Brazil topped their home Confederations Cup group on Saturday night with a well-earned 4-2 victory over a largely disappointing Italy, with a double from Fred proving decisive. The Azzurri’s midfield was left somewhat threadbare with influential duo Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi missing, but Luiz Felipe Scolari was able to pick close to his strongest starting eleven.
The atmosphere inside the Arena Fonte Nova was so electric that Neymar struggled to hear the referee’s whistle at kickoff, but Brazil started brilliantly and could have scored within the first 60 seconds. Oscar wasted a chance but Italy gave the ball away twice, and it took a smart save from Gianluigi Buffon to prevent Hulk from scoring with a powerful low shot. Both teams pressed well off the ball but struggled to create much with it, other than when the two stars of the show, Neymar and Mario Balotelli, were involved.
Balotelli played a clever ball over the top of the Brazilian defense for Juventus midfielder Claudio Marchisio, who was unable to fashion a scoring chance before some clever tricks and flicks from the Samba stars left Neymar through on goal, but he dragged his shot wide. Neymar had been on both ends of several fouls as the first half deteriorated into a succession of injury-forced substitutions, and it was from an Italy foul that the opening goal finally came in first half stoppage time. The mercurial forward was elbowed in the chest by a defender with no eye on the ball, and he got to whip a dangerous ball in from the left hand side. Fred’s header was well saved by Buffon, but Bayern Munich defender Dante, on for David Luiz, tapped in the rebound. Dante had had a disadvantaged childhood in the area, and the emotion of scoring his first international goal on home soil was evident.
After a fairly drab first half, Italy came out fighting after half-time and had an equalizer within six minutes. Mario Balotelli cleverly flicked a long ball over the defense for substitute Emanuele Giaccherini to chase into a huge area of space behind the attack-minded Marcelo. Thiago Silva was caught in two minds, whether to move towards the ball or the man in the center, and was left stranded in between as Giaccherini went in alone and smashed the ball across Julio Cesar inside the far post.
Italy weren’t ahead for long, however, as another free kick restored Brazil’s advantage to the delight of the 49,000-strong crowd. Again it was Neymar who was brought down, and again he stepped up to take it, this time right on the edge of the penalty area. Barcelona’s newest star smashed the ball in at the far post right past Buffon, rooted to the spot with surprise. The goalkeeper wouldn’t have needed to move to save the shot, but saw it so late there was nothing he could do to deny Neymar another moment of glory.
Brazil had their tails up now, and ten minutes later they doubled their advantage. Fluminense forward Fred somehow managed to hold off challenges from two Italian defenders to take the ball to the edge of the six-yard box after a good ball from Marcelo; he then smashed a shot high into the corner of the net leaving Buffon stranded. With 20 minutes to go it was hard to see a route back into the game for Italy, but they were given a lifeline under controversial circumstances, with players, fans and commentators unsure of what had happened at first.
The ball was played into the box and Balotelli appeared to be hauled down before tapping the ball to Giorgio Chiellini. The referee blew his whistle, apparently for a penalty, but Chiellini put the ball into bottom corner of the net before running off to celebrate. He then turned back in disbelief as the goal appeared to have been disallowed, but continued celebrating after the referee confirmed the goal. Brazil were furious, and would have been even more so had Cesar not saved Balotelli’s long-range thumping free kick before Christian Maggio directed a header onto the crossbar. Nevertheless, the gold-and-green shirted Brazilians were left laughing last as Fred secured the victory in the last minute of normal time. The threatening Marcelo hit a powerful shot from some distance, which Buffon, who has had a shaky tournament, could only parry into the path of the advancing striker, who made no mistake from only a few yards out.
The result means Brazil top the group and will have the easier draw once Group B is resolved on Sunday. Italy will play probable group-winners Spain in Fortaleza, with Brazil facing probable-runners up Uruguay, which will be decided at the Group B fixtures between Nigeria and Spain & Uruguay and Spain. Whatever happens, this match has continued the high-scoring encounters of this year’s Confederations Cup, which has certainly been much more than a glorified World Cup warm-up.