Italy defeated Mexico 2-1 on Sunday in a Confederations Cup match played before 71,500 fans in the Maracana stadium here on goals from veteran centerfielder Andrea Pirlo and star AC Milan striker Mario Balotelli.
The win means that Italy has now caught up with Brazil to lead Group A in the tourney and it practically forces Mexico to secure a difficult victory over the Brazilians next Wednesday in Fortaleza if they want to get into the semifinals.
Pirlo and Balotelli were the bane of the Aztec squad, who had wanted to use the Confederations Cup to display a different face than the one they had shown in World Cup elimination play, which has earned them criticism from their own fans.
The Mexicans now have five ties and just one victory, putting them in third place in the six-way final Concacaf rankings for the 2014 World Cup, behind the United States and Costa Rica.
Play started with chances for both squads and with Balotelli, who had been doubtful up until Saturday due to muscle pains, causing constant problems for the Mexican goalkeeper.
Finally, however, Pirlo drove the ball into the corner of the net on a free kick in the 26th minute.
But Mexico needed only six minutes to even things up on a penalty kick by Javier Hernandez after Andrea Barzagli tripped Giovani Dos Santos.
The second period began with an intense contest and with Italy's Balotelli pressuring from the right.
With Italy - coached by Cesare Prandelli - dominating center field, the Mexicans limited themselves to counterattacks by Hernandez or Dos Santos, none of which hit pay dirt.
Eventually, however, Balotelli managed to get free within the Mexican area after a perfectly placed acrobatic pass from Emanuele Giaccherini and easily beat goaltender Jose Corona to put Italy ahead again in the 77th minute. And it was there the score remained with Italy playing only to preserve its advantage up to the final whistle.
"We had to contain them and ... control the ball in the midfield," Mexico coach Jose Manuel De la Torre said. "But they were in better physical shape and ultimately that made the difference."
The eight-nation tournament is held every four years - scheduled a year before the World Cup - and includes the champions of each soccer confederation, the World Cup defending champs and the host country's team. EFE