Slovakia give Trap plenty to ponder
FORGIVE the Irish diversion, for this encounter was remarkable in its own right, but an investment in Giovanni Trapattoni's thoughts as events at Ellis Park unfolded would have been worth considerably more than a penny.
With his professional hat on, the 71-year-old should have tuned into the meeting of his homeland and Slovakia with a view to the future, considering he will enter combat with Vladimir Weiss' youthful charges this autumn when the race to qualify for Euro 2012 begins.
Surely though, Il Capo must have watched the capitulation of Marcello Lippi's side with a considerable tinge of regret, and that's not just because of his patriotic nature. More pertinently, this was an afternoon which confirmed the suspicion that this Italian generation are past their sell-by date. The great shame is that Ireland lacked the clinical touch to capitalise in the earlier stages of expiration.
In mitigation, Lippi, who otherwise took full responsibility for his team's failure, observed that the injuries suffered by Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo made his side an inferior proposition to the entity which progressed to South Africa automatically.
"The qualifying matches weren't disappointing," he argued. "They were normal by the standards of Italian football. What I will say is that losing two players like Pirlo and Buffon really didn't help, but without them (Pirlo did appear as a second-half sub) we should have performed better."
Buffon's heroics, as Trapattoni repeatedly stressed, dug the Azzurri out of a hole against Georgia and, in particular, Cyprus. But then Ireland were fortuitous enough in their jousts with the group's basement fodder as well.
What really should have struck a chord with the Irish boss is that Slovakia succeeded in highlighting the deterioration of Fabio Cannavaro and his defensive colleagues, which was so evident in Bari and Croke Park. The difference is that they ruthlessly exposed those deficiencies by making their chances pay.
Now, the Irish camp must hope that the Slovakians will suffer a hangover that carries over into next term. Having looked so utterly dreadful against both New Zealand and Paraguay, Weiss galvanised his troops to produce the kind of vibrant showing which defined their march to qualification.
With an average age of 25, compared to Italy's 29, their sprightliness was evident. Hard to believe, really, that this nation managed to finish behind Ireland in a qualifying group during Steve Staunton's calamitous reign. They're on a sharp upward curve, although their opposition here were so listless that caution is required when assessing the Slovaks' merits.
Lippi's relatively unprecedented admission of fallibility kicked off the post-mortem in candid fashion.
While the 2006 World Cup-winning coach did refuse to shake the hand of Weiss at the final whistle, unhappy with some of the Slovak histrionics in the dying stages -- oh, the irony of Italy being aggrieved at such behaviour -- he composed himself before facing the music, requesting to make an opening statement before the interrogation began.
"I take all responsibility," said Lippi, "Because if a team shows up at such an important game with terror in their head, their heart and their legs, and if a team is simply unable to express its abilities, then it means that the coach didn't train that team as he should have done, psychologically technically or tactically. I'm really sorry to the federation and fans."
"I didn't expect to win the World Cup, but I did expect to perform differently. I take on all responsibility for the choices that I made and the way I introduced this team to you. I wish the best to my successor and thank you, thank you for these four years -- part of which were fantastic and part of which were disappointing. Now if you want to ask questions, I'll be here to answer them."
Follow that. Rather than a rough ride, he largely received thanks for his honesty, a classic show from an old pro. Alas, the 62-year-old's emotion was clear, offended by the suggestion that his decision to announce his departure before the tournament -- Fiorentina's Cesare Prandelli has already been appointed as successor -- had affected his standing in the dressing-room.
"The players don't deserve that kind of talk," he said. "I still believe in them very strongly, but I wasn't able to create the conditions that were needed for us to keep going. I was not as capable as motivating as I should have been, and I am deeply sorry.
"I agree that it's not a great moment now for Italian football, but I think that the level is not as low as you saw tonight."
Weiss was in bizarre form, evidently shell-shocked by his side's achievements, while smug that his detractors had been silenced by a famous triumph. After their abject display in defeat to Paraguay, he invited a Slovakian TV reporter for a scrap after he questioned the logic of his team selection. "Let's go, f**king faggots," he declared.
But he did make four changes to his starting XI, with his son, also named Vladimir, one of the casualties. The consolation for the Manchester City winger is that his arrival into the world still ranks as the best day of his father's life, with June 24, 2010 a close second.
Oddly, Weiss preferred to speak in garbled English than his native tongue. While his demeanour was incredibly downbeat, he found time to express love for his wife, hinting that the flak in the wake of the Paraguayan defeat had affected her deeply.
He offered tiredness as an excuse for his mood, but the prospect of a meeting with Holland will raise the energy levels. "We have nothing to lose," he said.
Yet he will know not to be too afraid of reputation; a sentiment which Trapattoni can now ruefully relate to. He reckoned that Ireland drew the short straw by encountering the finalists from Germany four years ago in their bid to make it here.
Repeatedly, he drew comparisons with David and Goliath, an understandable analogy except that it makes a dangerous assumption. Goliath can't stay strong for eternity. As ever, transience is the great leveller.