At last, a proper football match, if still not a particularly good one until the last half-hour. Maybe it was the rain. Or maybe just Mick McCarthy’s obvious relish of the prospect of some “proper” defending. “I’m not expecting a wide-open, flowing game of football,” he said, twice, in both hope and expectation.
Alan Hansen was of the same mind. The first words I heard of the preview were his “I’d love it if it was 5-4.” Even Clarence Seedorf, not necessarily brought up in the ways of Scottish sarcasm, knew that was b*****s. McCarthy got his wish early on. The start to this one was as boring as most other games so far. But this one was more down to good organisation at the back rather than timidity and incompetence.
McCarthy had Paraguay’s formation down as 8-0-2. And there were a few tasty tackles early on, all of which were sly enough to be visible on ultra-slow motion replays. Until this tournament, these have been predominantly used to record ugly players’ uglier facial expressions, especially after conceding a goal. Now, every tackle looks like an ankle-breaker.
Jonathan Pearce said “what must Tim Cahill think?” about 29 times. And there were plenty of tackles more worthy of sanction than the one which saw Cahill depart the Germany/Australia game. And Pearce became about the 29th person today to tell us that FIFA were thinking of banning the Vuvuzela, to which McCarthy’s response was “why on earth would they want to ban them?” At least I think that’s what he said. I couldn’t hear him properly because of those bleedin’ horns. (Sorry)
When McCarthy later described Italy as “functional” he meant it as a compliment. But it wasn’t doing much for the spectacle. Daniele De Rossi’s shorts looked likely to fall off at any minute. But he was only caught with his proverbial pants down as the deepest defender when Antolin Alcaraz headed Paraguay ahead from Aureliano Torres on 39 minutes. Fabio Cannavaro had earlier been vaunted by you-know-who: “If there’s a top five of all-time defenders, he’s in it.” But he looked every day of his 37 years as the ball flew past him for the goal.
Half-time revealed Gareth Barry to be the most boring interviewee from an England camp since Alan Shearer back in 1998. And it would have been a relief to get to the end of Barry’s in-depth discussion of the England “camp’s” dart-playing prowess (David James practices on his own at night, apparently, probably throwing darts at a picture of Capello after his non-selection against the States). Except that next up was an interview with… Alan Shearer.
Before the second-half started, Lineker and co had time to be unfunnily sarcastic about the New Zealand v Slovakia game (not at all bitter that ITV had Brazil’s and Portugal’s openers on the same day). But it wouldn’t have to be much to be one of the best games of the tournament so far. Italy have to substitute goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon at half-time, which the wags in the studio try to pass off as a tactical response to being a goal down. I checked to see if my sides have split with laughter. They hadn’t.
McCarthy was not to sure about sub keeper Federico Marchetti – “the goalkeeping coach was whizzing them past him at half-time.” But he’ wasn’t tested as the pattern of the first half, Italy dominant but ineffectual, continued. And Paraguay weren’t about to get adventurous, much to the disappointment of “Ralph’s DIY”, as emblazoned on one of the St. George’s flags behind the goal Paraguay are nominally attacking.
Then, suddenly, an equaliser. Simone Pepe belted a corner towards Paraguay keeper Justo Villar, who was supposed to be suspect on crosses, and proved it, offering the ball a black panther salute as it sailed someway past him. This wouldn’t have mattered if Lucas Barrios had been watching the ball. But he appeared to have spotted a mate in the crowd near the halfway line as de Rossi bundled himself and the ball past him at the far post.
It was all Italy, thereafter. But Paraguay were hurtling towards plucky territory by this stage. McCarthy was disappointed that they looked less solid with five at the back instead of the semi-mythical “two banks of four” that constituted their eight-man defence early on. Yet while Italy started playing at last, Paraguay defenders started getting various parts of their anatomies in the way at the vital moments. And while they’ll be happier with the draw, it is still likely to be these two advancing to the final 16, because New Zealand v Slovakia will be rubbish…as we are reminded again back in the studio after the game.
Alan Hansen offered his seat at the match to Clarence Seedorf, who accepted, noting that “we are here to watch all the games.” Hopefully, that will serve as a reminder to Hansen just why he is being well paid to be there. The consensus is that Italy don’t look like World Cup winners. But no-one has yet apart, possibly, from Germany…and Argentina going forward. And you won’t get a British TV panel admitting that. The tournament has been rubbish since the bright opening game. But Italy v. Paraguay was a proper game and there is a sense (albeit possibly only in my head) that it could be a gateway to better things. New Zealand v. Slovakia, for a start. I’d love it if that was 5-4.
Once again, our thanks go to Historical Football Kits for allowing us to use their images in this report.