An inspired second-half showing from Brazil earned the FIFA Confederations Cup hosts a 4-2 win over Italy in Salvador, Brazil, on Saturday to win Group A and avoid a potential semi-final meeting with Spain.
The dubious honor of facing the world champions in a Thursday semi-final in Fortaleza is now likely to be Italy’s fate, assuming Spain, with two wins under their belt ahead of their final meeting with Nigeria, top Group B.
Brazil made it three wins in three games to earn a probable semi-final with Uruguay in Belo Horizonte on Wednesday.
Brazil started looking like a side who had been energized not just by their opening wins and clean sheets against Japan and Mexico, but also the waves of popular protest by citizens demanding better social policies and an end to state corruption.
Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari indicated he saw the pieces slowly falling into place, although he has made the World Cup the overriding top priority rather than success this month.
“We beat a strong Italy and I think this shows we are on the right road, even if there are a few things we need to improve,” said Scolari, mastermind of Brazil’s 2002 World Cup success and brought back in November last year for a second spell in charge of the Selecao.
“We mustn’t get carried away,” added Scolari, who earlier urged his compatriots to be patient with their demands for institutional reform.
Looking to cheer the nation, the whole Brazil squad sang the national anthem with gusto and then set about chasing an early goal.
An early Oscar flick sent in Neymar, but the Barcelona-bound striker fired wide and then picked up a yellow card after a clumsy challenge on Italy fullback Ignazio Abate.
On the half-hour mark, Italy made an early change, sending on Emmanuele Giaccherini to replace Riccardo Montolivo, before Brazil also had to reshuffle the pack as broken nose victim from their previous match, David Luiz, went off with a knock, giving way to Dante.
Italy then lost fullback Abate to a suspected dislocated shoulder, Christian Maggio coming on, before Brazil took the lead on the stroke of halftime.
Neymar fired over a free-kick from the left which Fred saw Gigi Buffon parry, but Dante followed up and the Bayern Munich player bundled home.
Italy had been confined to their hotel for part of their preparations owing to security fears amid the mass demonstrations sweeping Brazil over the cost of staging the event and next year’s World Cup.
Although the protests showed no sign of ending with tens of thousands on the streets in Saturday’s Japan versus Mexico venue of Belo Horizonte, Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said that there was no question of the Azzurri packing up and going home.
Six minutes after the restart, the four-time world champions were back on level terms when Mario Balotelli produced a neat back-heel that played in Emanuele Giaccherini down the right.
The Juventus forward breezed past a static Thiago Silva and drove firmly into the corner of Julio Cesar’s net as the Azzurri set about trying to beat Brazil for the first time since their epic 1982 World Cup meeting decided through Paolo Rossi’s unforgettable hat-trick.
Italy were missing injured playmaker Andrea Pirlo’s guile and found themselves behind once again 10 minutes after the restart when Neymar, who ended a nine-game goal drought with the tournament’s opener against Japan, crashed home a free-kick for his third goal in three games.
The spiky-haired forward wheeled away, breaking into a spot of samba as the crowd erupted.
After 66 minutes it was 3-1 when Marcelo lifted a high pass through for Fred to smash home a left-footed drive which ripped past Buffon to spark further delight at the Arena Fonte Nova.
Giorgio Chiellini gave Italy hope, pulling back to 3-2 in the 71st minute with a low shot after Balotelli appeared to have been impeded in the penalty area, but Italy’s hopes of a comeback ended when, after Christian Maggio had hit the bar at the other end, Fred made it 4-2 after Buffon had parried a shot from Marcelo.