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FIFA World Cup: Villar error allows Italy to salvage a draw against Paraguay

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justo_villar.jpgDefending champions Italy fought back to secure a 1-1 draw against Paraguay during a tough and bruising encounter in Cape Town on Monday. Italian coach Marcello Lippi would have known this first match would be tough and so it proved as the world champions fell behind to a first half goal against the run of play when Paraguayan defender Antolin Alcaraz headed powerfully home after some unusually lax defending. Daniel De Rossi saved the Azzurri's blushes with a second half equaliser after goalkeeper Justo Villar failed to gather a routine cross from a corner. The draw was not unkind to the South Americans who were superbly organised and showed why they could be a tough proposition if as expected, they join Italy in the second round.

Marcello Lippi already knew playmaker Andrea Pirlo, who arrived in South Africa carrying an injury, had been ruled out for a couple of matches, so Richardo Montolivo took over in midfield as his natural replacement. The pressure though was on his partner in central midfield crime (and often punishment) Daniele De Rossi to be the creative hub of the side. The temperamental Roma man shook off a calf injury to take his place in the starting eleven. Lippi had tried various formations in training, but went with a 4-3-3 system, with Alberto Gilardino used as the central striker. The back five had a very familiar look about it with 36-year-old skipper Fabio Cannavaro, Zambrotta and Buffon all being trusted once more by Lippi to hopefully provide the solidity of their victorious 2006 campaign.

Paraguay coach Gerardo Martino picked his two fittest strikers Lucas Barrios and Nelson Valdez to lead the line with the injury plagued duo of Roque Santa Cruz and Oscar Cardozo having to make do with a seat on the bench. The South Americans were skippered by goalkeeper Villar and manager Martino opted for their familiar 4-4-2 formation with their recent performances all built on a blueprint of organised defence coupled with hard work.

The Italians started well enough with decent possession but they could not fathom any early chances as the South Americans were proving very difficult to break down. Claudio Morel and Victor Caceres were snapping at the heels of De Rossi not allowing him time on the ball to pick any incisive passes for the front three to latch onto. A few meaty challenges went unpunished by the Mexican referee much to the annoyance of manager Lippi. Paraguay seemed happy enough soaking up the pressure and did not look remotely concerned about launching any attacks of their own. It was not until the 21st minute when Italy had their first shot on goal but Ricardo Montolivo's tame effort from 25 yards trickled safely into the welcome arms of Villar. For Paraguay, the closest they came to testing a largely redundant Buffon was two minutes later when a scuffed shot from Aureliano Torres went harmlessly wide.

lucas_barrios_parag.jpgThe South American side, who beat both Brazil and Argentina in qualifying, were showing plenty of reasons why they troubled those two teams as they defended from the front, with strikers Valdez and Barrios harassing both Cannavaro and Chiellini giving them no time to play the ball out of defence. And then in a blink of an eye, completely against the run of play, Buffon was picking the ball out of his net and the world champions were behind. The Azzurri, who pride themselves on their defence would not be pleased as defender Alcaraz headed home from a free kick. Buffon was stranded on his line as the South Amercian beat both Cannavaro and De Rossi to rifle home a fine 39th minute header from six yards out. The goal looked to have rocked the Italians and they trudged off at half time knowing they had much to do to make sure their title defence did not get off to the worst possible start against a very well drilled Paraguay team.

As the players walked out for the second half there was a surprise as Buffon had been replaced by Federico Marchetti with what must have been an injury. Italy tried to up the tempo of their passing but they found it just as difficult to break the South Americans down and were forced to try the spectacular with Simone Pepe attempting an outrageous overhead kick.

Manager Lippi rang the changes early in the second half replacing the ineffective Marchiso with Juventus teammate and winger Mauro Camoranesi as they switched to a 4-4-2. But it was clear with 30 minutes remaining the Azzurri were badly missing Pirlo's guile and craft as De Rossi was struggling to have a meaningful impact on the game. But just as the Italians began to run out of ideas up popped De Rossi to side foot home from a 63rd minute corner after keeper Villar inexplicably failed to gather, flapping at the ball and missing it altogether. The look of relief on the midfielder's face as he ran into the grateful arms of his teammates said it all as the Italians had finally broken down the tough resistance of the Paraguay defence. Roque Santa Cruz was summoned from the Paraguay bench with 20 minutes to go as the game became more stretched and Lippi played his last hand by replacing the hard working but ineffectual Gilardino with Serie A hotshot Antonio Di Natale, but chances were still few and far between as the game entered its final stages.

With ten minutes remaining Pepe tested the hands of Villar from outside the box with a stinging shot but the keeper helped to atone for his earlier blunder saving well as the predatory Italians lay in wait hoping for a rebound. The Azzurri were slowly turning the screw with Riccardo Montolivo also coming close, only to be denied by Villar. In the dying minutes the Italian's were throwing the proverbial kitchen sink at Paraguay and despite a few goal mouth scrambles the South Americans held on for a well deserved point which both sides will be ultimately pleased about.

For manager Lippi the return of Pirlo cannot come soon enough because despite plenty of industry there was precious little artistry. Even without the injured playmaker the defending champions should have more than enough when they face minnows New Zealand in Nelspruit with perhaps Di Natale starting. Meanwhile the South Americans walk away with confidence sky high after taking a point from the world champions. They can afford to be more expansive when they take on Slovakia in Bloemfentein, both games take place on Sunday.

The teams :

Italy: Buffon (Marchetti 46'), Zambrotta, Cannavaro, Chiellini, Criscito, De Rossi, Marchisio (Camoranesi 59'), Montolivo, Pepe, Gilardino (Di Natale 72'), Iaquinta.

Paraguay : Villar, Bonet, Alcaraz, Da Silva, Morel Rodriguez, Vera, Victor Caceres, Riveros, Torres (Santana 60') Haedo Valdez (Santa Cruz 69'), Barrios (Cardozo 76')

Referee: Benito Archundia Tellez (Mexico)

Italy 1 Paraguay 1
Alcaraz 39'(Paraguay)
De Rossi 63' (Italy)

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File Photograph Copyright: STF Photo Agency

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