Italy missed the chance to put themselves in a strong position to qualify from the group after being held to a draw by New Zealand in the Mbombela Stadium in Nelpsruit. After falling behind early on, Vincenzo Iaquinta’s penalty restored parity, but Italy couldn’t break down the resolute minnows to get the win that they needed.
Gianluigi Buffon’s back injury meant Federico Marchetti was handed the gloves in an otherwise unchanged team for Italy. Marcello Lippi did, however, revert to the 4-4-2 formation that finished the match strongly against Paraguay. Incredibly, Italy were behind after just seven minutes, as, just like the goal conceded to Paraguay, they failed to deal with a set-piece. The ball was flicked on and Shane Smeltz – albeit from an offside position – poked the ball home from six yards after Fabio Cannavaro failed to clear the danger.
Possession was dominated by the world champions, but New Zealand, with their three centre-backs the core to a defensive strategy, stood firm. Gianluca Zambrotta scampered up the field in a trademark run before nearly finding the top corner from outside the area. Riccardo Montolivo came even closer after 26 minutes, as he hit a low drive from 30 yards that hit the inside of the post and bounced out. But minutes later, Italy were deservedly level. Daniele De Rossi was held back by Tommy Smith as he burst into the box trying to reach a lofted cross, and the referee gave a penalty. Iaquinta, restored to his favoured centre-forward position alongside Alberto Gilardino, side-footed the penalty into the corner.
The Azzurri controlled the ball for the remainder of the half, without being able to carve out any clear-cut chances. De Rossi did manage to test the goalkeeper Mark Paston in the 45th minute, but he was equal to the shot. Lippi replaced Simone Pepe and Alberto Gilardino at half-time with Mauro Camoranesi and Antonio Di Natale to shake-up his team, and the latter tested Paston within a few minutes of the restart. Italy were being frustrated by a defensive unit in the way they have frustrated other teams countless times down the years. Lippi introduced Giampaolo Pazzini up-front with 28 minutes left, with Iaquinta and Di Natale either side of him in a 4-3-3. Paston was called upon again after 70 minutes when his strong palm kept out another long-range Montolivo strike.
New Zealand attempted a couple of counter-attacks in the final 20 minutes, but it almost backfired. Winston Reid, the Kiwis’ defender, was down injured in Italy’s box when Iaquinta charged up field, his cross created half-chances for Pazzini and Montolivo before New Zealand cleared their lines. For all Italy’s pressure, Chris Wood nearly stole a win at the other end, as he beat Cannavaro and flashed a shot wide of Marchetti’s post. With two minutes left, Paston saved Camoranesi’s 30-yard shot, before Zambrotta’s close-range effort was then blocked by the colossal Ryan Nelsen as Italy couldn’t find a way through.
All four teams can now progress from the group, but Italy trail Paraguay by two points. In order for Lippi’s world champions to avoid embarrassment, they must beat Slovakia on Thursday.
Italy 1-1 New Zealand – Smeltz 7 – Iaquinta (pen) 29
Italy: Marchetti; Zambrotta, Cannavaro, Chiellini, Criscito; Pepe (Camoranesi 46), Montolivo, De Rossi, Marchisio (Pazzini 62); Iaquinta, Gilardino (Di Natale 46).
New Zealand: Paston; Reid, Nelsen, Smith; Vicelic (Christie 80), Elliott, Bertos, Lochhead; Killen (Barron 90), Smeltz, Fallon (Wood 63).