Italy edged out dark-horses Japan in a 4-3 goal fest that felt more like a World Cup knockout round match than a Confederations cup group game.
Japan struck first in the first half, putting pressure on the Italian defence with the talented duo of Shinji Okazaki and Shinji Kagawa.
The Japanese flew out of the blocks. Their unique blend of brawn-captain Hasebe-, creativity and intuition- Kagawa and Honda-, and directness-Okazaki, proved to be too much to handle for the Italians in the opening exchanges and in all honesty, for most of the match.
The Blue Samurai raced into a two-goal lead after a soft penalty from Honda a reaction strike from Kagawa. They had been profligate in front of goal against Brazil a few days earlier and seemed hell-bent not to have a recurrence of that.
It looked like Japan was headed for a famous upset, which would be true of the competition’s reputation. Italy seemed affected by the humid and muggy Recife air.
They struggled to get going and just could not impose themselves in the match. Japan sprayed the ball around with ease and quiet confidence, patiently waiting for an opportunity to present itself or for the Italian backline to make a mistake.
As the game wore on, Japan got caught up in their dominance and players began abandoning station and losing concentration. It was almost as if they somehow lost the fact that they were still playing Italy despite their early tempo and it soon cost them.
A routine corner from Pirlo was headed home on the brink of half-time by an unchallenged de Rossi. The Japanese begun to crumble as Italy’s experience and resilience came to the fore and Giaccherini’s strike was so close to being the equalizing goal but for the base of the post. A comeback was in the offing.
Times like these, you wonder what is said at halftime in the dressing rooms. Whatever it was, Italy came out roaring after the break. Giaccherini's cross was turned past his own goalkeeper by Atsuto Uchida. A few minutes later, another dubious penalty, converted by Mario Balotelli, gifted Italy the lead, 3-2.
Japan refused to lie down. Kagawa, Okazaki and Honda tormented the Italian backline time and again. A driving run by Honda into the Italian central defence took him past two players before his shot was parried by Buffon. Japan's equalizer came from a set-piece, when Okazaki beat Riccardo Montolivo at the near post.
Japan poured forward. Italy seemed stunned by that equalizer. Wave after wave of the Blue Samurai attack hit the Azzuri. Okazaki then hit the post after some brilliant build-up play. Lady luck just was not smiling at the Japanese and it seemed like the elements were against them. So it proved. Sebastian Giovinco scored Italy's late winner. Cruel it was. Make no mistake about it, you probably have to go back to the Euro 2012 final to find the last time a team played this well against the Azzuri.
Japan, to their credit, still searched for an equalizer. Kagawa, Okazaki and Konno all had chances to score. They hit the bar then the post and the last nail in the coffin of bad luck for Japan was having a goal ruled out for offside. That was it, last straw. Italy scrapped through and held on for the points.
Zaccheroni trumped Prandelli in the battle of the Italian coaches as much as the scoreline says otherwise. Italy were lucky, luckier than I have seen them in a long while. Prandelli may have underestimated the Japanese and he almost paid for it. Playing Aquilani and Maggio proved to be ill-advised as they looked way off the pace. To his credit, he did substitute both of them and probably rescued his team while at it.
Giovinco’s introduction was timely. Not only did he net the winner but he posed a constant threat with his pace upfront. Italy are not in panic mode just yet but this game should be, if nothing else, a reference for what could happen when you underestimate your opponent.
Prandelli needs to review his midfield before they meet Brazil. A performance like this against tougher opponents and surely, the Azzuri will be on a flight to Italy sooner rather than later. Japan had lost the match but had won the respect and admiration of millions of neutrals like myself.
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