By Mark Doyle | Italy Expert
Every so often a game comes along that is so logic-defying, so insane, that it makes tactical analysis virtually impossible. Italy’s Confederations Cup clash with Japan in Recife on Wednesday was one such game.
It had almost everything: eight goals, one of which was disallowed; two penalties, neither of which should have been awarded; dreadful defending; even worse officiating; and countless near-misses. What it did not have, though, was any kind of regard for the routine; any respect for the regular; any consideration for convention. It was a glorious mess. A sublime shambles. Crazy/beautiful.
Japan were outstanding almost from start to finish - and yet lost 4-3. So dominant were the Blue Samurai during the opening 35 minutes, so intense was their pressure, and so crisp was their passing, that Italy’s players must have felt that they were back in Kiev, chasing Spanish shadows once again. It was only fitting, then, that the crowd began to greet their every touch with a joyous ‘Ole!’ Italy, the four-time champions of the world, were being toyed with. It was reminiscent of Nigeria against Tahiti - only more one-sided; far more embarrassing for the victims.
That should have been that. Order had been restored. Italy were ahead and the masters of catenaccio replaced attack-minded full-back Christian Maggio with the far more defensively sound Ignazio Abate. The Azzurri had decided to shut up shop for the night. But they could not. Japan would not let them. Alberto Zaccheroni’s men refused to give in.
The Asian Cup champions exhibited impressive mental strength to recover from the shock of conceding three times in 11 minutes and reclaim the initiative. They deservedly drew level when Shinji Okazaki rose to head home an in-swinging free kick from Yasuhito Endo. Just seconds before the delivery, Italy boss Cesare Prandelli had broken one of the cardinal rules of coaching: he made a substitution before a set piece. The bizarre lapse in judgement by such a fine coach only added to the intoxicating absurdity of the occasion.
It seemed there was only going to be one victor after the equaliser and Japan pinned Andrea Pirlo and Co back inside their own half as they went in search of what would have been a fully merited winner.
It should have arrived with just nine minutes remaining when the ball fell for Okazaki in the area, but his low strike struck the base of the post. Shinji Kagawa then headed the rebound against the top of the crossbar. There appeared to be no end to the madness. But then something truly incredible happened: Italy scored again.
Daniele De Rossi released Claudio Marchisio into the area with a slide-rule pass and the Juventus midfielder squared for fellow substitute Sebastian Giovinco to slot home. Game over. Only it wasn’t.
Japan thought they’d levelled in the dying seconds, when Maya Yoshida followed up from close range after the ball had once again struck the frame of the Italian goal, but the defender was flagged for offside. It was the right decision - but it felt like the wrong one.
Japan had deserved a draw, at the very least. That this most glorious of defeats had eliminated them from the competition was tragic. From the neutrals, there was nothing but sympathy for the losers. But it quickly gave way to gratitude. Gratitude for the enormous role they had played in one of the most absorbing international fixtures the game has ever seen. Alberto Zaccheroni quite justifiably compared it to Italy’s epic World Cup semi-final win over West Germany in 1970. “Japan and the Azzurri both played to win this game,” the Scudetto winner said. So simple, but so right.
In that context, while Japan may have been defeated, they were anything but losers. Indeed, after games such as these, there are only winners. After games such as these, it is best not to try to understand how it happened, or why it happened, but simply celebrate that it did. It may be some time before we see its like again.