Some games just don’t need much of an introduction. And this is one. On paper, Group F looked fairly predictable. Holders Italy were expected to win the group, with Paraguay behind. Slovakia were seen as one of the weaker European nations, and New Zealand were considered the weakest team in the competition. It hasn’t turned out like that. Italy have gone the way of the last European winners of the Cup, by being eliminated in the group stages, and join France as the first ever pair of finalists to fall at the first hurdle in the next competition. We began the games with the group looking like this:
1. Paraguay 2. Italy 3. New Zealand 4. Slovakia
Antonio Di Natale signals the Italian intention from the off. He takes an early chance hitting a long range shot high over the bar just a few seconds after kick off. A Fabio Cannavaro free kick from just inside the Italian half is headed down by Vincenzo Iaquinta to Di Natale, but the return ball is offside, and Iaquinta’s shot is poor anyway. Slovakia get an early chance. Robert Vittek flicks on a long ball, the Italian defence is asleep, and Marek Hamsik, unmarked in the penalty area sees tame shot goes wide. Vittek goes on another run, but loses possession, with three teammates in better position. This is a much more adventurous beginning for Slovakia, than in their other games, coach Vladimir Weiss having made numerous changes from the game against Paraguay. Gennaro Gattuso brings Miroslav Stoch down near the penalty area, and Stoch’s free kick is punched away, the ball taking an awkward bounce before Radoslav Zabavnik shanks the follow up over the bar. The big feature of the game so far is the fouling and plays acting from both sides, resulting in a lot of stoppages from Howard Webb. Zdeno Strba brings Gattuso down late, and while the Italian’s fall is exaggerated, it’s a poor challenge, and the booking is justified. A high Simone Pepe through ball is over hit, and eighteen minutes in, Slovakian keeper Jan Mucha has his first meaningful action. After three more minutes of scrappiness, Vittek uses his pace to chase a through ball down the right. He beats Giorgio Chiellini, but the Italian manages to concede a corner, that is over hit by Stoch. 25 minutes in, the deadlock is broken. Erik Jendrisek’s break down the left hand side is broken up, only for Daniele De Rossi to be caught napping, and dispossessed by Zabavnik, who threads the ball through to Vittek. Vittek is in acres of space, and his shot goes just past the despairing fingers of Marchetti. The shock is on. 1-0.
1. Paraguay 2. Slovakia 3. New Zealand 4. Italy
The Italians are rattled. Marchetti has to come out to stop Jendrisek getting on the end of a more hopeful ball. Another Slovakian corner is needlessly won, and pointlessly wasted. Riccardo Montolivo fouls Peter Pekarik, A challenge by Zebavnik sees Di Natale handle the ball in anticipation of a free kick, but the challenge is a fair one, and the free kick is for hanball. Canavarro is booked for a foul, and the discipline is gone for the time being, at least. Half an hour has gone, and the Italians need half time. The Italian defence have been all over the place, while their counterparts have been confident and assured. Cannavaro goes in hard on Hamsik, just as Webb turns to look elsewhere, and despite talking to the assistant, no card is produced. Cannavaro is lucky to stay on. The free kick almost punishes Italy further, with Strba’s shot being palmed round the post by Marchetti. Vittek catches Canavarro on the foot, as they both challenge for the ball. It’s painful for the Italian, and Vittek enters the book. Italy are close to equalising, as Martin Skrtel heads Gattuso’s cross inches over his own bar. It’s their best and last chance of the first half. A clash between Gattuso and Strba sees Strba in a lot of pain, and there is a two to three inch gash on the Slovakian’s right knee. It’s not a foul by Gattuso, if anything it’s Strba who is late in the challenge, as he runs into the Italian’s studs as Gattuso passes the ball. Vladimir Weiss tries to bring on Kamil Kopunek, as Strba is waving on the other side of the pitch to come back on. Vittek makes a meal of a push by Chellini and Webb awards the Slovakians a free kick 25 yards out. The free kick is wasted, but Slovakia retain possession. Vittek juggles the ball on the edge of the area, as taps the ball to Juraj Kucka whose volley whistles past the post. It’s a great shot by Kucka, who has been man of the match, anchoring the Slovakian midfield. It’s half time, and Marcello Lippi has work to do.
