Neymar made it three goals in three games at the Confederations Cup as Brazil completed a clean sweep of Group A with a 3-2 win over Italy in Salvador. After Emanuele Giaccherini had cancelled out Dante’s late first-half strike early in the second period, Neymar struck a clever free-kick to put his side back in front. A fine strike from Fred soon after looked to have made the result safe, but Italy pulled a goal back in controversial circumstances from Giorgio Chiellini and were pushing for an equalizer before Fred grabbed his second to finally secure victory in the 89th minute.
While both sides had already secured their progress from the group, Brazil will be happy, not only to have maintained their momentum, but also to have topped the group and thus avoid a likely semifinal with world and European champions Spain. After a poor first half at the Arena Fonte Nova, the match burst into life in the second as Italy suddenly became far more positive and looked all the better for it. But the absence of Andrea Pirlo cannot be overestimated and his presence will be key for Italy going forward not only in this competition but also looking ahead to next year’s World Cup. Brazil, meanwhile, again showed vulnerability with their two attacking full-backs, while Hernanes failed to take advantage of his opportunity as he started in front of the injured Paulinho.
For the second game running, though, Brazil began at a thunderous pace and their high pressing saw Italy caught out trying to pass out of the back on more than one occasion in the opening exchanges. The best opening fell the way of Hulk, whose low shot across goal required a strong hand from Gianluigi Buffon to keep it at bay.
Unlike against Mexico, and indeed Japan, this time Brazil were unable to break the deadlock in first 10 minutes. While the Selecao’s opening intensity dropped off a notch, Italy’s propensity for giving the ball away was showing no signs of relenting. Without Pirlo and the suspended Daniele de Rossi, Italy were really struggling to build possession, something which has been their strength under Cesare Prandelli. Riccardo Montolivo was particularly culpable, as he took Pirlo’s role, and was replaced after just 26 minutes, although with a suspected injury. Indeed, a far from flee-flowing first half was littered with injures as Ignazio Abte and David Luiz were also forced off.
Then just as the half-time whistle was poised to be blown, Brazil struck to go in front. Some poor Italian defending from a Neymar free-kick allowed Fred to get a header on goal that Buffon pushed away but only as far as Dante, who squeezed a left-footed shot between goalkeeper and near post. Not for the first time, though, there were question marks over the officiating with the Bayern Munich defender in an offside position.
From there, the passionate home crowd will perhaps have expected their side to go on and hammer home the advantage against their under-performing opponents. Instead, within six minutes of the start of the second half Italy were level. In truth, it was just reward for their improved showing after the break. There was little refined about the long ball forward that led to the opening, although the same cannot be said about Balotelli's clever flick over his shoulder to find Giaccherini running through unchecked and, with no Brazil defender coming across to stop him, the substitute drilled a good shot across Julio Cesar and into the corner of the net.
Before Italy could settle into their new found parity they once again found themselves behind. Having won the free-kick on the edge of the area, Neymar stepped up and fooled Buffon by going around rather than over the wall leaving the goalkeeping legend flatfooted as the ball sailed into the corner.
Italy’s greater attacking intent in the second period made the game a far more open affair at both ends and the goals duly continued to arrive. With 66 minutes on the clock Brazil looked to have taken a stranglehold on affairs after a fine piece of center-forward play from Fred. The Fluminense striker followed his job description to a tee as, from Marcelo’s ball over the top, he found space between the two Italian central defenders and was able to hold off Chiellini enough to hammer an unstoppable left-footed shot into the roof of the net.
Scolari appeared content as he replaced Neymar with youngster Bernard. Yet, once again there would be another twist, courtesy of, not for the first time in this Confederations Cup, a bizarre piece of refereeing. From a corner kick, Ravsham Irmatov blew his whistle and signaled for a penalty for a foul on Mario Balotelli, but then incredibly had a change of mind when he saw Chiellini tuck the ball into the net a second later. Brazil were understandably apoplectic, but the decision would not be altered.
The momentum in the contest had now swung firmly in Italy’s favor, with Scolari looking to protect his side’s lead and bringing on defensive midfielder Fernando for the disappointing Hulk. That didn’t prevent Italy from having a golden chance to equalize when Christian Maggio thumped a header against the cross bar. The miss would prove a costly one. Brazil again took advantage of Italy pushing forward and, when Buffon failed to adequately deal with Marcelo’s shot, Fred pounced and his effort was allowed to stand, despite again appearing to be in an offside position.