AFTER all the warnings, all the safety drills, England found themselves the victims of a mugging in the heart of the Amazon jungle.
Call it bad luck, call it naivety, call it sod’s law, Roy Hodgson’s side were given a short, sharp shock in this do-or-die World Cup.
For long stretches of this Group D match in Manaus against Italy, England were the better team – fearless, penetrative and exuding a rare confidence.
All well and good, except that Italy displayed their age-old talent for patience and cohesion – two goals, one courtesy of exceptional skill, the other thanks to English defensive lapses, and England were on their uppers.
The World Cup dream is not over, not yet – Costa Rica’s shock humbling of Uruguay means this group is still very much wide open. Italy though are well in control.
England cannot blame the conditions. So much for the sauna in the Amazon, at 30 degrees and 60 per cent humidity, conditions in Manaus were little more challenging than those on a sticky summer’s day in Munich – indeed, probably less testing than during the heat wave in Germany in 2006.
As for the much-criticised pitch, it may have had a top coating of paint, but the surface ran as true as anywhere you are going to get in Brazil this tournament.
After the thrilling start to this World Cup, the real fear was not so much that England would lose, but that timidity would see Hodgson’s men viewed as tournament kill-joys.
As it turned out, England started with some panache, while even Italy had reined in their famed catenaccio approach.
While Mario Balotelli only boosted his reputation as a diva whose emotions get the better of his talents, the reputation of those young England players such as Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge were enhanced.
Yet these opponents were Italy – canny, clinical and calculating.
Andrea Pirlo may not be the force he was in 2012, let alone 2006, but his sumptuous step-over left England floundering and gave Juventus midfielder Claudio Marchisio the space to fire home through a crowd of players from 25 yards.
One-nil. England’s disappoint-ment, after a promising start which had seen Sterling and Dean Sturridge take the game to the Italians, was palpable. Two years ago that would probably have been that but this Hodgson team are made of sterner stuff now and Manaus had barely drawn breath before the scores were level.
Sterling was the architect, his work in his own half outwitting the Italian midfielder before providing the pass for Wayne Rooney to place a perfect cross for Sturridge to fire home.
Cue celebrations, and so wild on the touchline that England’s physio Gary Lewin became a serious casualty, carried from the field on a stretcher with a dislocated ankle.
Given the balance of play, it seemed that might be the spark to light the fire.
It was left to Mario Balotelli to play the firefighter. The former Manchester City striker had barely had a sniff all game, but when Antonio Candreva beat Leighton Baines to deliver a tel-ling ball to the far post, Balotelli took advantage of a floundering Gary Cahill to head home.
Hodgson tried everything and so did England, Sturridge had a half-chance, Ross Barkley threatened, but the game was up even before Pirlo smacked a fabulous free-kick against the crossbar.
Welcome to the World Cup, England – and time to wise up.