Traditionally poor starters, world champions Italy didn’t start at all this time. Against Paraguay and New Zealand, their campaign coughed and spluttered before Slovakia ended their misery through Robert Vittek’s brace and Kamil Kopunek’s late strike. Africa’s first World Cup will now have different finalists from last time.
The first round’s most rivetting second half ended with the Slovaks going crazy on the Ellis Park pitch, running and flinging themselves after a dance near the centre of the pitch. Vladimir Weiss, their coach, looked teary-eyed, repeatedly bowing with a flourish in different directions.
Fabio Cannavaro, the last man to lift the World Cup in a final, left immediately after the final whistle picking up and consoling Fabio Quagliarella on the way. Marcello Lippi had left earlier, finger wagging and not shaking hands with Weiss. Surely, this wasn’t what he had in mind when, before the World Cup, he said it was a good thing that his ageing team wasn’t among the favourites.
Italy were incredibly sloppy at the back this time. Cannavaro’s blunder had led to a goal against New Zealand. On Thursday, Daniele De Rossi gave the ball away and, on the bench with injury, Gianluigi Buffon could only grimace seeing Federico Marchetti not getting to Vittek’s grounder.
When Vittek scored again, Giorgio Chiellini, whose timely tackle denied Miroslav Stoch and led to the first of the two back-to-back corners, couldn’t get a leg in. Kopunek too struck, breaking first and following a throw conceded by Marchetti while trying to save a corner following an erratic backpass. That made a must-win tie safe for Slovakia.
At half-time, Lippi rejigged his midfield, bringing on Quagliarella for Gennaro Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo for Ricardo Montovlio little later. He also replaced defender Domenico Criscito with Christain Maggio.
Despite being caught out twice, their last 45 minutes here was the best Italy played in this tournament. Vincenzo Iaquinta turned a header wide and then Antonio De Natale’s shot was blocked by Jan Murcha. Quagliarella’s volley stuck Slovak defender Martin Skrtel when he looked to be inside the goal. Quagliarella was again denied for being marginally off-side. De Natale scored, following up on Murcha blocking Quagliarella’s drive after an Iaquinta pass that was befitting of four-time champions.
More proof of Italy’s class came from Quagliarella’s chip for the second goal deep into stoppage time but Simon Pepe’s miss showed that the force certainly wasn’t with the Azzurris. Italy finished last in the group from where Paraguay and Slovakia go through.
“I take full responsibility for the inadequate preparation, tactically, physically and psychologically and I apologise to the people back home,” Lippi said.