Italy vs. Japan a Confederations Cup Preview
Italy like Brazil won their opening match in the Confederations Cup after a 2-1 victory over Mexico in Rio on Sunday and as a result can secure their passage into the Semi Finals with a win over Alberto Zaccheroni’s Japan side in Recife this evening. Japan on the other hand head into tonight’s fixture with Zaccheroni knowing he must record a positive result against his country of birth in order to stay in the competition and Japan will certainly have to improve both their sharpness and effectiveness in the final third in order to test a physically strong Italian defensive line.
Cesare Prandelli surprised me with his decision not to select Stephan El Shaarawy for Sunday’s opener against Mexico with the AC Milan attacking midfielder still recuperating from an injury, it is expected El Shaarawy is close enough to full fitness to start today although whether Prandelli will risk him is another matter. To me it would seem nonsensical to leave El Shaarawy out again if he is indeed as we are told, match fit simply due to the partnership he could form with Mario Balotelli with the two having proved their ability to link up well together in the final third at AC Milan since the latter’s January move to the San Siro. Emanuele Giaccherini of Juventus did put in a useful performance against Mexico however the Talla born midfielder was often not on the same wavelength as Balotelli and Italy’s attacking moves on the left hand side on more than one occasion broke down. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Prandelli shuffle his attacking trio of players in the 4-3-2-1 system in order to improve cohesion in the final third against a Japanese defence which against Brazil looked very frail.
Defensively was the area where Italy impressed the most against Mexico with Mattia De Sciglio putting in a performance fitting of a seasoned veteran let alone a twenty year old youngster at left back with the early comparisons to Rossoneri legend Paulo Maldini looking accurate. De Sciglio showed an air of calmness when asked to deal with situations in his own penalty area but also showed a willingness to get forward and support Italian attacks down the left hand flank. De Sciglio played Mexico’s Javier Aquino out of the game in Rio on Sunday and with Keisuke Honda struggling for fitness it is expected Japan will get very little out of Italy’s defence on the left.
Central defender Giorgio Chiellini put in a reasonable performance against Mexico with the Juventus centre half marking Javier Hernandez out of the game for the most part with the Manchester United striker being allowed to make only a handful of effective forward runs in behind the Azzuri backline. Andrea Barzagli on the other hand had a testing evening with individual errors contributing to his poor performance, taking too long on the ball deep in his own half allowed Giovani dos Santos to steal the ball away before Barzagli brought the Mallorca playmaker down inside the penalty area with Barzagli very fortunate to escape a red card with the situation most certainly falling into the category of a goal scoring opportunity. Prandelli will keep faith with Barzagli for the fixture against Japan today however the former Wolfsburg defender will certainly have to put in an improved performance with Leandro Bonucci waiting in the wings to take his place.
Cesare Prandelli has been known to favour a 4-3-1-2 system which features a trequartista filling in just behind the two strikers and being given the responsibility of orchestrating all Italy’s play in the attacking areas however on Sunday Prandelli changed his system slightly to a 4-3-2-1 with Mario Balotelli leading the line up front on his own. Whether this was down to Prandelli wanting more control in midfield with the creativity of El Shaarawy missing or he wanted to trust Mario Balotelli with a great level of responsibility, however in the most simplest sense it worked with Balotelli putting in a performance of the highest quality with the AC Milan forward looking to get involved with the game at every possible opportunity, Balotelli would even come deep into the midfield to win possession of the ball and then look to quickly pass it on to Giaccherini on the left or Montolivo on the right hand side and then quickly get back into his central position further up the pitch.
This was a new Mario Balotelli that fans in England had very seldom seen with Balotelli often willing to just wait for the likes of David Silva, Samir Nasri and Yaya Toure do much of the creative work and then expect the ball to be given to him inside the penalty area, what we saw on Sunday evening at the Maracana was a much more proactive Mario Balotelli who made best use of his physical strength to give the Mexican central defenders numerous difficulties throughout the ninety minutes. When you consider trouble Japan’s defence were given down the right hand side by the physicality of Hulk in Saturday evening’s Confederations Cup curtain raiser it is hard to imagine how they will fare any better against Balotelli and as a result we may just see Prandelli keep with the 4-3-2-1 formation to again ensure we see a proactive Mario Balotelli.
Japan admittedly had the toughest of opening fixtures against the host nation Brazil however Alberto Zaccheroni will have been disappointed with his side’s inability to make best use of possession when they had it with Keisuke Honda in particular being slow to make decisions on the ball which often led to it being lost. Shinji Kagawa whilst displaying small glimpses of quality looked fatigued after a long European season which has been disrupted by injury and the lack of a quality centre forward who could hold the ball up and bring the likes of Kagawa and Honda into play was painfully evident.
Endo and Hasebe playing at the heart of the Japanese defence were bulldozed out of the game by Brazil’s combination of Luis Gustavo and Paulinho with Endo unable to move forward as he so likes to do when on the ball and Hasebe being forced to drop deep into his own half in order to stop the surging runs of Paulinho. Italy’s midfield will play at a far slower tempo than Brazil’s with Pirlo preferring to take time on the ball before playing a pass and De Rossi and Marchisio not as energetic as Gustavo and Paulinho. This will allow Hasebe to stay in the middle of the pitch which could give Endo a degree of freedom to play his natural game and work Honda and Kagawa into the more dangerous positions.
Zaccheroni ahead of tonight’s fixture does have to make a decision on what he wants from his centre forward, there was a degree of confusion on Saturday as to whether Keisuke Honda was expected to play as a ‘false striker’ or whether Okazaki was put in as a quick forward who looking to get in behind the Brazilian defence. Zaccheroni has to make this clear beforehand and make a decision on whether he wants Maeda or Okazaki to start up front and not have to keep interchanging players during a match which disrupts rhythm when done more than once or twice.
Zaccheroni was left unhappy with his side’s performance against Brazil and was quoted as saying his team only played to half their maximum ability, “We weren’t able to demonstrate our abilities. We’ve only shown about 50% of what we can do.” Zaccheroni ahead of the clash with Italy has urged his team to play to their strengths which is obviously their technical ability rather than physical strength with Japan slender in body all over the pitch which Hulk took full advantage of down the right hand side on Saturday, “We should adopt not a physical approach but a technical one.”
Japan’s fitness was also called into question during the latter period of the match against Brazil with several of their players struggling to keep up to the pace of the match and Zaccheroni attributed this to a less than perfect pre-tournament preparation, “On June 4, we played Australia and several players just joined up with us the day before as they were playing abroad so there was not much chance to rest.”
Prediction: Italy were very impressive against Mexico on Sunday with their playing style really suiting their personnel. Andrea Pirlo as ever looks to be in irresistible form and Mario Balotelli is working hard for the team. The reintroduction of Stephan El Shaarawy will give the Italians more flair going forward and that will be too much for a Japanese side that are still searching for their identity as team ahead of next Summer’s World Cup. Italy can only improve on their 2-1 victory over Mexico and I expect will put Japan to the sword in Recife this evening, goals could come at a premium. I will say 3-0 Italy.
Written by Chris Winterburn
Follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4