RECIFE, BRAZIL – Italy ousted Japan from the Confederations Cup on Wednesday in a 4-3 thriller that will stand as one of the best games seen in this tournament's short history. Played with passion and conviction, the game saw four lead changes to finish as a firecracker of a match.
The result also eliminated Mexico from the competition, losers earlier to Brazil, 2-0 .
Japan came out with guns blazing, stunning an Italian side that had looked to potent in their opening match against Mexico. Playing a basic, Route One style, Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa had the Italian back four doing fits all night long. Gianluigi Buffon was forced into several awkward saves early, including one sizzler from Kagawa that almost floated past the keeper and into his net.
When the goal came, it was deserved on the run of play - but not on the call. Referee Diego Abal inexplicably judged Buffon to have tripped up Shinji Okazaki and awarded a penalty over Italy's furious protests. Replays didn't explain the call any further, and Honda slapped the spot-kick smartly to the far right corner.
Cesare Prandelli decided at that point that he'd seen enough, yanking starter Alberto Aquilani for Sebastian Giovinco. The move was designed to free up the stifled Andrea Pirlo - and it immediately backfired.
Off a short corner awarded after Pirlo was stripped at midfield, Yasuyuki Konno popped a little lob over an advancing Italian back four. Giorgio Chiellini attempted to head the ball away, but missed, and in so doing, ensured Kagawa was kept onside. He turned and smashed a left-footed volley from twelve yards past a helpless Buffon.
Mercurial forward Mario Balotelli scored Italy's third against Japan on Wednesday night (Photo: Vicenzo Pinto/Getty Images).
But Italy would regroup. Riccardo Montolivo earned a corner with a slap across the face of Eiji Kawashima's goal, and Pirlo served in a sumptuous cross that Daniele De Rossi was able to head home, cleanly beating Makoto Hasebe. Then, after the restart, Italy put two quick goals on the board, one of which looked for the world like a makeup call.
First, Emanuele Giaccherini kept after a broken play just five minutes into the half. He dove to the endline, then cutback, putting Maya Yoshida onto his seat, allowing him a clear shot at the near post. Atsuto Uchida tried to cut the angle out - but succeeded only in sliding the ball into his own net with chagrin.
Then, Abal pointed to the spot again in the second strange penalty award of the night. Hasebe was seen to have handled the ball - while falling down in the box - and Balotelli stood up to slam the penalty home. Advantage: Italy, now with a 3-2 lead and 35 minutes on the clock.
That's when things got really wild. Italy used its final two subs as Prandelli tried to close up shop. Japan, on the other hand, went right for the throat. The shots started to fly in; Honda hit the bar, Kagawa the post; Okazaki sees a shot parried, then saved; another ball comes back off the bar, then another off the post; Italy becomes more and more compressed; Honda and Kagawa gain even more space - and finally, the breakthrough comes.
Japan congratulation great match amazing team! FORZA ITALIA! BRAVI RAGAZZI!
-- Mario balotelli (@FinallyMario) June 20, 2013 A simply, arcing free kick is sent in by Yashuito Endo. Okazaki shoves past Montolivo, a man who outweighs him by 35 pounds and has half a foot on him. The ball flies at Buffon. His palm goes up. He misses. 3-3, with twenty to play. And still, Japan keep on coming.
Japan would have three more chances to win it - all denied by either Buffon or the woodwork. But when it seemed inevitable that Italy would concede, a moment from Balotelli saved the day. Slapping a ball back to keep an attack alive, Claudio Marchisio was allowed to run on to the pass, beating a stranded Japanese back line. A simple square pass set up the winner by Giovinco - and broke Japanese hearts.
It was a wonderful display - and refreshing to finally have a game of soccer be just about the sport at this star-crossed show. Absent from this game were the protests that have roiled the rest of the nation. Recife only saw a smattering of demonstrations on Wednesday, in contrast to the ugly scenes at Fortaleza and in downtown Sao Paulo.
Recife has issues of its own: the opening game here was snared by complaints about the subway and traffic jams; while a smaller crowd was in attendance at a Pernambuco that seems only barely ready, it is clear Brazil still has a lot of work to do.
That long ride will be a harsh one for the Japanese. They gave us everything and cruelly lost. It will perhaps be a reflective one for an Italy. They were not the better team today, but they won nonetheless.
Meanwhile, in the other match on Wednesday, Neymar scored one goal and set up another for Jo to lift Brazil to a 2-0 win over Mexico and secure a spot in the semifinals of the Confederations Cup for the host nation.
The Brazilian striker scored his second of the tournament with a left-footed volley from just inside the penalty box in the ninth minute after Mexican defenders failed to clear a cross, and then slipped past two defenders to help Jo score an easy goal in second-half injury time.
''I'm happy to have played well again,'' Neymar said. ''But what was more important was that the team had a good performance. We are improving game after game and we are getting better.
''This gives us more confidence for the next matches.''
NOTES: Italy's Daniele De Rossi and Japan's Makoto Hasebe will miss their final games respectively. Both picked up cards on Wednesday and thus an automatic suspension. Italy face Brazil on Saturday at Salvador in a game that is now a winner-take all for top of the group. Japan face Mexico earlier in the day in Belo Horizonte in a dead rubber.
The Associated Press was used in this report.