Italy were trailing, leading and caught again in a Confederations Cup thriller, beating Japan 4-3!
The Azzurri came up against the first side to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, coached by Alberto Zaccheroni. Cesare Prandelli made two changes to the side that beat Mexico 2-1 on Sunday, introducing Christian Maggio and Alberto Aquilani for Ignazio Abate and Claudio Marchisio. Japan lost 3-0 to Brazil in their Confederations Cup opener on Saturday evening and could count on Inter full-back Yuto Nagatomo, but introduced striker Ryoichi Maeda, moving Keisuke Honda into a deeper role.
These teams had met just twice before. Italy won 8-0 in the 1936 Olympics quarter-final, plus a 1-1 friendly draw in Saitama in November 2002.
Zaccheroni told his team to be “more courageous” than against Brazil and they came tearing out of the blocks with an aggressive start. After five minutes Maeda was allowed a free header on Shinji Kagawa’s cross which Gigi Buffon smothered on the line.
The goalkeeper was again called for a tougher intervention, palming a fierce long-range Kagawa strike out from under the bar.
The pressure paid off when a defensive howler of a short Mattia De Sciglio backpass was intercepted by Shinji Okazaki. Buffon came flying out and appeared to get the ball, but the referee awarded a spot-kick and booked the goalkeeper, who ran the huge risk of a red card. Honda converted the penalty to give Japan a deserved lead, albeit in controversial circumstances.
Buffon blocked a shot from Inter full-back Yuto Nagatomo, but Prandelli saw the Azzurri were struggling and transformed the side, introducing Sebastian Giovinco for Aquilani.
Italy went 2-0 down, as a corner was not cleared effectively by Giorgio Chiellini and Kagawa spun round for the fine half-volley from 12 yards, leaving Buffon rooted to the spot as it flew into the near bottom corner.
Japan kept pushing, as Buffon parried a Yasuhito Endo free kick with difficulty, while Andrea Pirlo’s effort landed on the roof of the net.
The Azzurri got a foothold in the game before the break when Daniele De Rossi got a bullet header to a Pirlo corner. Incredibly, that was Italy’s first shot on target of the match. The Roma midfielder was also booked, his second card of the tournament meaning he’ll be suspended against Brazil.
Pirlo had a free kick just outside the box in first half stoppages, but hit it into the wall. Moments later, Emanuele Giaccherini got away from his marker only for the daisy-cutter to thump the base of the upright.
The second half kicked off with torrential rain over Recife and an equaliser for Italy. Giaccherini caught Yoshida in possession at the by-line and his cross for Balotelli was accidentally turned into his own net by Uchida from four yards.
Moments later the situation was turned around completely with another dreadful refereeing decision, this time against Japan. Makoto Hasebe was extremely unlucky, as he charged down a Giovinco strike and the ball ricocheted on to his arm, but the referee judged it to be voluntary.
Balotelli stepped up and maintained his perfect record from penalties to put Italy in front. It was also his 10th goal for the Nazionale, making him the second-youngest to achieve this tally after the legendary Giuseppe Meazza.
Eiji Kawashima flew to palm a fierce Giovinco effort round the near post. Kagawa’s cross floated over Chiellini for Maeda to chest down, but Buffon did enough to put him off and he hit the side-netting.
Italy seemed to rest into their lead and were made to pay for it, as Okazaki got in front of Riccardo Montolivo to nod in an Endo free kick and make it 3-3.
Milan transfer target Honda went on a wonderful run past the entire Italy defence, forcing Buffon into a save.
It was wide open now and Hasebe blasted over after more bad defending. Japan incredibly failed to score on 81 minutes when an Okazaki effort came off the post into the path of Kagawa, who nodded it on to the bar!
The Azzurri rode that moment of luck and went 4-3 up with four minutes to go. Marchisio ran on to a smart through ball and rolled it across for Giovinco to tap in from six yards. It was the Atomic Ant's first senior international goal.
Japan thought they had equalised again on 88 minutes when Okazaki’s effort hit the woodwork and Yoshida turned in the rebound, but he was caught offside.
Italy 4-3 Japan
Scorers: Honda pen 21 (J), Kagawa 33 (J), De Rossi 41 (I), Uchida og 50 (I), Balotelli pen 52 (I), Okazaki 69 (J), Giovinco 86 (I)
Italy: Buffon; Maggio (Abate 59), Barzagli, Chiellini, De Sciglio; De Rossi, Pirlo, Montolivo; Giaccherini (Marchisio 68), Aquilani (Giovinco 30); Balotelli
Japan: Kawashima; Uchida (Sakai 73), Yoshida, Konno, Nagatomo; Hasebe (Nakamura 91), Endo; Okazaki, Honda, Kagawa; Maeda (Havenaar 78)
Ref: Abal (ARG)