Thursday 22 February 2018

Vittek's double kills off Italian zombies

Slovakia 3
Italy 2

Italy's coach Marcello Lippi reacts during the World Cup Group F match against Slovakia at Ellis Park in Johannesburg yesterday
Italy's coach Marcello Lippi reacts during the World Cup Group F match against Slovakia at Ellis Park in Johannesburg yesterday

Ian Chadband in Johannesburg

Italy's great footballing heritage was almost shamefully betrayed when the Azzurri class of 2010, masquerading absurdly as world champions, surrendered their crown amid remarkable drama here at Ellis Park.

Fifteen minutes of blind fighting spirit at the death could not hide the probability that we had been watching the worst defending World Cup holders of all. Marcello Lippi, a proud man, recognised as much, taking all the responsibility for this debacle.

It really ought to have been a day to be celebrating the underdog, as Slovakia, in their first World Cup, earned a victory for the ages, a win quite thoroughly deserved because for three quarters of the match they quite outplayed the weirdly sluggish and somnolent champions. Instead, the rest of the world was hypnotised by what must have been one of the most pitiful performances in Azzurri blue ever witnessed.

The madness of an extraordinary last quarter of an hour when a team of blue-shirted zombies, two down to a double from Robert Vittek, deigned to come alive could not camouflage Italy's dismal failings. Two late goals felt like a band aid on an amputation. Unbelievably, for the first 62 minutes, Italy were so bad they could not even muster a single shot on target.

There will be a few Italians who will still be whining today about the idea that an equaliser for Fabio Quagliarella, the one spark of light among the gloom when he was brought on at half time, was ruled out when Italy were two down but the linesman probably got a hair's breadth decision right.

If the goal had counted, Italy would probably have escaped with the point they needed but perhaps it was a mercy because somewhere in the knockout stages, the creaking maestro that we once recognised as Fabio Cannavaro, would doubtless have been found out. Has an Italian national team ever defended more poorly?

Daniele De Rossi was supposed to be Italy's tower of strength, but after 25 minutes, he slid a criminally poor pass out of defence which was picked off by Juraj Kucka. His neat through ball was in turn despatched on the half-turn by Vittek with considerable aplomb.

It was truly sad to see Cannavaro reduced, through lack of pace, to a body check on Juraj Kucka, which earned a booking from Howard Webb. The Rotherham official showed mercy a few minutes later, though, when the captain also clumsily fouled Marek Hamsik. Where talent had gone missing, ugliness and cynicism took over. Gennaro Gattuso -- who else? -- left Zdenko Strba with a huge gash on his knee with one follow through lunge.

Lippi, thankfully, took off the old Rottweiler off at the break, introducing Quagliarella. Far too late, he will probably concede today, because the Napoli man did make a difference, almost earning an equaliser when his fierce volley was cleared almost inadvertently off the line. Martin Skrtel's knee may well become a national monument in Bratislava now.

Slovakia's second goal again demonstrated how far the art of Italian defending has descended, as Girgio Chiellini was so slow to react to a low cross that Vittek was able to nip ahead of him for the second.

Then the fun really started. Thank heavens Italy at last responded with vigour or this team would never have been allowed back at Rome airport. Di Natale slid the ball home on the rebound after Quagliarella's shot, before the offside incident.

From Peter Pekarik's quick throw, Kopunek, with practically his first touch, lifted the ball brilliantly over Federico Marchetti to reestablish the cushion, before Quagliarella, deep into injury-time, floated home an exquisite chip.

What a goal to remind Italy of glories past. A distant memory, though; the Italy of 2010 was represented by Simone Pepe's pitiful last-gasp volley, which trickled tamely wide. That's how it should have been because it felt as if we had been watching impostors pretending to be Italian World Cup footballers.

Slovakia --Mucha; Pekarik, Skrtel, Durica, Zabavnik, Hamsik,Strba (Kopunek 86), Kucka, Stoch, Vittek (Sestak 90),Jendrisek (Petras 90).

Italy -- Marchetti; Zambrotta, Cannavaro, Chiellini,Criscito (Maggio 46), Gattuso (Quagliarella 46), De Rossi,Montolivo (Pirlo 56), Pepe, Iaquinta, Di Natale.

Ref -- H Webb (England).

Irish Independent

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