World Cup Group F summary – Paraguay and Slovakia through while Italy fail and New Zealand impress

Champions Italy exited in humiliating fashion due to the absence of characteristics which historically set the Azzurri apart from opponents, particularly the defensive prowess the great Italian sides possessed. When Italian teams in previous tournaments conceded goals, they were not due to lackadaisical marking and miscommunication which were evident in the goals conceded by the four-time winners in this World Cup. Italy shockingly conceded five goals in three matches, from a total of six shots on target. This is not the defensive wall which frustrated opponents and kept many stars scoreless during World Cup 2006, yet other reasons also cost Italy a spot in the Round of 16.

While the Italians showed little fighting spirit stumbling from one match to another, New Zealand’s minnows managed to gain three points from three draws, the most impressive being the 1-1 draw against Italy. After snatching a late equaliser against Slovakia to draw 1-1 in their opening match, the Kiwis managed to shock Italy from a set-piece which took a deflection off Fabio Cannavaro before reaching Shane Smeltz, who easily converted for the lead. Italy had 15 corners to New Zealand’s zero yet failed to capitalise, managing to draw level courtesy of a Vincenzo Iaquinta penalty after Daniele De Rossi had his shirt tugged. On the same day, Paraguay affirmed the superiority of South American teams in this World Cup by easily dismantling the Slovaks to win 2-0 in a match during which Marek Hamsik and his teammates showed little in terms of endeavour. Paraguay showed immense confidence and this could be attributed to the positive 1-1 draw against Italy in the first match when a strong Paraguayan effort earned them a deserved point. The Azzurri conceded from a free-kick which was not cleared by Daniele De Rossi and most notably saw Cannavaro look clueless as he was out-jumped by the goal scorer. De Rossi held himself responsible for the goal yet Cannavaro was partially at fault for his loose marking and inability to out-jump the Paraguayan player. The South Americans would settle for a dull 0-0 draw with the Kiwis in the final match of the group as Paraguay finished on top with 5 points, Slovakia earned 4 points, New Zealand accumulated 3 points while the Azzurri finished winless on 2 points.

The absence of a healthy Gianluigi Buffon was a massive blow. His presence was needed in the absence of a commanding figure at the back, as reserve goalkeeper Federico Marchetti did nothing out of the ordinary despite not being at fault for any of the four goals he conceded. Against Slovakia, a fit Buffon would have probably made at least one save from those three goals, which would have been enough to stir Italy to the knockout stages, albeit in undeserved manner. Marchetti ought to be held somewhat accountable for the third goal by Slovakia since he appeared indecisive and got stuck in no man’s land, instead of rushing quicker to block the ball or perhaps even hold his ground to make a save as the Slovak player sloppily hooked the ball over the on-rushing Marchetti. The custodian cannot be held responsible for the results because one-time hero Cannavaro was missing in action on the second and third goals after failing to endear himself in two poor defensive efforts when the Azzurri conceded from set-pieces in the first two matches.

The main opportunity presented itself against the Kiwis yet in all fairness the Italians created little in terms of chances despite having over 70% possession of the ball. All of Italy’s chances came courtesy of long-range efforts from Ricardo Montolivo and De Rossi as well as Mauro Camoranesi. Fiorentina’s Alberto Gilardino was starved from service and looked hapless while Giampaolo Pazzini was ineffective in the minutes he played. Simply put, Gilardino, Pazzini and Iaquinta were bound to struggle and suffered in the matches they played because they thrive on constant supply of passes and crosses, both of which were non-existent. Marcello Lippi’s greatest failure from a tactical standpoint was sticking to Gilardino for two games and with Iaquinta for three matches despite their inability to flourish in the system employed and considering the type of players supplying service to the attack. Lippi’s other major mistake was excluding one of those four players who could have easily made a difference in such a group helping strikers rediscover their scoring touch: Antonio Cassano, Mario Balotelli, Fabrizio Miccoli and Francesco Totti. Even more disturbing was Lippi’s decision to cut Giuseppe Rossi from the squad despite his ability to create and his pace on the ball. The American-born striker should have been chosen ahead of one of Pazzini or Iaquinta.

While the Kiwis will leave with their heads held high, the Azzurri depart in a humiliating fashion after failing to compensate for the absence of key players such as Buffon and Andrea Pirlo, who did feature in the second-half against Slovakia, providing structure to the Azzurri attacks even if he was not fit. The nonexistent change in tactics, exclusion of a creative force and injuries have all undermined Italy’s campaign but the squad chosen by Lippi should have advanced from this group. The Italian players provided nothing in terms of imagination and creativity waiting for the last 15 minutes of the Slovakia match for Fabio Quagliarella to shine and almost single-handedly pull the tifosi out of their misery. Quagliarella had a shot blocked on the line before playing a key role in the first goal scored by Antonio Di Natale. Quagliarella would go on to score an equaliser which was chalked-off for offside despite being on par with the defender’s right foot in what was a close call, which other linesmen would probably have allowed to stand. The Napoli striker would then score from an audacious chip to bring Italy back to 3-2 and give the Azzurri one last chance to draw level yet Simone Pepe’s mis-hit would put an end to any hope.

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