ITU, Brazil (AP) — On a sultry June evening last year in Recife, Brazil, it was hard to tell which side were the four-time World Cup champions and which the footballing outsiders who had never tasted global glory.
Japan were confounding the Italian defense with precision passing, fast-paced attack and surprising flair. By the 40th minute Japan was up 2-0 at the Confederations Cup on goals by Europe-based stars Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda.
Then it all fell apart.
Baffling defensive errors, including an almost comical own goal, got the Italians back into the match — which they went on to win in a 4-3 thriller.
The contest points to the somewhat ambiguous legacy of Japan's Italian manager Alberto Zaccheroni, a grand seigneur of Serie A who won the Italian league in 1999 with AC Milan.
Under Zaccheroni, Japan have cured the curse of being clueless before goal, and honed a pulsating, entertaining attacking style — but also shown sudden frailties in a defense that had long prided itself on its discipline.
Hints into the reversal may lie in Zaccheroni's Italian years.
In Serie A, Zaccheroni was an atypical tactician: Attack-minded in an almost stiflingly defensive and conservative league, he developed a goal-getting strategy that relied on three (rather than the usual four) defenders, which was thrilling to watch but bad for the blood pressure.
And ultimately disappointing.
Zaccheroni never matched the triumph of winning the "scudetto" in his first year at AC Milan, and his spotty record in Serie A also roughly parallels Japan's own inconsistency under his watch.
The Japan coach spoke of the need to make "final improvements" after touching down in Brazil on Saturday on the back of another spotty performance in the team's warm-up match, a last-gasp 4-3 win against Zambia. Japan captain Makoto Hasebe gave a more candid assessment speaking to reporters on the tarmac of Viracopos Airport: "Physically the condition is very good, the rest is the mental part ... and making it ready as a whole team."
It's clear where Zaccheroni sets his strategic priorities.
"In these past 20 years, I've seen Japan ever since they started playing in the World Cup as a good squad. A good squad, very organized, with good players — with the problem of the goal," said Paolo Condo, the lead international football writer for Italy's Gazzetta dello Sport. "Zaccheroni made it his mission to succeed in producing goals with this team."