Lippi makes two changes (Fabio Quagliarella and Christian Maggio replace Gattuso and Domenico Criscito) and the half begins scrappily. It takes five minutes for any sort of quality to happen as Pepe delivers a cross, but Iaquinta mistimes the jump, and the header goes for a goalkick. Mucha takes a lot of time to recover the ball, Quagliarella makes a challenge with both his shoulder and his foot (which, considering the ball is dead, is worthy of a booking), but Mucha channels the spirit of Kader Keita and goes down clutching various body parts. Webb is visibly unimpressed, but doesn’t show a card, either for the playacting or the time wasting, and it’s over a minute between Iaquinta’s jump and the resulting goal kick. Magio feeds Di Natale on the right of the penalty area, but it he scuffs it wide. Lippi realises that the two half time changes haven’t made enough of a difference, and Andrea Pirlo is introduced for Montolivo. It visibly lifts the Italian team, but the Slovakian defence isn’t impressed. Every time Pirlo gets the ball, he gets attention. Di Natale gets a rare chance on 62 minutes, and Mucha spills the shot, but only defenders are following it up. Slovakia break again, as Stoch originally beats Maggio for pace, Maggio gets back, shoulder charges Stoch, but the Slovakian keeps his feel, while the Italian loses his, and with Stoch poised to shoot, Webb blows for a foul by Stoch. Italy almost score, when a Pepe cross is flicked on by Mucha, and Quagliarella’s shot is cleared off the line Skrtel. After fifteen replays from six different angles, the ITV team are none the wiser as to whether the ball was over the line (“why oh why can’t we use technology to decide these things/sell our replays to the authorities so we can have an even bigger stranglehold on the game” doesn’t get an airing during the game, but Gareth Southgate and Andy Townsend think this should be sent to Blatter as proof that TV technology should be used. Let me know how you get on with that), but the save is by Skrtel’s right knee which appears to be level with the line, and the officials are right to wave play on. Stoch creates a fine chance for himself. Vittek is also in a good position, but Stoch’s shot is off target, and the game is end to end, and with 17 minutes left, Slovakia double their lead. Hamsik’s corner is blocked by Chiellini back to Hamsik, and Vittek beats the napping Chiellini to the low cross. Marchetti has no chance. 2-0.
Pepe tries to make amends immediately, but Pekarik is equal to the cross. Pepe goes through the back of Vittek, and only the fact that Pepe misses with the follow through stops it being anything more than a yellow card. A quickly taken Quagliarelli free kick just sees Di Natale offside, but Mucha is equal to it anyway. Two miutes later, it’s a different story. Quagliarella and Iaquinta exchange passes on the edge of the box, Quagliarella shoots, Mucha parries the shot, and Di Natale fires into the empty net. 2-1.
The drama doesn’t end there. Quagliarella and Mucha race into the net with the intention of restarting the game as quickly or as slowly as possible. Quagliarella is booked for pushing Mucha, Mucha also gets booked (he’s lucky, the slap he aims is on Webb’s blind side) and Juraj Kucka avoids being penalised for grabbing Quagliarella. Italu are energised. The pressure is intense, but the quality hasn’t improved. A smart move ends up with Quagliarella putting in a cross that Di Natale converts, but assistant Darren Cann has the flag up. Replays show that Di Natale was offside for the entire build up, and hasn’t done enough to get back onside – he’s off by a matter of inches. An hour after he looked like he was about to be introduced, Kopunek finally gets his chance, replacing Strba. And what a chance. A quick throw in chased by two Italian defenders, with seemingly no Slovakian in sight – only for Kopunek to burst through from nowhere and chip Marchetti. It’s his first touch in his World Cup debut. Any striker would have been proud with his finish, and he’s a defensive midfielder. It’s the end of the reign for the Champions. 3-1.
Or is it? A little bit of pinball sees Quagliarella with the ball 25 yards out on the right. The defenders back off. And Quagliarella chips it over Mucha and into the top left hand corner. It’s a stunning goal. Easily one of the top five of the tournament, and one of the top two of this very special match. 3-2.
We’re halfway through injury time, and Slovakia are now doing everything they can to break the game up. Italy have just one chance, which sees Pepe’s right footed volley bobble harmlessly wide. The whistle blows, and Slovakia, making their World Cup debut as an independent nation are in the second round, and the holders are out. It’s a sad end to the career of Marcello Lippi, and it’s likely to be Canavarro’s final World Cup appearance, but on the day Slovakia were deserved winners, and within the tournament, Italy never looked convincing until the introduction of Quagliarella and Pirlo, and over half of the second round qualifiers will be non-Europeans. After a slow start, it’s becoming a great, unpredictable World Cup.
Thanks once again go to Historical Football Kits for the use of their graphics.