RECIFE, Brazil -- Amazing what a little bit of rest can do. The 3-0 scoreline in the opener against Brazil was somewhat harsh on Japan, which arrived in Brasilia jet-lagged and exhausted after flying from its qualifier against Iraq in Qatar.
Against Italy, the Japanese came flying out of the gate and befuddled the Azzurri in the first half hour. The muggy, humid Recife air didn't help Italy, which was simply unable to implement its possession-game against a Japan team that blended brawn (Makoto Hasebe), intuition (Shinji Kagawa) and flair (Shinji Okazaki).
Japan raced to a 2-0 lead thanks to a generous penalty and a gorgeous strike from Kagawa. Italy tried to weather the storm, hoping that Japan's tempo would flag and, toward the end of the first half, it did. The Azzurri capitalized, halving the deficit through a Daniele De Rossi header and then hitting the post with Emanuele Giaccherini.
Times like these, you wonder what is said at halftime in the dressing rooms. Whatever it was, luck shone on Italy after the break. Giaccherini's cross was turned past his own goalkeeper by Atsuto Uchida. A few minutes later, another dubious penalty, converted by Mario Balotelli, gifted Italy the lead, 3-2.
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But again Japan turned it on. Kagawa tormented Italy's right flank. Okazaki, playing wide rather than up front, seemed a man reborn. Japan's equalizer came on set-piece, when Okazaki beat Riccardo Montolivo at the near post, but by that point Zaccheroni's crew had built up so much credit that they fully deserved it.
And, in fact, Japan could have gone ahead. Buffon delivered a trademark miracle on Keisuke Honda. Okazaki then hit the post after some brilliant build-up play.
Then, because this can be a cruel game, Sebastian Giovinco scored Italy's late winner. But make no mistake about it, you probably have to go back to the Euro 2012 final (when Spain hammered Italy 4-0) to find the last time a team played this well against Prandelli's Italy.
Japan's Zaccheroni has a reputation as a bookish, tactical wonk. Cesare Prandelli is more of a player's coach. On the night, the former won hands down. Prandelli needs to thank his lucky stars and go over what went wrong on a day when so much -- apart from the final score -- did go wrong.
The original game plan, keeping possession and slowing the tempo in muggy Recife, might have made sense (that's why Alberto Aquilani was picked ahead of Claudio Marchisio and Christian Maggio preferred to Ignazio Abate), but you have to understand what you're dealing with. Neither Aquilani nor Maggio looked capable of withstanding the heat or the pace of the game, which is why both were substituted.
That one's on Prandelli. To his credit, sending on Giovinco gave Italy some quickness and creativity in the final third, but it also meant conceding the midfield. The last thing he would have expected is for the Azzurri to have only 45 percent possession against Japan. Not this Azzurri team. Not one coached by Prandelli.
Is it back to the drawing board?
No. But it may be time for a tweak. Because the reality is that Italy faces Brazil next and then, most likely, Spain. Get it wrong again in those games and it will be very painful.
Prandelli has always asked to be judged by the way Italy performs, not by the final score. That's exactly why he needs to figure out what's wrong and fix it. Quickly.
I'm sure it was all just a big coincidence. No doubt about it.
Referee Diego Abal makes a bad call early in the first half, awarding a penalty after Italy goalkeeper Gigi Buffon rushed out and got to the ball before Shinji Okazaki. Keisuke Honda converts from the spot and Japan are one-nil up.
Then, early in the second half, Makoto Hasebe blocks Sebastian Giovinco's shot, the ball ricochets from his leg to his arm (possibly
) and Abal again points to the spot. As stinkers go, it was an even worse call than the one in the first half.
Two horrid calls, one for each team, one before half-time, one after.
We'll never know if the second penalty was a make-up call for the first. Only Abal can tell us that and FIFA frown upon officials speaking to the media.
But that sure as heck is what it looked like.
The possibility of make-up calls is precisely one of the reasons why FIFA originally decided NOT to show instant replays on the stadium big screens. Now, it seems, they've reversed themselves and decreed that, yes, replays of contentious incidents are OK.
Again, did Abal peek up at the big screen after the first penalty and think to himself "Uh-oh, I just made a big mistake?" Who knows. But you either introduce instant replay as part of the officiating process or you leave it out entirely. These half-measures help nobody.