Mario Balotelli powers Italy past Mexico 2-1
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP)
When Mario Balotelli puts his mind to it, he can be unstoppable.
His winning goal in Italy's 2-1 victory over Mexico at the Confederations Cup proved his class, though he needs to maintain his focus even after scoring such goals.
In the 78th minute Sunday, Balotelli collected a perfectly lobbed pass from Emanuele Giaccherini and muscled his way between two defenders to break a deadlock in the first official match at the Maracana Stadium.
Much like at last year's European Championship, when he scored both goals in a 2-1 semifinal win over Germany and pulled off his shirt after one of them, Balotelli reacted by stripping off his jersey to show his muscular physique, earning an automatic yellow card.
If Balotelli picks up another yellow card in Italy's next match, against Japan, he'll miss the final group game against host Brazil.
''I didn't know about this rule with the two yellows,'' Balotelli said. ''Next time I won't do it.''
Perhaps worried that he might pick up a second yellow, as in last week's match against the Czech Republic, Italy coach Cesare Prandelli replaced Balotelli in the 85th with Alberto Gilardino.
''Mario has to stop showing off his muscles. The yellow cards count,'' Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said. ''Anyhow, well done.''
Celebrating his 100th appearance with the national team, Andrea Pirlo had given Italy the lead with one of his trademark free kicks in the 27th. Mexico equalized in the 34th minute, when Javier ''Chicharito'' Hernandez converted a penalty kick after Andrea Barzagli tripped Giovani Dos Santos.
''I was dreaming of a free-kick goal,'' Pirlo said. ''It was important to win the first match and now we have three days to recuperate. It's nice to be applauded in a legendary stadium like this.''
In an entertaining Group A match, Italy dominated possession while Mexico relied on counterattacks, coming close when Andres Guardado hit the crossbar in the 11th.
''We knew we had to contain them and try to control the ball in the midfield,'' Mexico coach Jose Manuel De la Torre said. ''But they were in better physical condition and ultimately that made the difference.''
Italy moved level with Brazil on three points in the group after the hosts beat Japan 3-0 in the tournament opener Saturday.
The Azzurri had not impressed in their last two matches, drawing with both the Czech Republic in a World Cup qualifier and with Haiti upon arriving in Brazil earlier this week, but Pirlo and Balotelli made the difference this time.
For his 13th goal for Italy, Pirlo curled a spinning shot over Mexico's wall into the top left corner after Balotelli earned the foul that set up the dead-ball shot from 30 meters (yards) out.
Mexico's equalizer came after Barzagli let Dos Santos get by him to set up Hernandez's 33rd goal in 51 appearances for Mexico. The 25-year-old Hernandez, who plays for Manchester United, is on course to better the Mexico record of 42 goals held by former great Jared Borgetti.
As usual, the temperamental Balotelli by turn misbehaved and by turn proved unstoppable.
At one point midway through the second half, Balotelli kicked his boot across the area after being thwarted by Mexico's stubborn defense.
But the AC Milan striker finally broke through as the match appeared headed for a draw, holding off Mexico captain Francisco Rodriguez then powering past another defender, Hiram Mier, to slot the ball in as he skidded across the grass.
It was Balotelli's ninth goal in 23 appearances.
Prandelli had nothing but praise for Pirlo.
''No words are needed for Andrea, just big applause,'' the manager said. ''He's a model for everyone.''
For Mexico, which entered amid a stuttering World Cup qualifying campaign, the loss will extend pressure on coach Jose Manuel De la Torre. However, the Mexican side showed promise and came close to taking the lead in the second half.
Mexico has won only one of six qualifiers with three goals scored, and failed to find the target at all in its last two drawn matches against Panama and Costa Rica.
Despite their squad's recent troubles, Mexican fans, many of them wearing their customary sombreros, hugely outnumbered blue-clad Italian supporters on a warm afternoon.
In the next round of Group A matches Wednesday, Italy next faces Japan in Recife and Mexico plays Brazil in Fortaleza.