Slovakia 3-2 Italy
Marcello Lippi’s Italy became only the fourth defending World Champions to fail to progress past the group stage at a World Cup finals. Slovakia, having failed to impress in their opening two games, came from nowhere to stun the Azzurri and took a 2-0 lead deep in the second half courtesy of a brace from Robert Vittek. Antonio Di Natale pulled one back for Italy before Kopunek gave Slovakia an incredible 3-1 lead. Fabio Quagliarella, who had battled admirably since coming at half-time, chipped in a magnificent goal to gave Vladimir Weiss’ side an scare. The Slovakians held on, however, to register a famous win and progress to the Round of 16.
Italy got off to a very slow start. The passion they displayed at national anthem time had apparently deserted them within minutes of Howard Webb’s opening whistle. Vladimir Weiss’ Slovakia were not making it easy for them, committing fouls to break up any spells of possession.
Italian hopes looked to be dashed when in the twenty-fourth minute Daniele De Rossi’s misjudged pass to Riccardo Montolivo was intercepted before Robert Vittek, Slovakia’s record goalscorer, slotted the ball past Federico Marchetti. It was a dreadful mistake by De Rossi, one which could be seen as a manifestation of a poor World Cup for the Italians.
Italy needed answers. Andrea Pirlo, the brilliant but injured AC Milan midfielder was on the bench. Balotelli, Cassano and Totti were at home in Italy. The lack of a dedicated ‘fantasista’ for Italy in the mould of Totti, Del Piero or Baggio was sorely missed by the Azzurri, who had always depended on a Number Ten to provide creativity and incision.
In the absence of a these players, Italy squandered possession and in truth, did not create many chances in the first half. With Italy at least needing a goal to progress, Marcello Lippi produced his gambit. On came Fabio Quagliarella and Cristian Maggio in place of Gennaro Gattuso and Domenico Criscito respectively.
With the Slovakian goalkeeper, Mucha, dedicated to wasting time just minutes into the second half, Lippi attempted to bring further impetus to his side with the introduction of Pirlo. The AC Milan midfielder’s introduction was granted a rousing reception from the Italian fans in Ellis Park, who sensed that a comeback would hang on the midfielder’s ability to mastermind attacking sequences.
Italy’s chance arrived just after the hour. Quagliarella shot from an angle with the goalkeeper out of position only to see his effort hacked off the line by Martin Skrtel. The Napoli striker was adamant he had scored. The referee and his assistants were decidedly less than convinced. Replays failed to clarify whether the ball had indeed crossed the line.
Slovakia made Italy pay for that missed opportunity. Robert Vittek was once again the hero as he slotted past a bewildered Federico Marchetti. In the Italian technical area, Marcello Lippi looked crestfallen.
Despite their failings, Italy did mount a valiant comeback. Antonio Di Natale capitalising on a rebound to slot past Mucha with just over ten minutes remaining.
Substitute Kamil Kopunek looked to have ended the Azzurri challenge with a late third for Slovakia. The forward dashed past Fabio Cannavaro and on to a throw in before producing a sublime finish to beat Marchetti.
That was not to be the end of the drama. Fabio Quagliarella, who had made an impact since coming on for Gattuso, has a reputation in Serie A for only scoring spectacular goals. The Napoli striker lived up to his billing. Quagliarella received the ball on the edge of the ‘D’, from there he took a touch before unleashing a perfect chip over Mucha.
The Italians had one last chance to complete a stirring fightback. Giorgio Chiellini’s long throw was flicked on to the backpost. Simone Pepe attempted to fire home a reaction shot with his right foot but failed to connect.
The miss prompted scenes of jubilation in the Slovakian dugout, Vladimir Weiss’ side progressing at the expense of New Zealand who could only draw 0-0 with Paraguay. The negative football that had characterised Slovakia’s opening two games was overhauled in this afternoon’s match. In a damning indictment of Italy’s World Cup, the Slovakians were the better side.
The defeat marks the end of Marcello Lippi’s decorated career in management and also the international career of one Fabio Cannavaro. The defender, whose contract was not renewed by Juventus at the end of last season, bowed out with ignominy.
Slovakia will progress to meet Holland in the Round of 16.