Confederations Cup: Italy defeats Mexico
GalleriesConfederations Cup: Italy vs. Mexico
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Mario Balotelli showed off his strength -- and muscular physique -- by scoring in the 78th minute Sunday to lead Italy past Mexico 2-1 in the Confederations Cup.
Balotelli took a perfectly placed acrobatic pass from Emanuele Giaccherini and muscled between two defenders. His goal broke a 1-1 tie in the Group A game, the first official match at renovated Maracana Stadium.
Celebrating his 100th appearance with the national team, Andrea Pirlo gave Italy the lead with one of his trademark free kicks in the 27th minute.
"I was dreaming of a free-kick goal," Pirlo said. "It was important to win the first match and now we have three days to recuperate. It's nice to be applauded in a legendary stadium like this."
Mexico replied in the 34th when Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez converted a penalty kick after Andrea Barzagli tripped Giovani Dos Santos. Mexico's Andres Guardado hit the crossbar in the 11th minute.
Italy moved even with Brazil with three points in the group after the hosts beat Japan 3-0 in the tournament opener Saturday.
The Azzurri had not impressed in their last two matches, drawing with both the Czech Republic in a World Cup qualifier and with Haiti upon arriving in Brazil earlier this week, but Pirlo and Balotelli made the difference this time.
For his 13th goal with Italy, Pirlo curled a spinning shot over Mexico's wall into the top left corner after Balotelli earned the foul that set up the dead-ball shot from 30 yards.
As usual, Balotelli was his temperamental self. Midway through the second half, he kicked his boot across the penalty area after being thwarted by Mexico's stubborn defense.
But the AC Milan striker finally broke through as the match appeared headed for a draw, holding off Mexico captain Francisco Rodriguez then powering past another defender, Hiram Mier, to score as he skidded across the grass.
Much like at last year's European Championship, when he scored both goals in a 2-1 semifinal win over Germany and pulled off his shirt after one of them, Balotelli stripped off his jersey, earning a yellow card.
Perhaps worried he might pick up a second yellow card, as in the match against the Czech Republic, Italy coach Cesare Prandelli replaced Balotelli in the 85th with Alberto Gilardino. Balotelli walked off to a warm reception from the sold-out crowd on a comfortable afternoon.
Balotelli rarely celebrates while playing club ball, saying often that he saves his goal festivities for big national team matches. It was Balotelli's ninth goal in 23 appearances.
"Mario has to stop showing off his muscles," Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said. "The yellow cards count. Anyhow, well done."
Prandelli had nothing but praise for Pirlo.
"No words are needed for Andrea, just a big applause," the manager said. "He's a model for everyone."
For Mexico, the loss will extend pressure on coach Jose Manuel De la Torre. Mexico has won only one of six qualifiers with three goals scored, and failed to find the target at all in its last two drawn matches against Panama and Costa Rica.
Still, Mexican fans, many wearing their customary sombreros, hugely outnumbered blue-clad Italian supporters.
In the next round of Group A matches Wednesday, Italy faces Japan in Recife and Mexico plays Brazil in Fortaleza.