Football fans tend to forget the things for which they should be grateful. Our natural inclination is to take such matters for granted and focus on the areas where our favourites fall short. But, in order to buck that trend, Azzurri supporters really ought to take time out this week to say 100 thank-yous – one for every time Andrea Pirlo has donned his country’s colours.
He wanted to play well in the match with Mexico which brought up his century of full international caps and it showed. He produced a sumptuous display of the kind which has the tifosi bowing down in humble adoration. If you could have bottled and sold his performance, it was the kind of vintage which only a handful of the mega-rich could possibly afford to purchase.
There were the free-kicks – each one delivered with his face a mask of concentration. One he scored, one almost created a goal and another whistled past the post. His mind games with the Mexican goalkeeper were the kind of exquisite torture Shane Warne used to take great delight in exacting on an opposing batsman. Poor Jose Corona could have been forgiven if he was still so bamboozled by bedtime that he dived into a waiting wardrobe mistaking it for the warm welcome of his duvet.
And then there was the ball protection and pinpoint passing. There is a school of thought that younger and more athletic players can hustle Pirlo off the ball these days, but the collective forces of El Tri were not enough to trouble him. In this opening game of Italy’s Confederations Cup campaign he was as smooth and stylish as some Hollywood idol who quite effortlessly oozes screen presence. It was a display well worth paying the extra for the 3D glasses, if only in order to swoon in that extra dimension.
His was the undoubted starring role in a game which assuaged some fears – many of them my own – about how seriously the Azzurri might take the tournament. They raised their play several notches from the recent World Cup qualifier with the Czech Republic and shambolic friendly against Haiti. They actually performed in a manner worthy of four-time winners of that more major competition taking place in Brazil next summer.
And yet, until late in the game, the Christmas tree formation selected by Cesare Prandelli threatened to be more tinsel than timber. For all their possession and creation of chances, they looked like being held to a draw after an Andrea Barzagli blunder gifted Mexico an equaliser via Chicharito Hernandez from the penalty spot. It took a determined finish from Mario Balotelli 12 minutes from time to deliver the gift of a precious victory.
That powerhouse piece of goalscoring was another plus point from the game. There is always the slight suspicion that Prandelli sides might be more inclined towards good football than actually winning matches. But, in the Milan hitman, they have definitely got a forward who adds a little extra substance to their undoubted style.
It wouldn’t be Super Mario, of course, if his strike was not tainted a little by his exuberant strip-tease celebration. His manager was not pleased and let him know about it when he was substituted in the closing stages. The yellow card he picked up for showing off his marvellous muscles may not matter much now but, in 12 months time, such actions could be the difference between triumph and disaster at the World Cup proper.
Balotelli worked well as the focal point of Italy’s 4-3-2-1 and Emanuele Giaccherini was in sparkling form as one of the two playing in behind him. He got into great positions and showed some magnificent movement without ever quite delivering the killer pass or shot on goal. More seasoned Juventus followers will tell you that is his default setting during a match.
But what worked for one Bianconero did not seem to assist another. Claudio Marchisio failed to make the impact a player of his quality should have done in the second slot behind the striker. The position did not seem to suit his skill-set but his formline also seems to have tailed off a little of late.
There is no more to say about the perfect Pirlo and he was ably flanked by Riccardo Montolivo and Daniele De Rossi. And, while the normally rock solid Giorgio Chiellini and Barzagli partnership in central defence had its odd shaky moment, there was reason to be cheerful on the left side of the Azzurri’s back line. Mattia De Sciglio has slotted into the Italy set-up as if he was born to be there. There is probably a strong case for switching him to the right side in the long term but, in the meantime, Ignazio Abate was competent in that position. In goal there was little for Gigi Buffon to do, other than pick out that Hernandez penalty from the back of the net.
Sub Alessio Cerci was pretty ineffective but, as was the case for Marchisio, he perhaps had a positional excuse. The other two late replacements were a pair of Albertos – Aquilani and Gilardino – but they scarcely had time to make an impact. Overall, however, this was an encouraging enough display.
Question marks must remain about how this tactical line-up might perform against better opposition. Mexico looked like a team with plenty of problems of their own and kept making unnecessary slip-ups at the back. Another side might well have punished Italy’s wastefulness in front of goal much more severely.
Nonetheless, after the alarm bells of recent matches this game set a much more soothing tone. It hinted that Italy mean business in Brazil and are maybe not quite as jaded or disinterested as they might have seemed. And, even if they don’t win this Confederations Cup, it should give us at least a couple more chances to savour watching Andrea Pirlo on the ball. That is something for which we should all be thankful.