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Italy Kop sucker punch

June 24, 2010

For 73 minutes it was a game that summed up the overall theme of World Cup 2010. Slow-paced, sloppy, lacking ambition from either side despite the fact that Italy simply had to win to avoid failure in the group stage for the first time in 36 years. For the final 17+ minutes it was everything you could possibly hope for in a World Cup encounter. For Fabio Cannavaro, playing in his final match for Italy, it was a nightmare. For late Slovakian substitute Kamil Kopunek, it was the stuff dreams are made of.

You would have thought that Robert Vittek’s 25th minute opener would spark Italy into life. Quite the contrary. There was no imagination, no creativity, no flair, and perhaps most crucially, no belief. Bizarre so it is for the defending world champions, but even inspirational captain Fabio Cannavaro didn’t have the determination and spirit that comes so naturally to the Italian people, let alone their football team. To give credit to Slovakia, they passed the ball efficiently, worked cohesively throughout the first half and were worthy leaders at the interval. Lippi had to change it.

Change it he did. Fabio Quagliarella and Christian Maggio made their World Cup bow, replacing Gennaro Gattuso and Domenico Criscito respectively. It was Quagliarella who made the impact immediately and Italy looked closer to the team that turned up in Germany four years ago. However, there was still no end product and with Slovakia showing far more adventure than in their opening two games of the tournament, there was always the threat that they would score again. On 72 minutes, Vittek confirmed those fears by striking his second of the match, and third of the tournament to take him to the top of the leaderboard alongside Argentina’s Gonzalo Higuain. Giorgio Chiellini switched off, Vittek sneaked in front of him, and Federico Marchetti was helpless to the finish. At 2-0, Italy seemed down and out.

Even with the introduction of Andrea Pirlo, Italy’s progress in the final third was hampered and blocked by a resolute and determined Slovakian defence, led by Liverpool’s Martin Skrtel. Eventually though, the wall was broken down, and Italy flocked through to nick one back with 9 minutes to play. Ironically, it was the best move of the match, and probably the tournament for Azzurri, finished off by Antonio Di Natale. Hope.

Howard Webb’s hands were briskly filled by a scrap in the goal-net following Di Natale’s strike, and yellow cards were handed to Slovak ‘keeper Mucha, and Italy’s Quagliarella. Webb was superb all game, but it will be his English counterpart and fellow Premier League official Darren Cann who will make headlines for 3 outstanding decisions, that if given the other way, would have changed the outcome of the match, the group, and the World Cup. First, with the score at 1-0, a clearance off the line from Skrtel, met with shouts and cries from the Italian bench, and anger and frustration from the players on the pitch. Replays clearly suggested that Cann had no chance of seeing whether the ball had crossed the line, and the appeals and claims from every Italian in the stadium went in vain.

Second and third, two of the tightest offside decisions you could possibly wish to see in a football match. Both Di Natale and Quagliarella were denied goals by the linesman’s flag, and upon review, the width of a hair came between Italy and progression to the last 16. If the Premier League and Champions League proved to be biggest of stages for the likes of Webb and Cann, deciding the fate of the world champions in the World Cup beats those hands down.

87 minutes gone and enter Kamil Kopunek. Kopunek’s arrival on the world scene came later than expected, having been stripped and readied to replace Zdenko Strba just half an hour into the game, after Gennaro Gattuso had left his mark, quite literally, on Strba’s knee. The no.6 bravely continued though, and Kopunek would have to wait a great deal longer to get his chance. But boy, it was worth the wait. Having been on the field no longer than 3 minutes, Kopunek made a fresh-legged, exuberant run from the heart of the Slovak midfield to get himself on the end of a Juraj Kucka throw. The end result was something Kopunek will doubtless bore his grandchildren with for years to come. The throw-in met his run to perfection and all that was left to do was poke the ball past the outrushing Marchetti. 3-1, surely that was it for Italy. Kopunek’s celebration combined disbelief, relief, and joy all in one, and with the Paraguay – New Zealand match petering out to a 0-0 draw, it looked certain that Vladimir Weiss’ side had made it through to the last 16.

Indeed, that was to be the case, but not without one last flurry from the Italians, and an exquisit chip from Quagliarella that flew over Mucha in the Slovakian goal. It was a goal that will be replayed over and over in the World Cup’s greatest goals archive, at least for 2010, but it was no more than a consolation for Marcello Lippi and his team, and Azzurri will be making their way home with not even a win to their name. Shame, embarrassment, anger. If we thought the reception that France would get was tasty, just wait until touchdown in Rome later this week.

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