Italy 1-0 Australia
Well, off they go then. Australia, whose appearance in the World Cup finals had brought about much press coverage as Brazil, Argentina or England, didn’t have enough in their engine to out-smart those foxy Italians. They had, to be honest, flattered to deceive in the first round. The hyperbole that surrounded their win against Japan overlooked the fact that they had been behind for much of the match. It also overlooked *that* tackle by Tim Cahill barely a minute after the equalizer which should have been a penalty which would probably given Japan the three points. But Australia is very, very good at self-promotion, and the bandwagon started to roll. Their mixture of self-confidence at optimism had us all sold. Against Croatia, they seemed to hypnotise their opposition into believing it too, and anybody reading their supporters’ views on proceedings would have been sucked into the belief that we were looking at one of the best three or four teams in the tournament, rather than one that had just scraped into the second round of the World Cup.
The Italians, meanwhile, had quietly gotten on with the job of just doing enough. Cowed by the match-fixing scandal that is engulfing their domestic game, they were slightly flattered by their opening win against Ghana, almost kicked out the tournament by the USA, and then finished off with one of the most under-rated performances of the first round – a convincing 2-0 win against the Czechs.
This match was further proof that the heat of the afternoon fixtures is having a significant effect on the players. It was played at a slow tempo, and this didn’t seem to suit the Australians. In the first half, Schwarzer made two good saves from Luca Toni (who, one suspects, is going to have a Lampard-esque World Cup), and at half-time ITV’s panel were full of praise for the referee’s handling of the game. They spoke too soon. Early in the second half, Materazzi mis-timed a tackle on Bresciano. He wasn’t the last man, and it wasn’t a dangerous tackle, but it earnt him a red card. Advantage Australia.
The Australians couldn’t take advantage of their extra man, though. Italy sat further and further back, but Guus Hiddink inexpicably didn’t bring on an extra forward until there were only ten minutes to play. As a result of this, John Aloisi didn’t get the chance to have the impact that one might have thought he would. Then, in the dying seconds, Neill committed himself too early in a tackle, Grosso fell over him. Penalty. Harsh, but no question about it, really.
Italy deserve their place in the quarter-finals. They were the better team over the course of the ninety minutes, although, like the dreaded Three Toothless Lions, we haven’t seen what they’re capable of yet. For Australia, in spite of all their sunniness and self-confidence, this was a tournament too soon. If/when they switch to the Asian federation, they will still have a great chance of qualifying for South Africa 2010, and they will benefit from playing more meaningful competitive football. I daresay they’ll be looking forward to The Ashes now.