The Italian sob

2010-06-25 00:00

DEFENDING champions Italy joined their 2006 final opponents, France, in taking an early flight home from the World Cup, thanks to the Azzurri’s 3-2 defeat to an inspired Slovakia in their Group F game at Ellis Park yesterday evening.

A dramatic, frenetically-contested second half made for one of the most exciting match-ups of the tournament so far.

As another group went down to the wire, it was agony for the world champions, ecstasy for Slovakia, satisfaction for group winners Paraguay and pride for New Zealand, who finished with three remarkable draws.

Italy boss Marcello Lippi becomes the second high-profile coach to have to return home in ignominy, following in the footsteps of France’s Raymond Domenech.

Italy exited the first round of the Confederations Cup last year, mainly due to a 4-1 thrashing to Brazil. Already then, the Azzurri were being written off at home as too old and static to succeed at the World Cup.

Lippi will face criticism for including 35-year-old captain Fabio Cannavaro, and selecting a squad with nine players over 30.

Cannavaro has tarnished leading Azzurri to the world title in 2006 with a patchy performance, including hashing a free-kick that gave New Zealand the lead in a shock 1-1 draw.

In the final round of group stage matches teams have had to abandon caution-first tactics and go for victory. None more so than Italy, who started with two dull draws.

And yet the “Geriatricos’” defensive line-up yesterday spoke of a strategy more geared at containing a team well below them in the world rankings, than going for the jugular.

Lippi brought on his attackers in the second half and this had the desired effect, especially from the marvellous Fabio Quagliarella.

But after conceding a 1-0 first-half lead, thanks to Slovakia’s forceful two-goal striker Robert Vittek, the Azzurri were chasing the game.

Forward Antonio di Natale’s poke from range was off target, but threatening for the Italians in the opening seconds. However, there was little more to come in the opening half.

The strong-running Slovakians applied the pressure and this paid off with a goal in the 25th minute.

Daniele d

e Rossi’s sloppy pass out of defence was intercepted by Zdenko Strba, who threaded the ball through for Vittek to slide his finish home from just inside the area.

Italy came out with attacking intent in the second half and the game went into overdrive, as the Slovenians responded with the counter-attack.

Lippi brought on attackers — Quagliarella for Gennaro Gattuso, and Andrea Pirlo for Riccardo Montolivo — for midfielders and went for broke.

And the Italians did press forward, as Di Natale forced a good save from goalkeeper Jan Mucha with a well-struck shot.

The Azzurri’s best chance to equalise came in the 67th minute when Mucha only got a touch to Simone Pepe’s cross and Quagliarella’s half-volley cracked into Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel on the goal-line.

But Slovakia were still dangerous. In the 73rd minute, Marek Hamsik’s corner was cleared back to the forward on the right, who squared back to Vittek to stab in his side’s second.

When, with nine minutes left, Italy pulled a goal back, it set up a finish to the game with as many twists as a high-paced thriller.

A one-two between Vincenzo Iaquinta and Quagliarella saw the latter through, whose shot was blocked by Mucha into the path of Di Natale to finish into an open net.

Italy had a goal, by Quagliarella, marginally disallowed for offside four minutes later.

Slovakia scored soon after, substitute Kamil Kopunek, on a minute earlier for Strba, sprinting past the defence to get a touch past Marchetti to make it 3-1 in the 89th.

Quagliarella chipped in out of reach of Mucha from outside the area two minutes into injury time to make it 3-2 — too little, too late to avoid the plane home.

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