Balotelli powers Italy past Mexico
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP)
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Mario Balotelli showed off his strength and rapidly developing talent by scoring the winner in Italy's 2-1 victory over Mexico on Sunday at the Confederations Cup.
In the 78th minute, Balotelli collected a perfectly placed acrobatic pass from Emanuele Giaccherini and muscled in between two defenders to break a deadlock in the first official match at the renovated Maracana Stadium.
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.
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. 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 off his muscular physique, earning a yellow card.
Perhaps worried that he might pick up a second yellow card, as in the match against the Czech Republic, Italy coach Cesare Prandelli replaced Balotelli in the 85th with Alberto Gilardino. Balotelli walked off to a warm reception from the sold-out crowd.
Balotelli rarely celebrates while playing club ball, saying often that he saves his goal festivities for big national team matches.
''Mario has to stop showing off his muscles,'' Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said. ''The yellow cards count. Anyhow, well done.''
It was Balotelli's ninth goal in 23 appearances. Prandelli had nothing but praise for Pirlo.
''No words are needed for Andrea, just a 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 comfortable afternoon.
In the next round of Group A matches Wednesday, Italy next faces Japan in Recife and Mexico plays Brazil in Fortaleza.