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In one of the most hectic matches in recent memory, Italy pulled off a remarkable comeback before scoring late to defeat Japan 4-3 in Confederations Cup action in Recife on Wednesday night. Sebastian Giovinco struck in the 86th minute to clinch the victory for the Azzurri. Daniele De Rossi bagged Italy’s first, an Atsuto Uchida own goal along with a Mario Balotelli penalty rounded off the score sheet for the Italians. Keisuke Honda converted a spot kick for the Japanese and was followed up by goals from Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki.
Judging from Japan’s opener against Brazil on Sunday, Italy should’ve had an advantage as Okazaki couldn’t provide the Samurai Blue playmakers with any dangerous runs. The likes of Honda and Kagawa were constantly threatening the Brazilian defence, but due to Okazaki’s poor performance, the midfielders were getting shut down, even though they were winning the football in the attacking third.
Manager Alberto Zaccheroni knew he had to make changes. The former Udinese, AC Milan, and Venezia tactician used his knowledge from Italy to punish his home country. He clearly told his players (through his interpreter) to pressure the Azzurri on and off the ball, something Mexico failed to do and got stung for.
This worked wonders throughout most of the game. Andrea Pirlo, who’s already a defensive liability, was lackadaisical in his own third and looked very tired, much like the rest of the squad did. Thanks to no real presence in midfield, the Italian back line was left exposed, and due to Japan’s closing down in Italy’s half, it created their first scoring chance. Mattia De Sciglio, who had his best game in an Azzurri shirt on Sunday, scuffed a back pass to Gianluigi Buffon, who was adjudged to have tackled Okazaki as he tried to dribble around him. Honda converted the penalty to give the Japanese the lead on 21 minutes.
Many were up in arms over the decision as Buffon appeared to have gotten to the ball. However, under the FIFA rulebook, it doesn’t matter if the guilty player gets the ball. If he tackles someone with his studs exposed, then the referee can award a penalty. Plus, Okazaki could’ve won the ball if he wasn’t brought down, so therefore, the official made the correct call.
One aspect that he got wrong was the consequence handed out to Buffon. The Italian shot-stopper was booked for his foul, but Okazaki was all alone in front of goal, and could’ve scored had Buffon not hacked his legs. That, according to FIFA, is a straight red card and penalty. The match would’ve turned out much differently had Buffon been sent to the showers early.
Kagawa’s goal then subsequently put the Japanese up 2-0 after 33 minutes. Just before that, Azzurri coach Cesare Prandelli noticed that his side just wasn’t clicking, especially up front. Italy didn’t advance in numbers like they did against Mexico, meaning it was essentially three Italians going up against five or six Japanese players. Sebastian Giovinco then came in to replace Alberto Aquilani in the hole. Even though Kagawa scored, the complexion of the match changed from that point on.
De Rossi then capitalized on a corner that his team won after their best attacking spell at that point in time. It was 2-1 at the half, and the Azzurri were awoken from their slumber.
Emanuele Giaccherini, who was on the receiving end of some abuse from Azzurri supporters, then silenced his critics after displaying the resilience that was instilled into him from Juventus coach Antonio Conte. Giaccherini hustled for the ball on the byline, managed to avoid a tackle in controlling the ball along the line, and shot from the left side of the box. The attempt deflected off Atsuto Uchida and into the back of the net. Italy were back on level terms.
Then, in classic Italian fashion, the comeback was achieved, albeit in controversial circumstances. Giovinco had his shot blocked by Japan’s captain Makoto Hasebe, but it bounced off Hasebe’s leg then off his arm. The referee blew his whistle, pointed to the spot, and awarded the second penalty of the match and Italy’s first. It was a harsh decision in the end as the arm wasn’t the initial point of contact with the ball and when it was, it wasn’t intentional. Still, the call stood and Balotelli buried his third penalty in his international career and his 24th overall. He’s yet to miss one since he’s become a professional.
The Japanese didn’t go down without a fight and once again took advantage of another defensive mistake by Italy. The right footed De Sciglio, playing left back, caught Hasebe with his shooting leg when it should’ve been the left. Japan’s set piece specialist, Yasuhito Endo, fired in a free kick from the right flank into the box and was headed in by Okazaki. 3-3. No, it’s not done yet.
Then, like a lion awaiting his prey from the tall grass, Italy pounced on the first opportunity they saw to grab the lead. Following a flurry of chances from Japan which included shots off the post and crossbar in the same sequence, the Azzurri stormed up the pitch. De Rossi, the man who got his team back into the match with his thundering header in the first half, played in substitute Claudio Marchisio with an exquisite through ball down the right side of the Japanese box. He squared it to his Juve teammate Giovinco in the centre, he made no mistake and slotted it into the goal to give the Italians the undeserved 4-3 advantage with just four minutes remaining plus stoppage time.
The fulltime whistle blew and just like that, Italy claimed the second and final spot in the semi-final. They’ll square off with Brazil in their final game in Group A to determine who finishes in first place. Even if the Azzurri are eliminated in the semi, it’ll still be their best ever finish in a Confederations Cup. Japan were robbed, but they can still hold their heads high and work on their mistakes. If they do, they’ll return to Brazil next summer and be far more lethal.
As for Italy, Prandelli has some major issues. He has personnel suited for a back three, including wingbacks who simply can’t play in a fullback role. Considering he has all three Juventus centre backs (Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli, and Leonardo Bonucci), who played in a 3-5-2 system and had the best defensive record in Serie A this past season, it’s only logical that Prandelli switches to something similar. Riccardo Montolivo had a poor game, but he’s improved quite a bit since Euro 2012, so it’s unlikely he’ll be booted out of the XI due to one match.
Pirlo’s fitness must be a worry considering he’ll be participating at the World Cup next year. Teams play every three or four days and he struggled with that sort of schedule with Juventus this campaign when they balanced Champions League and Serie A fixtures. He was clearly fatigued on Wednesday and that has to make Prandelli nervous. It’s still a little under 12 month away, but qualification still isn’t in the bag and if this is the sort of showing that the Azzurri give its fans, it could be a very tumultuous journey leading up to Brazil 2014.