first clear-cut chance fell to Immobile in the 29th minute, but he mishit his volley well over the bar. The shot was a rarity in that it came from inside the box, with efforts from range very much the order of the day until that point.
Finally, Gianluigi Buffon was called upon. The veteran goalkeeper saved well at Luis Suarez's feet to stop a cross, then again from Lodeiro's follow-up. In a match offering few chances, and with a draw not being enough for Uruguay, Suarez would surely have been Oscar Tabarez's go-to man for a bit of magic - but he'd barely been involved, completing 2 of his first 6 passes and receiving only 7.
The score was inevitably 0-0 at half-time. It was a bad 45 minutes for any neutrals watching, who saw twice as many fouls as shots from both teams.
A concern for Prandelli would surely have been the lack of a real link-up between Balotelli and Immobile. In three quarters of an hour they'd exchanged just 3 passes - all from Balotelli to Immobile, one being from kick-off - and the Torino man had been particularly poor in the air, losing every one of his headers.
However, Italy were very much in control of the game and their own destiny. They were sitting deep but offering Uruguay few chances, dominating possession with 10 of the top 12 pass combinations. In fact, their opponents were so frustrated that defender Martin Caceres was reduced to shooting from his own half, which virtually summed up proceedings.
The second half began with two substitutions. Bravely, Tabarez replaced an attacking midfielder with a full-back, Maxi Pereira coming on in place of Lodeiro in a tactical switch to match Italy's back five. Meanwhile, the Europeans' front two gave way with Balotelli jettisoned in favour of Parma midfielder and 13th-century merchant sailor name-a-like Marco Parolo. Prandelli was taking a risk in removing his biggest goal threat, but Balotelli had cut a frustrated figure, committing 4 fouls, and may have had a minor injury.
Uruguay began to attack with more width, and shortly before the hour mark had a good chance through Cristian Rodriguez, who could only fire wide after a beautiful chipped through-ball by Suarez. Before Rodriguez's shot, the total number of chances created by La Celeste amounted to all of 1.
Then, the turning point. On 59 minutes, Claudio Marchisio was sent off. It was a strange challenge that initially caused consternation among Italians and commentators alike, but the midfielder, despite moving slowly and seemingly being in control, planted his studs into the shin of Arevalo Rios while challenging for the ball. It was an unnecessary foul and Tabarez was quick to react: off went wing-back Alvaro Pereira and on came Cristian Stuani as Uruguay went 4-3-3.
Immediately they were threatening down Italy's flanks, but in doing so left gaps in the middle, and Italy had 2 half-chances as a result.
Uruguay continued to press forward but the side with 10 men remained strong in the tackle.
With Italy playing ever deeper, the goal finally came - shortly after an unsavoury incident involving a clash between Suarez and Chiellini, the latter claiming the Liverpool striker bit him. Fittingly, the goal that changed the match and shape of Group D came from Diego Godin, scorer of the goal that won Atletico Madrid the title and another that gave them the lead until the dying stages of the Champions League final. This time the corner was delivered by Southampton's Gaston Ramirez, but the result was the same.
Their World Cup hopes slipping away, the Azzurri threw men forward - but it was too little, too late. In fact, Suarez had the opportunity to make the score 2-0 but made a pair of poor decision-making errors on the counter-attack, twice failing to find a team-mate on the overlap with the Italian defence cut open.
The full-time whistle came and Uruguayan delight was Italian despair. For the second World Cup in a row they'd crashed out in the group stage. And albeit for different reasons, they had only themselves to blame. A defensive game plan based on not giving Uruguay a sniff of the ball looked to have done the job until the final 10 minutes, when Godin's headed goal made the difference. Ultimately Italy's hesitance had cost them: they had 1 shot on target in the entire match, a typical strike from distance by Pirlo.
Of course, Marchisio's sending-off had a huge impact on the game. Uruguay made more passes in the attacking third and created more chances after he'd left the field.
Once again, Godin made the difference. He topped the field for interceptions, clearances, aerial duels won - and, of course, goals.
They'd left it late, but Uruguay were through into the knockout stages - and Italy left to rue a missed opportunity.
Facts and figures
- Italy have now exited at the group stage in their last 2 World Cups. The last time they managed this was in the 1960s (62 and 66).
- Uruguay have progressed to the knockout stage in consecutive World Cups, for the first time since 1990.
- The Azzurri have won just 1 of their last 7 World Cup games (D3 L3).
- Claudio Marchisio’s red card was the first Italy had received at the World Cup since Marco Materazzi was sent off against Australia in 2006.
- This is the first time Uruguay have managed to score against Italy in their 3 World Cup games against them (W1 D1 L1)
- Marco Verratti misplaced just 2 of his 43 passes in this match (95.3%), completing all of his passes in the first half.
- It is the first time since 1970 that Italy have failed to score in 2 consecutive World Cup games.
- This is the 6th win for South American sides in 8 clashes with European teams in this World Cup.
- The Azzurri have conceded exactly 1 goal in 6 of their last 7 World Cup games.
- Only 3 games so far at this World Cup have had more fouls than this clash (19 for each side).