A stunning free-kick from Andrea Pirlo marked his 100th cap for Italy in fine style and helped his side to begin their Confederations Cup campaign with a 2-1 victory over Mexico. Despite Italy’s dominance of proceedings from start to finish, it had appeared that Mexico might escape with a draw when Javier Hernandez’s penalty quickly cancelled out Pirlo’s memorable first-half strike.
But with 12 minutes remaining Mario Balotelli pounced to put Italy level with Brazil at the top of Group A.
It was an impressive performance by Cesare Prandelli’s side, although they perhaps should have made more of their control in the final third. It is Mexico that have the greater question marks, though, as their poor performances in World Cup qualifying continued here and the pressure is sure to grow on coach Juan Manuel de la Torre.
Italy began as they went on, showcasing their ability to control the ball with their central midfield three dominating proceedings. Their first opportunity came after just seven minutes. Riccardo Montolivo got behind the Mexican defense down the left and made a good pull back for Balotelli, but the striker’s shot was too close to Jesus Corona who pulled off the save.
It wasn't until the 11th minute that Mexico were able to produce their first meaningful attack and it came close to yielding the opening goal. Giovani dos Santos, a rare bright light for El Tri on the day, outfought Ignazio Abate for the ball on the byline before cutting it back to fellow creator Andres Guardado, whose curling, rising shot came off the top of the cross bar perhaps with the faintest of assistances from Gianluigi Buffon.
It was a contest that was marked by penalties awarded and curiously denied by referee Enrique Osses. The first of Italy’s two strong claims came in the first half as Pirlo was clearly fouled when two challenges converged on him in the box and Guardado took his legs from under him.
Minutes later Pirlo demonstrated that, with his ability, a set piece from outside the box can be as dangerous as one inside it. With 27 minutes on the clock the Milan veteran stepped forward and curled a stunning effort from 25 yards high into the net. There will be question marks , though, about Corona’s part in the goal as the Mexican keeper pulled his hands away when diving toward the ball.
Having gotten the lead, Italy looked set to go on and take charge of the match. Instead, just seven minutes later, the Azzurri gifted Mexico a route back. As he tussled for the ball with Dos Santos in the box, Andrea Barzagli made a clumsy tackle from behind on the Mallorca man to concede a penalty and was lucky to see just a yellow card. Hernandez made no mistake from the spot, sending Buffon the wrong way to tie things up.
The goal didn’t alter the flow of the contest, however, as Italy retained their control of the ball and continued to push forward. They were also helped by some careless Mexican passing, not least from Francisco Rodriguez. But on many occasions Italy’s final ball, often from Emanuele Giaccherini, wasn’t up to par.
At the start of the second half, Italy came close to a second from another Pirlo free-kick. This time the midfield maestro hit his shot low and it deflected through to Montolivo but his prodded effort was saved too comfortably by Corona.
If anything, Italy’s superiority was even greater in the second period with Mexico unable to enjoy any quality possession in order to gain any forward momentum. However, having escaped another strong Italian claim for a penalty when Balotelli went down after a challenge from Hector Moreno, it looked as if El Tri would hang on for a credible opening result with the match entering its final 15 minutes still all-square. Yet, that all changed with a moment of quality from Balotelli and another error from Mexico’s captain.
From a flick on by Giaccherini, Balotelli was able to outstrength the again culpable Rodriguez before the charismatic Milan star struck a shot low and hard that gave Corona no chance despite him getting his body in the way. And on this occasion Italy never looked like relinquishing their lead as Mexico failed to even apply any pressure to the Italian back line in the final minutes.
Italy take the three points and showed that, unlike four years ago, they are in Brazil with a determination to go all the way and get the most out of the tournament. Mexico, meanwhile, continue their woes and need a major improvement when they take on hosts Brazil on Wednesday.