MEXICO 1-2 ITALY
The revamped Maracana opened its doors to the world once again tonight, and proved a fitting venue to make Italian legend Andrea Pirlo’s 100th international cap. The Milan player marked the occasion with a beautiful, predictable, trademark free-kick.
Mexico lined up as expected, with Javier Hernandez leading the line and the creative trio of Aquino, Guardado and Dos Santos forming an exciting attack behind him.
Cesare Prandelli was expected to use this tournament to experiment somewhat with his line-up, however he resisted the urge to pair Mario Balotelli with his Milan teammate Stephan El-Shaarawy, and instead opted for a conventional 4-3-2-1. Balotelli led the line, with the impressive Emanuelle Gianccherini and Claudio Marchisio in support.
The chances came thick and fast in the early stages, as Italy dominated. Mexico captain Francisco Rodriguez almost gifted Balotelli with the opener after only 3 minutes. His pass across his own back-four fell well short of its intended target and the Italian perhaps should have done better than to attempt to lob Jose Corona in the Mexico goal.
Mexico found their feet on 10 mins, with the ever-improving Dos Santos working hard down the left and delivering an incisive pass to Guardado inside the box. The Valencia midfielder let loose a first time effort, only to see it ricochet off the crossbar and over.
Italy continued to probe, with Pirlo and De Rossi providing the thrust, and Balotelli unable to match their creativity with a finish. Pirlo himself found space within the 18 yard box, however he was dispossessed and left pleading to the referee for a penalty. Replays showed that he may have had a case, however the referee saw nothing untoward and allowed play to continue.
The Mexican defence was finding itself under increasing pressure, especially down their right, where De Sciglio and Giancherrini made chance after chance. Italy may have rued the lack of a target man-style striker for all of the crossing opportunities that they created – Balotelli frequently found out of position as he pulled deep to help in the build up of moves.
The pressure told on 27 mins as Balotelli once again roamed and was fouled just left of centre, 30 yards from goal. He remained behind the ball to eye up the set-piece, however there could be no doubt as to who would take it.
Pirlo provided a sublime punctuation to his 100 caps, hitting a free kick with pace and just enough dip to take it elegantly over the wall and nestle into the top corner. He may only have 13 goals for his country, however their can be few who have scored as many sumptuous efforts as the 34 year old.
Mexico, undetered, did not give up – their own creative forces nipping in and around the Italian back line and causing some danger. It was the harrying of Dos Santos which eventually led to the equalising goal.
Andrea Barzagli dallied on the ball inside his own area, the Mallorca player nipped in to steal and the Italian brought him down. As the last defender, Barzagli was lucky to not see red, but his punishment was complete when Javier Hernandez stepped up to bury the resulting penalty.
The teams went into the break reflecting on chances missed, however only one team really emerged for the 2nd half. Italy once again took on the role of the dominant side as the teams kicked-off, Gianccherini making easy work of it down the left but finding nobody in the centre.
Mexico faded, unable to hold on to the ball long enough to involve their strikeforce, and finding Balotelli increasingly hard to track. Rodriguez tried his best to rile the fiery Italian but found himself coming off worse for wear. Balotelli delighted in backing into the veteran and turning inside, holding off the challenge, and this way he won yet another free kick which Pirlo sent crashing inches wide.
It was this tact that eventually brought about the winner for Italy on 78 minutes. Running low on ideas, and sapped by the humidity in Brazil, a hopeful ball forward was helped on by Gianccherini and looped into Balotelli’s path. The Milan man used his strength to turn Rodriguez again, and muscled through to apply the finish – drilling the ball past the goalkeeper and setting off on a familiar shirtless celebration.
The match fizzled soon after, with Mexico still unable force much in the way of chances – coming closest through a hopeful effort from substitute Raul Jimenez. Italy, as ever, were happy to play out the remaining minutes and calmly played the ball around high up the field until the inevitable final whistle.
Mexico will regroup but face an uphill task against the hosts Brazil in their next game, which could see them out of the tournament at a disappointingly early stage. Italy, meanwhile, will have all the confidence they need to make an impression against Japan on Wednesday, and will hope to ensure their passage to the knockout stages before they face Brazil in Salvador on Saturday.
MEXICO: Corona, Flores, Rodriguez, Moreno, Salcido, Torrado, Aquino (Mier 53), Zavala (Jimenez 86), Giovani Dos Santos, Guardado, Hernandez
ITALY: Buffon, Abate, Barzagli, Chiellini, De Sciglio, De Rossi, Pirlo, Montolivo, Marchisio (Cerci 68), Giaccherini (Aquilani 88), Balotelli (Gilardino 86)
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