Vittek 25, 73, Kopunek 89
Di Natale 81, Quagliarella 90+2
Slovakia sent reigning champions Italy crashing out of the World Cup after a thrilling finish at Ellis Park. A double from Robert Vittek and a Kamil Kopunek strike were enough to beat the Italians, for whom Antonio Di Natale and Fabio Quagliarella replied.
It was Slovakia who began to dominate early on and Marek Hamsik should have put them in front six minutes in. Vittek flicked the ball on and Hamsik found himself in space 16 yards out but he miscued his volley wide. Hamsik came close to giving Vittek an easy finish 10 minutes later but his low cross after a great run down the left was too close to Federico Marchetti. Slovakia took the lead after 25 minutes through Vittek after Daniele De Rossi gave the ball away 30 yards from goal. Juraj Kucka fed Vittek and the striker finished first time from the edge of the area low past Marchetti and into the bottom corner. In the 34th minute, a freekick was rolled to Zdenko Strba and his 35 yard shot had to be pushed round the post by Marchetti. Five minutes before the break, Martin Skrtel was inches away from heading into his own net but the ball just cleared the bar before Kucka volleyed viciously into the side netting from 30 yards in first half stoppage time.
Vincenzo Iaquinta glanced a header wide of the far post from 12 yards after five minutes of the second half. Di Natale was played in by Christian Maggio after 55 minutes but he scuffed his shot wide from an angle. Di Natale forced Jan Mucha into a save just after the hour from the edge of the area before Martin Skrtel cleared Quagliarella’s volley off the line. Vittek doubled the lead after 73 minutes, diverting Hamsik’s low cross in at the near post. Italy pulled a goal back with 10 minutes remaining. Quagliarella played a one-two with Iaquinta and stabbed the ball goalwards, with Mucha only able to push the ball as far as Di Natale who finished into the open net. Quagliarella had the ball in the net five minutes from time but it was ruled out for a very marginal offside. Substitute Kopunek sealed the Slovakian victory with two minutes to play, latching on to a throw-in and lobbing Marchetti with his first touch since coming on. Quagliarella chipped Mucha in stoppage time but it was not enough to keep Italy in the World Cup.
It was a much improved performance from Slovakia, dominating Italy in a manner that their first two Group F performances suggested they were not capable of. Captain Hamsik had symbolised their lacklustre toiling and he looked a different player against the country in whose domestic league he plays. He should have done better with his early chance but it was encouraging that he had made the run from midfield to get himself in such a good position. His run through the inside-left channel could well have ended in a goal for Vittek but he was just unable to get a good enough ball across goal to the striker. When Italy brought on Andrea Pirlo in a bid to turn the game, it was Hamsik who constantly looked to close him down, making it difficult for the playmaker to exert his influence. It was Hamsik’s cross for Vittek that led to the second goal, putting the ball into a dangerous area with the right amount of pace on it for the striker to need little purchase on his finish.
With Italy crashing out after two close calls from English assistant referee Darren Cann, the calls for video technology will no doubt resurface. The shot that Quagliarella had cleared off the line was impossible for Cann to call, with Skrtel’s standing leg blocking his view. Replays have proved inconclusive, although there seemed enough space between the line and the leg Skrtel used to clear for the whole of the ball to have crossed over. It would have been impossible for Cann to award the goal as he could have been in no way sure that it was definitely over, but there will certainly be much debate over the decision among all the Italian inquiries over their early exit. The decision from Cann to flag for offside when Quagliarella definitely did have the ball in the net was the correct one, but it was as tight as could be. The head and upper torso of the striker were ahead of the last defender and Cann has done excellently to make such a crucial call correctly.
The post mortem will have already begun in Italy over their failures at this World Cup, and the critics of Lippi’s squad selection appear vindicated. The Italians lacked any real spark, missing the mercurial talents of someone like Antonio Cassano. Lippi has had his reasons for leaving out the enfant terrible of Italian football, with his lack of discipline a threat to squad harmony, yet the team have struggled even without his undesired influences and have certainly missed the positive aspects that he would have brought. To Lippi’s credit, he did act decisively in making his changes early on rather than leaving only a matter of minutes for his substitutes to have an impact. Yet one wonders why the team only sprang to life in the last 45 minutes of their World Cup when they had a set of fixtures they should have been capable of winning comfortably. For World Cup winners like Fabio Cannavaro and Lippi, this was not the fashion for their glittering international careers to come to an end.
All the attention will be on the Italian demise but credit must go to Slovakia. Few would have wished to see the Slovakian side that were dire and negative against New Zealand and Paraguay go through but there will be many who will relish seeing a repeat of their display against Italy today. They were positive, adventurous and scored three goals against a team renowned for defending, but they also had a lot of fight and a physicality that will suit them well in later battles. A Round of 16 tie against the Netherlands is the most likely reward for coming second in Group F and they will find it tougher to contain them than they have the Italians. Where they may have joy is against a Dutch defence that has yet to be fully tested and does not look overly strong on paper.
Slovakia – Mucha, Pekarik, Skrtel, Zabavnik, Strba (Kopunek 86), Stoch, Durica, Hamsik, Kucka, Vittek, Jendrisek (Petras 90+4) Italy – Marchetti, Criscito (Maggio 46), Chiellini, Cannavaro, Zambrotta, De Rossi, Pepe, Gattuso (Quagliarella 46), Montolivio (Pirlo 56), Iaquinta, Di Natale