Brazil defeated Italy 4-2 yesterday to take top place in Group A of the Confederations Cup and advance to face Uruguay or Nigeria in the semifinals on Wednesday. With this victory, Brazil retained the distinction of remaining unbeaten against Italy for 31 years, since their epic World Cup encounter in 1982. Italy were without star midfielder Andrea Pirlo due to a thigh injury as well as Daniele De Rossi, who was suspended after having picked up two yellow cards in preceding group matches against Japan and Mexico. Brazil fielded their standard starting lineup with the exception of Lazio's Hernanes, who started in place of Paulinho in midfield.
Brazil dominated possession for much of the first half, including a flurry of chances in the opening minutes via Neymar and Oscar, but opened the scoring only minutes from the end of the first half when Fred's header from a Neymar free kick deflected to substitute Dante, who calmly slotted the ball past Gianluigi Buffon's left hand to make it 1-0. Dante, who had entered the match as a first half substitute for the injured David Luiz, scored in his hometown of Salvador de Bahia, and later revealed that he dreamed of scoring in front of his family and friends who were in attendance for the game.
Dante's goal picked up the pace of the match significantly in the second half as Brazil sought to consolidate their lead and Italy attempted to claw their way back into the match. Emanuele Giaccherini equalized for Italy in the 51st minute after receiving a flick from Mario Balotelli on the right. Giaccherini subsequently delivered a bullet of a shot far post to score the first goal Brazil had conceded in the 2013 Confederations Cup. Minutes later, Neymar was brought down on the edge of the box and the Barca bound Brazilian sensation curled the ensuing free kick past the wall into the far right corner of the net to score his third consecutive goal in three matches.
Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari called Neymar a "genius" and gushed at his prodigy's performance and sensational free kick by noting:
He had lots of moments of quality, but what decided the game was the free kick. He noticed [Gianluigi] Buffon had taken a step to the side and put the ball on the other side. Only players who have that kind of notion, that we can call genius, are the ones who make the difference. And he makes the difference.
Ten minutes later, Fred appeared to seal the game for Brazil by magnificently controlling a long aerial delivery from Marcelo, sidestepping two defenders and sending a rocket of a shot into the roof the net to make it 3-1. But Italy were not going to bow down without a fight as Chienelli scored in the 71st minute from a corner kick deflection. The goal was hugely controversial because the referee appeared to have blown his whistle to signal a penalty for a foul on Mario Balotelli in the box, but then allowed play to continue that resulted in the Italian goal.
At 3-2, with twenty minutes remaining, the match entered its closing 20 minutes with an electric atmosphere and pace as Italy turned on the pressure in search of an equalizer. But it was Fred who finally decided the game in the 89th minute when substitute Bernard found Marcelo, whose shot ricocheted off Buffon to enable the poaching Fred to pounce for his second goal of the evening and set the score at 4-2.
Brazil fans are witnessing a milestone in the restoration and renovation of the team at this year's Confederations Cup. After years of disappointing performances since the 2010 World Cup, with the team slipping to its lowest ever spot in the FIFA ranking, Luiz Felipe Scolari has started by fielding a consistent squad determined to deliver results first, and flair second. Scolari's team has now beaten France, Japan, Mexico and Italy in succession. But the most important development for Brazil is Neymar's emergence on the international stage as a striker, winger and creative midfielder rolled into one. Neymar has shown that he is much more of a team player than Brazil's Ronaldo in ways that recall the great Pele, and his vision for his teammates and ability to change the overall tempo of the game has been demonstrated against world class opposition. The question now is whether Neymar and team can continue to perform at a high level as the tournament progresses to the elimination stage marked by their semifinal match on Wednesday. Italy, meanwhile, finished second in Group A and progresses to the semifinals to play Spain in a repeat of the 2012 European Championship final matchup.