When the referee signalled the end of the FIFA Confederations Cup match between Japan and Italy at Arena Pernambuco in Recife, the winning side barely had the strength left to raise their arms in celebration.
In a pulsating contest that swung back and forth, the Italians dug deep in the final minutes to beat a valiant Japanese team that had glorious chances to claim victory, but instead found themselves on the wrong end of a 4-3 scoreline.
Still breathless from their efforts, but with broad smiles on their faces, various Italian players, as well as their coach, Cesare Prandelli, chatted exclusively with FIFA.com post-match.
A common theme to emerge was their respect for the superb Japanese performance. Prandelli’s charges were magnanimous to a man, dishing out praise to the talented Asian representatives, and even admitting that Lady Luck had been on their side during the epic Group A encounter.
Daniele de Rossi was one of Italy’s outstanding performers on the night, scoring the crucial goal that cut Japan’s lead to 2-1, playing a part in the decisive fourth goal, as well as generating most of Gli Azzurri’s positive play on the night.
Now 30 years of age, the Roma midfielder has participated in every major tournament the sport has to offer, but despite that is unashamed to admit that it was “one of the toughest matches” of his career.
Following that revealing declaration, the versatile midfield man does not hold back his admiration for the losing side.
“They’re an amazing team that didn’t deserve to lose. To be honest, I really must congratulate Japan, who showed great quality. They were very brave, and had great players like Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa – we were exhausted running after them,” he said.
But he was not the only one to rave about the Samurai Blue. Even the statistics reveal the spectacular nature of the duel, with the Asians managing 17 shots on target (including four that hit the post) to the Europeans’ 12. They also unexpectedly dominated possession, by 55 per cent to 45 per cent.
It comes as no surprise, then, to hear defender Giorgio Chiellini recognise that “they put us under enormous pressure.” For the Juventus centre-back, the credit for Japan’s enterprising play should go to one man in particular.
“It comes down to Alberto Zaccheroni, without a doubt. He was my coach at Juventus and I learned a lot under him, and the same thing seems to be happening with them. I think he’s doing a remarkable job. They’re the current Asian champions and he’s got them playing very well. With another year of hard work under their belts, they’re going to be a force to be reckoned with at the World Cup.”
Prandelli’s analysis of the match is less emotional but equally complimentary. “I was expecting a difficult game, but not to that extent. We were very lucky, and we had to show courage to pull off the win. Japan are an organised, attractive team that play great football. I’m really impressed.”
Japan’s ebullient display coupled with Italy’s traditional hunger for victory laid the foundations for a confrontation that will live long in the memory, as confirmed by another of its protagonists, Christian Maggio.
“It was an incredible spectacle that even we hadn’t expected. The outcome was a win that we struggled for, but it was also hugely impressive. We rode our luck, and at one point we could tell that we had a real game on our hands, but we pulled ourselves together to overcome an excellent team,” explained the 31-year-old defender.
Emanuele Giaccherini, the last player to share his thoughts, was one of Italy’s heroes in Recife, demonstrating persistence and skill to provoke the own goal that levelled the score at 2-2.
The Juventus star offers a more pensive reflection on the night’s events: “It was a learning experience for us. To mount a comeback versus such an intense, formidable team will no doubt serve us well for the rest of the competition.”