When I first started this series, I thought about including some random historical facts to highlight the non-footballing relations between the competing nations. Then the time came to choose one for Italy and Japan, which led down a dark path, so the idea was scrubbed. Although now that I think about it, Super Mario Bros was invented by a Japanese game designer and featured two Italian plumbers...damn!
Anyway, as we mentioned in the initial preview, it'd be foolish to dismiss Japan in this or any tournament, as they feature over a dozen European-based players, highlighted by Inter Milan's Yuta Nagatomo, and are the current holders of the AFC Asian Cup; in fact, they've won four of the past six. They just had the misfortune of facing host nation Brazil in the opening match of the 2013 Confederations Cup, but their CV is solid.
Just in case your mind can't stretch back four days, here's what happened against Brazil.
Japan's First Match:
Get used to that Pompadour; you're going to see a lot of it over the next decade. Neymar's golazo and simultaneous sashaying will probably end up being the signature events of this tournament, but if you want to shine a light on how Brazil won the day, look no further than possession.
The Seleção held the ball for 63% of the match, but barely managed to outshoot Japan. But when Brazil did shoot, they did it well, converting on three of four shots on target.
The lesson, as always, when you capitalize, you conquer.
Italy's First Match:
Not much sound in that clip, but at this point, Pirlo should evoke your awed reverence anyway.
1. Balotelli is often lauded for his quickness and scoring instinct, but this one was all strength-just look at how he held off the defender, kept his ground and got off the shot
2. What a spectacular play by Giaccherini; in the air, twisting, turning and toe poking the ball to Balotelli, all without even really looking.
3. No one co-celebrates a goal like Daniele De Rossi, the man is unbridled enthusiasm.
By and large Italy played well, but they should consider themselves fortunate that Mexico didn't capitalize on their early chances.
I'll go ahead and admit this; I'm not an expert on Japanese football tactics, but who among us is?
But, it has to be said, the score and possession figures notwithstanding, they played fairly well against Brazil, managing eleven shots, five of which were on target. Japan largely sat behind the ball waiting to seize upon counter attacking opportunities, which should come as no surprise, given that they're managed by Alberto Zaccheroni, who has decades of experience coaching in Serie A. The problem was that these opportunities did not present themselves frequently enough for Japan to exploit Brazil's forward movement.
With Prandelli's Azzurri 2.0 focusing more on the offensive aspects of the game, the challenge for Japan on Wednesday evening is really much the same as it was on Saturday; bend but don't break and capitalize on the counter attack. Pretty simple in planning, but much harder in execution. But, and here is where Italy holds the advantage over Brazil, Japan now has to contend with Andrea Pirlo; a point that has not escaped Japanese captain and Wolfsburg midfielder, Makoto Hasebe.
While the Japanese players widely admit they were too defensive against Brazil, they'll have to hope Zaccheroni's innate knowledge of Italian calcio and his side's extra day of rest will be enough to trap Pirlo and stymie the Azzurri attack, because on paper they don't have the horses to run with the Italians.
As much as the Japanese hope to contain Pirlo, the Italians will continue to move with the Metronome. Pirlo was absolutely fantastic against Mexico over the weekend, completing 93% of his passes, 90% of his long balls, ripping off four shots, drawing three fouls and divining one fabulous free kick past Jose Corona to give Italy the early lead. With Daniele De Rossi cleaning up behind him, Pirlo was free to both orchestrate and participate in the offense, managing four shots, while consistently feeding Claudio Marchiso, Riccardo Montolivo and Mario Balotelli, among others.
As Roma fans we often ask what the difference between De Rossi the Roman and De Rossi the Italian is, perhaps we have our answer.
While it hasn't been quite as revolutionary as the invention of the printing press, the tenor of the Italian National Team has changed, with both Pirlo and Prandelli being party to the new Azzurri aesthetic. But who to credit for Italy's offensive reinvention is really the ultimate chicken and egg scenario; is Pirlo as effective as he is because of Prandelli's philosophy, or does Prandelli's formula work because of Pirlo?
Whatever the case may be, this ain't your grandfather's Azzurri. Beyond leading the World Cup Qualifying group in scoring and goal differential, Sunday's performance against Mexico was indicative of the new Italy; consistently moving forward and generally pressing the issue offensively, rather than relying purely on catenaccio. With as many as eight men making their home in the opponents half, Italy dictated the pace and place of play in Sunday's match, with over 30% of the action occurring in the Mexican third, while also outshooting, out possessing and outpassing El Tri. Italy was the aggressor, pure and simple.
The news late Tuesday night hinted towards a few changes, more in personnel than formation. The 4-2-3-1 has largely been successful for Prandelli, but it's not without its flaws, or more to the point, not without its weaker links. In the wake of Sunday's performance, speculation has mounted that Christian Maggio and Alberto Aquilani will replace Ignazio Abate and Claudio Marchisio, respectively. Both players are coming off of strong domestic seasons and Aquilani came on in the second half against Mexico, so the move, should it come to fruition, won't come as a shock.
Any change in the actual shape of the team would come up top, where the question of one or two strikers is largely dependent upon the health of Stephan El Shaarawy, who, though he made the squad list, temporarily fell behind Alberto Gilardino and Alessio Cercio in the forward rotation. But if the Little Pharaoh is good to go, the Milan duo might make another appearance, with the only knock on Balotelli being his penchant for going topless. El Shaarawy has yet to make his name with the national team, nor has he worked out his domestic chemistry with Super Mario, but the potential of this tandem is tantalizing.
On paper it would appear that Zaccheroni's knowledge of the Italian game might give Japan an edge in this matchup of unfamiliar foes, but Prandelli's concerted effort to accentuate the attack has ionized the Italian atom (in this analogy, consider Balotelli the free electron), making the traditional means of countering Italy less effective.
So with such little insight into each other's tactics and effectively no history between them, this match can go any number of ways: Balotelli, El Shaarawy and Pirlo overwhelming an overmatched Japanese defense, Zaccheroni using traditional Italian tactics to flummox a suddenly non-traditional Italian team, or a poor, horribly dull, mired-in-the-midfield quagmire of a match.
But with Brazil and Mexico kicking off three hours ahead of them, Italy could have the chance to go to the top of Group A ahead of their encounter with Brazil on Saturday. While the ramifications of this tournament are effectively nil, any edge the Azzurri can get in group play is beneficial, particularly with a match against the host nation looming.