L’Aquila (AFP) – Italy and Japan have played out a 2-1 draw at the Maracana Stadium, their first friendly since their first in 1964, with both sides taking advantage of the break to make quick work of the other.
Italy’s Fabio Cannavaro scored twice in the first half as they kept their unbeaten start to the season alive, while Japan’s Yoshihiro Uchida’s late goal gave them the lead after 57 minutes.
But as Italy went in front, the hosts were denied a fourth successive win in the opening game of the qualifying campaign for the World Cup, having already lost three of their first four.
It was an opportunity for both teams to take their lumps and prepare for the quarter-finals, and a reminder of what could be expected when they take on Brazil next month.
Italy coach Roberto Di Matteo’s side were looking for a fifth straight win after falling 2-0 behind to Italy in the World Championships in Brazil last year.
They had been without the services of their key defender Andrea Pirlo for much of the tournament, with the Italian international’s future uncertain after he was arrested on suspicion of rape.
Japan, meanwhile, were without captain Shinji Kagawa for the first time since February after he admitted to assaulting a female jogger in March.
The tie began on a sour note for both sides, with Italy claiming a first away win over the hosts, having been beaten 1-0 in the previous two meetings, and Italy conceding early goals to win their last two away games.
But the hosts struck first, Di Matteos side winning the first corner before Uchidas goal was turned home by Pirlos corner.
And as the hosts struggled to find their footing, the visitors were rewarded for their late surge, scoring first through the inspired Cannavaros penalty.
They looked to have the game out on the counterattack when they doubled their lead through a Pirlobes cross, but the Japanese keeper blocked the ball and gave Italy a corner.
With the home side unable to deal with the danger, the home fans began chanting their own victory chant, which was picked up by the referee, Mario Massarotti.
It wasn’t long before the Italians had a second goal, and Di Matteois side took the lead when Uchides effort deflected off the foot of the Japan keeper and into the net.
And it wasn’t all bad news for Japan, who had the ball in the net after another Cannavarias free kick.
And the Italians took the opportunity to go in front as Cannavares corner was deflected onto the post by Uchids head, and Uchidas shot from the edge of the area was blocked by Massarottis backpass.
The hosts continued to press, but with a few minutes remaining, the Italians looked to be on the verge of another breakthrough when Uchi’s corner was saved by Massaro and scored by Cannavars captain Yuta Yoshida.
And just as the game was drawing to a close, the Japanese came close to levelling things, as a low cross was turned into the path of Uchide, who raced clear to head home by the post.
And that was the end of the first leg, as the Italians claimed the third and final point of the campaign.