New-look Italy makes strong statement

June 16, 2013

The ageless Andrea Pirlo led Italy past Mexico at the Maracana Stadium 2-1 on Sunday, courtesy of a winner from Mario Balotelli. It was a complete, comprehensive performance from the 34-year-old superstar, who collected his 100th cap and a goal to round out a superb afternoon.

It was also, for nearly seventy minutes, the best match played yet in this young Confederations Cup and had the promise of being a classic. The encounter displayed fast, skilled and open play until Mexico became visibly overwhelmed after the hour mark.

Pirlo continues to prove that age is nothing, putting on a passing clinic that Mexico simply had no answer for. The Juventus mastermind seized on Mexico’s inability to lock down the right side early, pushing balls to Balotelli and Emanuele Giaccherini and targeting the woeful Gerardo Flores. Had Mexcio goalkeeper Joe Corona been off his game, this might have been a runaway match in the first half.

''Andrea Pirlo is football for us,'' Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said, heaping praise on a player who has become synonymous with excellence. ''He's very down to earth, very normal, but he's always a fantastic player on the field.''


As it was, Pirlo struck first, and it will be a tough goal to top in this tournament. A sublime free kick, moving right to left to land top corner, Pirlo’s thirty-yard strike was simultaneously effortless and unstoppable. Seeing the ball pitching up and over the wall, Corona actually pulled out of his dive halfway through; it was simply unstoppable.

''I was dreaming of a free-kick goal,'' said Pirlo, who scored all five of his goals for Juventus this season from similar set-pieces. ''I couldn't dream of anything more than crowning my 100th appearance with a goal in a stadium like Maracana.''

The Maracana was built ahead of the 1950 World Cup, a tournament that ended in ''disaster'' for the local fans when Uruguay beat Brazil 2-1 in the final match. Since then, the venue has become world renowned as a haven for some of the best footballers in the world. Pirlo certainly fits into that category.

''100 appearances in the temple of Maracana. It couldn't have been more magical. Grandissimo Pirlo,'' former Italy great Roberto Baggio wrote on Twitter.

That goal might have been it: for all of Mexico’s good intentions in the first half, the only real chance they had came early, when Andres Guardado rocked his attempt off Gigi Buffon’s crossbar. But a needless foul from Andrea Barzagli got El Tri back in it.

Barzagli tangled with dos Santos in the box, and then failed to back off. Dos Santos was off balance and it looked like Buffon had the net covered, yet Barzagli chose to shove him, and it was a clear a foul as you’ll see. Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez took a long run up, and buried the spot-kick into the lower right corner, helped perhaps by Buffon diving to the opposite side.

Mario Balotelli scored Italy's winner vs. Mexico on Sunday (Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images).

Yet after the break, the game became one-sided. Mexico couldn’t replicate the spark they had shown and the deficiencies that Pirlo had exposed with his cutting long passes out became much more apparent. Corona’s defense also started to fade away like mist in the Rio de Janeiro heat.

That defense has real issues. Francisco “Maza” Rodriguez was not the only culprit – Gerardo Torrado was inglorious – but he was by far the worst on the night. Pulled out of position all game long, like a kitten chasing a string, Rodriguez left huge gaps in his back line and looked unable to adjust at all. Rodriguez would also end up at fault on the winner. Collecting a chip over the back line from Giaccherini, Balotelli simply brushed past Rodriguez as if the defender wasn’t there. That was a deserved goal – Italy had been pressing for a full twenty minutes. But it was also a shocking lapse that allowed Balotelli to simply toe-poke through Corona: Rodriguez simply gave his keeper no chance.

For Italy, Sunday’s result was further proof that then can play an open, expansive game and succeed. This is not the boring, defense-first Azzurri of old – under Prandelli, this team attacks with pace, precision and power. On the evidence of this single game, the Italians are a force to be reckoned in next year's World Cup.

The new is less hale for Mexico. El Tri did play better than they have in what has been an insipid World Cup qualification campaign. It’s still not enough. Despite a surging individual performance from Giovani dos Santos, too many members of the Mexican team looked at sea for too long. And most damaging of all, Hernandez continues to struggle to find his form in open play.

It is hard to imagine that their federation isn’t already hunting down a replacement for manager Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre – and his tactics on Sunday did not match up with Prandelli’s. Bottom line: unless Chepo can work some magic, and fast, he’s likely to perusing the want ads in a week’s time.

In Sunday's second match, defending World Cup and European champs Spain held on to defeat Uruguay 2-1 at Recife's Arena Pernambuco after two first half goals from Pedro and Roberto Soldado.

Spain had a bit of luck with the first goal, which deflected off Uruguay defender Diego Lugano to beat goalkeeper Fernando Muslera. The second was perfect finishing by Soldado, who was left unmarked and scored from just inside the area.

Liverpool striker Luis Suarez scored Uruguay's lone-goal after bending a sublime free-kick strike past Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas to make matters interesting in the second half. Yet, it wasn't enough as Spain dominated the match with Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta dictating pace and tempo at midfield.

Spain is trying to win the only major trophy it lacks to go with a 2010 World Cup and two consecutive European championships. Del Bosque also returned captain Iker Casillas to his spot in goal.

Casillas had not played a competitive match in 4 1/2 months. He was dropped in December by then-Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho, and then broke his left hand in a match on Jan. 23. Even after it healed, Mourinho left him on the bench.

Coach Vicente del Bosque talked about the importance of a damp, quick pitch so Spain could put on a "show." It rained just before the match, and Spain did just that. Before the match, Lugano praised Spain's brand of football and went on to label del Bosque's side as the tournament favorites.

"It is logical to say that [they are the best]. Spain are favorites, they are the best team in the world," said the Uruguay captain. "They are the champions and Uruguay are less so in their prime," he added. "They are a team that if you allow them to have the ball, you won't see it anymore. Spain are superior to Brazil in their treatment of the ball. Then it is Brazil and then Argentina.

"It is not the case with Uruguay, who from the start teach their children to defend."

The Associated Press was used in this report.