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June 24, 2017

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Pirlo and Balotelli give Italy class and power

MANAUS, Brazil -- Pure class and pure power. Skill and strength. Creative vision and clinical finishing.

Andrea Pirlo and Mario Balotelli are a study in contrasts on the soccer pitch. And off it.

Together, they provide Italy with two distinct weapons and on Saturday both players stood out in a 2-1 win over England at the World Cup.

Pirlo set up Italy's opening goal without even touching the ball, Balotelli headed in the winner early in the second half, and Pirlo then nearly scored himself in stoppage time, slamming a free kick from 30 meters off the top of the crossbar.

"We take our hats off to their skill," England coach Roy Hodgson said.

It was an evening reminiscent of the 2012 European Championship, when Pirlo and Balotelli combined to lead Italy to the final.

This time, after a few errant passes from Pirlo, the midfield maestro broke open the match by stepping over a cross and fooling the England defenders to let Claudio Marchisio fire in from long-range in the 35th minute.

"Pirlo is a player who can add quality in every area of the pitch," Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said. "Whether it's a tight triangle, going far forward or whatever, he can handle himself in any area."

At 35, Pirlo is a veteran of the Italy squad that won the 2006 title and was wearing the captain's armband for this match in place of injured Gianluigi Buffon. Modest and quiet, his personality couldn't be farther from the brashness that the 23-year-old Balotelli displays.

But brashness can often be a positive trait for a striker.

When England equalized two minutes after Marchisio's goal, Balotelli showed his nose for the goal by attempting a sharply angled lob shot after drawing goalkeeper Joe Hart out of position in first-half added time. England defender Phil Jagielka headed away the danger but that only seemed to increase Balotelli's appetite.

Five minutes into the second half, the AC Milan forward finally found the target, eluding Gary Cahill to head in by the far post following superb work down the right flank and a perfect cross from Antonio Candreva.

"I'm really happy. It's a special feeling," said Balotelli, who proposed to his Belgian girlfriend at the beginning of the week. "I've never played in a World Cup and it's fantastic. I dedicate this victory to my future wife, who is here, to my family, and to my friends."

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