Wow, how about that! Have you all recovered yet? What a gripping contest. Just be glad it was the Confederations Cup and not the real thing – imagine the nervous tension. In a game that had it all, Italy managed to sneak a 4-3 victory against a talented and spirited Japanese side. You almost didn’t want it to end, but in a way are so thankful it did. The neutrals loved the entertainment, but Cesare Prandelli will be extremely worried about the Azzurri’s quality.
Sebastian Giovinco may have tapped home the winner with four minutes remaining, but Italy were blunt in their assessment post-match. Emanuele Giaccherini – who hit the post and created a goal – said Italy “didn’t deserve to win.” Prandelli noted the Azzurri “struggled like crazy” and Daniele De Rossi called the result the only positive.
What is it about the second match of a tournament that Italy fears? De Rossi signalled a warning for his teammates following the win against Mexico to remember four years ago. In South Africa, a win over the United States was followed by a drab loss to Egypt. That put qualification on a knife-edge and Brazil duly dispatched of Italy, who went home early.
Think back through the years. Rather than build on their first result, Italy tends to take qualification down to the third match. Much to the detriment of its supporters. Euro 2012 is a very recent example. So too World Cup 2010. They are not isolated incidents. Go back to 1962. Look at the World Cup four years later. Head through to Spain 1982. Euro ‘96 stalled in the second match, as did the Asian adventure in 2002. The European Championships in 2004 and 2008 went down to the wire following winnable games which turned into draws with Sweden and Romania. Sandwiched in-between was a crazy match in 2006 against the USA. Sometimes Italy recover. Other times they go home early. This match was a little different as it – somehow – ended with three points. But only just. Certainly performance-wise it continued the tradition of the second-game blues.
What can Prandelli take from this match? “I liked to see this Italy suffer and fight for the result at all costs. We could’ve settled, but instead we kept fighting,” he noted. That’s true. Italy did overturn a two-goal deficit and then win it as Japan turned the screw. Gianluigi Buffon – harsh concession of a penalty aside – kept his team in the contest with a series of saves. Daniele De Rossi led the comeback with a bullet header and was the only midfielder to get a foothold on proceedings. His fabulous pass for Claudio Marchisio also provided the winner. Mario Balotelli – who kept his perfect penalty-taking record intact following another dubious decision – also looked lively.
Meanwhile, Prandelli was bold to replace Alberto Aquilani just 30 minutes in for Giovinco, who played well. Italy were 2-0 down at that stage but it paid dividends. His introduction – coupled with Japan tiring from their lightning early pace – saw Italy very nearly draw level by the interval. As it turned out, Italy netted three times either side of half-time in an 11 minute spell to lead.
The tactician will have much to ponder about the rest. Alberto Zaccheroni’s Blue Samurai – well, given his presence perhaps ‘Azzurri Samurai’ is more appropriate – gave Italy an immense fright. Their pressing restricted the four-time world champions to long balls during the opening half-hour. And when chasing a late winner, Japan’s possession forced Italy to defend very deep, sometimes with all 11 behind the ball. They created ample chances and incredibly failed to score when Shinji Okazaki hit the post and Shinji Kagawa headed the follow-up on to the crossbar. Okazaki again hit the woodwork with two minutes remaining. This time the follow-up was put away, only for Maya Yoshida to be denied by the linesman’s flag. They deserved something from the game.
Andrea Pirlo took plaudits at the Maracanà Stadium on Sunday but was poor in Recife. Yet he was not alone. Fellow midfielders Aquilani and Riccardo Montolivo were anonymous. The full-backs struggled to stamp their authority on either side, giving the likes of Inter’s Yuto Nagatomo free reign. The defending centrally was at times shaky, noticeably for Kagawa’s goal.
Italy have complained of fatigue since the San Marino friendly in late May and it showed in the humidity. It’s a point Prandelli stressed post-game. He said the team had run out of gas once they went ahead. But is fatigue a valid excuse? Well, no. The Azzurri are not the only group of players at the Confederations Cup to have just finished a gruelling season. All teams are in the same boat. It seems to be an excuse used to mask a poor performance of late, including this and the Czech Republic qualifier. Conditions were humid for Japan too.
Zaccheroni’s team exit the tournament “with huge regrets.” Two losses mean they and El Tri are out. It also means Italy do not have to contend with a nailbiting final group match. Their match with hosts Brazil on Saturday is a shootout for first and to avoid Spain in the last four. De Rossi is suspended following a second yellow card, so Prandelli must make a midfield change. It’s a blow given how the Roma man played. Aside from that, the tactician needs to find a formula for a better showing to come close to Brazil, who have so far looked a step above the Azzurri. This was a win that left more questions than answers.