Italy defeated Mexico 2-1 in Confederations Cup action on Sunday night. Andrea Pirlo celebrated his 100th cap for the Azzurri in style, scoring the opening goal off a free kick in the 27th minute. Javier Hernandez equalized from the penalty spot shortly thereafter, but Mario Balotelli popped up to bury the winner late in the second half.
Heading into the match, there were a lot of issues surrounding the Italian camp, as mentioned in the Azzurri preview. Stephan El Shaarawy has reportedly been distracted by the recent transfer rumours surrounding him, forcing manager Cesare Prandelli to tinker his system. Instead of the usual 4-3-1-2, a formation which makes Italy too predictable, according to the former Fiorentina tactician, he opted for a 4-3-2-1 for Sunday’s fixture.
That change worked wonders compared to Italy’s previous two matches. The defence, which was the key issue for the Azzurri heading into the tournament, put on their best performance since the Euro 2012 semi-final against Germany. Giorgio Chiellini, who was starting at left back against the Czech Republic, was moved centrally in place of Leonardo Bonucci. His Juventus teammate Andrea Barzagli was his partner in the middle with Mattia De Sciglio and Ignazio Abate playing on the left and right respectively. It was Chiellini and De Sciglio who arguably had the two best individual displays on the night.
At AC Milan, De Sciglio was hailed as the next Paolo Maldini. The 20-year-old demonstrated his skill when attacking, but often neglected his defensive duties. That’s to be expected with a young fullback, but in just his fifth cap with the senior side, he was admirable on both sides of the ball. His overlapping runs and subsequent crosses caused a ruckus for the Mexican defence, and even when he lost possession, he’d hustle back to either win back the ball, or would get back into position to stop the onrushing attack from El Tri. De Sciglio made five tackles in the game, more than any other player.
Chiellini, on the other hand, showed why he made the switch from left back to centre half as his career continued. He has experience in a back four and was a standout in the system. He made several crucial interceptions, won aerial duels whether it was in open play or on a set piece, and was a commanding presence the full 90.
Those two brilliant individual performances at the back were almost overshadowed by two dismal ones. Barzagli’s failed back pass to Gianluigi Buffon was intercepted by Giovani Dos Santos, and in an attempt to stop the forward, Barzagli caught Dos Santos’ heels and conceded the penalty and subsequent equalizer. Abate didn’t fare much better. While he didn’t commit any crucial errors, his crossing was poor, and couldn’t shut down Dos Santos or Andres Guardado. Due to the lack of quality depth at fullback, Prandelli has no other choice but to start Abate.
Two others also underperformed. Claudio Marchisio started in an advanced midfield role, a similar position he played during the 2010 World Cup, but he suffered the same problem on Sunday as he did in South Africa; it’s not his ideal spot. Marchisio thrives deeper on the pitch where his darting runs into the box aren’t as easily tracked by opposing defenders. Prandelli could’ve had Alessandro Diamanti, an actual trequartista, occupy Marchisio’s place instead.
Emanuele Giaccherini was getting heaps of hate on Twitter during the game, but redeemed himself when he assisted Balotelli’s goal in the 78th minute. However putting that one instance aside, he clearly is out of his element with the Azzurri. He started just 10 matches for Juventus this season, yet has been called up for almost every single Italy squad since Euro 2012. He seems to be like Prandelli’s son. The relationship between the two is similar to Marcello Lippi with Cristian Zaccardo in 2006. No one knew why he was constantly in the squad, yet he remained there. It’s the same situation with Giaccherini.
In terms of other bright performers, Mario Balotelli managed to shrug three challenges prior to his winning strike, but didn’t exactly give off the body language of a striker who was confident and enjoying his football. That’s Balotelli’s style, though. If he were to change his attitude, he may not be that forward who scored 12 goals in 13 matches for Milan or the forward who struck twice against Germany last summer. As long as “Super Mario” gets goals, then everything else can be taken with a pinch of salt.
Pirlo earned his 100th cap for Italy, only four others have that honour (Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Dino Zoff, Paolo Maldini). He marked it with an exquisite free kick from 25 yards out. It was Pirlo’s 13th international goal, eight of which have come from a free kick. At 35, the midfield maestro is in the twilight of his career. He can still impact the outcome of games, but not like he did in his man of the match performance in the 2006 World Cup final. He’ll officially hang up his boots for the Azzurri after the 2014 World Cup, but he’ll never be forgotten.
Italy plays Japan on Wednesday. If they win, they’ll clinch a berth in the semi final. Prandelli has called for his team to defeat the Japanese and secure a knockout spot before their penultimate group stage match against Brazil. If those few minor mistakes from Sunday can be fixed, then Italy could very well erase the disappointment from the 2009 Confederations Cup without much fuss.