Italy’s lacklustre World Cup defence came to end at Ellis Park in Johannesburg yesterday afternoon after being surprisingly beaten by Slovakia, despite a late attempt at a revival. Kamil Kopunek came off the bench to score the winner that, coupled with Paraguay and New Zealand’s goal-less draw, meant Italy embarrassingly finished bottom of the group.
Under-pressure Coach Marcello Lippi organised his team into their third different formation of the competition so far. Gennaro Gattuso replaced the underperforming Claudio Marchisio in a three-man midfield, and Simone Pepe and Antonio Di Natale played on the right and left respectively of a 4-3-3 system. Fabio Cannavaro, whose performances have been under scrutiny in his homeland, was caught out of position in the first few minutes. Slovakia’s Napoli midfielder, Marek Hamsik, was able to freely shoot with his weaker left foot from inside the area, but skewed the ball wide.
But after 25 minutes of Italy being unable to hold on to the ball, and looking vulnerable at the back, Slovakia took a surprise lead. Daniele De Rossi awfully gave the ball away on the edge of his own box, and Robert Vittek spun and buried the ball past Federico Marchetti’s despairing dive. It was the third time in as many games that Italy have fallen behind to supposedly weaker opposition. Italy’s lack of creativity has been a feature of their play in this summer’s World Cup, and it carried through to this game. Italy didn’t test goalkeeper Jan Mucha a single time, and their best opportunity came when Slovakian defender Martin Skrtel accidentally skimmed his own crossbar with a mis-directed header.
Italy ineptness forced Lippi into a double substitution at half-time, as well as another formation change. Fabio Quagliarella replaced Gattuso, meaning Italy reverted to a 4-4-2. Young full-back Domenico Criscito came off for Christian Maggio, who went to right-back. Eleven minutes into the second half, with Italy still disjointed, Andrea Pirlo made his return from a calf injury as the final roll of the dice for Lippi. Quagliarella came close to an equaliser after Skrtel blocked his volley on the line after Mucha flapped at a cross.
As the game became stretched due to Italy’s need for an equaliser, Vittek put the finishing touches on a famous win. He got in front of Giorgio Chiellini to score from close range and condemn the defending champions to humiliation. A rare moment of Italian fluency saw Quagliarella control Vincenzo Iaquinta’s back-heel and force a save from Mucha, but Di Natale scored the rebound with nine minutes left. Quagliarella then bundled the ball over the line just moments later from Di Natale’s cross, but he was controversially ruled offside, as Italy poured forward looking for the equaliser.
Incredibly, Kamil Kopunek came off the bench for Slovakia to kill the game once and for all. A throw-in somehow wasn’t cut out, and Kopunek was allowed a free run into the box to flick the ball over Marchetti, and score with his first touch. There was still time for Quagliarella to stunningly chip the goalkeeper from 25 yards to make it 3-2, but it was too little, too late. Italy simply hadn’t been good enough against teams who are supposed to be inferior. Fabio Cannavaro and Marcello Lippi’s international careers ended as the world champions were shockingly sent home by World Cup minnows.
Italy 2-3 Slovakia – Vittek 25, 73, Kopunek 89 – Di Natale 81, Quagliarella 90
Italy: Marchetti; Zambrotta, Cannavaro, Chiellini, Criscito (Maggio 46); Gattuso (Quagliarella 46), De Rossi, Montolivo (Pirlo 56); Pepe, Iaquinta, Di Natale.
Slovakia: Mucha; Pekarik, Skrtel, Durica, Zabavnik; Stoch, Strba (Kopunek 87), Kucka, Hamsik; Vittek, Jenriksek.