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Italy crash out of World Cup after 3-2 defeat at the hands of Slovakia

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robert_vittek.jpgIn a thrilling final Group F encounter between Italy and Slovakia, the defending World Champions were beaten 3-2 by a side making its first appearance at the FIFA World Cup finals. The result also meant Italy failed to qualify for the Round of 16, while Slovakia, who had been bottom of the group at the start of play tonight, finished second.

Marcello Lippi made two changes to the team that scraped a 1-1 draw with New Zealand, dropping Alberto Gilardino and Claudio Marchisio in favour of Genaro Gattuso and Antonio Di Natale. The World Champions had so far failed to show any attacking prowess in the first two matches, both of which they drew 1-1 after falling a goal back. The task was clear-cut for the Italians: a win would be sufficient to avoid the ignominy of group stage elimination, while a draw would require New Zeland to either lose to Paraguay, or draw with fewer goals scored than the Italians.

Slovakian coach Vladmir Weiss made a number of changes, including dropping his son Vladmir Weiss Jr. in favour of Miroslav Stoch. Due to the open nature of the group, the Slovaks came into the match with a chance of progressing despite having only gotten one point out of two matches. If New Zealand dropped points against Paraguay, they would need a win to go through, while if New Zealand were to win, then Slovakia would need a four-goal swing against the Paraguayans to go through at the cost of the South Americans, very hard and unlikely odds indeed.

The start was low-key as expected, with neither side showing any signs of intent in the first few minutes. But Slovakia nearly managed to grab an early lead in the 6th minute, when some horrible defending from Cannavaro and Chiellini saw the ball fall to an unmarked Marik Hamsik from a Robert Vittek header just inside the Italian's penalty area. Hamsik tried to take the shot on the half-volley first time with his left foot, but wasn't able to get a decent contact and the weak effort went past Marchetti's left post.

The Italians were struggling to get a foothold on the match, with their passes failing to reach their intended target on a number of occasions. Slovakia had another chance, when Marek Hamsik broke into the box down the left and tried to pick out Vittek with a low cross that was intercepted by Marchetti. The next few minutes hardly saw any action, but it was clear that the Slovakians were the more comfortable of the two sides.

The Italian's poor passing finally got the better of them. Daniele De Rossi was at fault in the 25th minute, when his pass was easily intercepted by Kucka, who slipped in Robert Vittek near the 18-yard mark. The Slovakian striker took the shot first time, beating Marchetti to put the World Champions in serious danger of a group exit.

slovakia_celebrate.jpg

The closest Italy came to scoring in the first half was in the 40th minute when Martin Skrtel nearly scored an own goal. The Liverpool defender got himself mixed up while dealing with a cross, and his clearing header went just above the crossbar. That was the last bit of any action in the first half, as Italy went into the dressing room trailing by a goal. They had been woeful the first half, lacking any ideas in offense and coordination in defence. Slovakia had been anything but spectacular, but deserved their one-goal lead.

Marcello Lippi rang in the changes at half-time, taking off Gattuso and Criscito in favour of Fabio Quagliarella and Christian Maggio. The personnel changes seemed to have had a positive impact, as the early play of the second half from Italy was a marked improvement as compared to the first. Iaquinta and Di Natale were guilty of missing decent chances in the first few minutes. First Iaquinta could only brush the ball with his head after Pepe's deflected cross from the right made its way to the striker in the 50th minute. Five minutes later, a cute ball through put Di Natale in on goal, but he failed to wrap his foot around the ball and the effort went out for a goal-kick.

In desperate need of a goal, Lippi sent on Andrea Pirlo to help salvage a path to the Round of 16, despite the midfielder's calf injury having restricted him from taking the field at the World Cup so far. Italy continued their positive play, and after a couple of chances, Quagliarella thought he had scored from a corner. The midfielder was left unmarked at the far post, and smashed in a shot only to see Martin Skrtel clear off the line. There were a few appeals from the Italians that the ball had gone across the line, and even the replays weren't conclusive, but it seemed a correct call from the linesman.

As Italy focussed their efforts up-front, Slovakia looked to catch them on the break. First Stoch ran down half the length of the pitch, cut inside and smashed in an effort that soared over the bar. Soon after, Chiellini slid in a perfectly timed tackle with Hamsik looking odds-on to score.

Slovakia's brief period of sustained pressure paid off in the 74th minute. Marek Hamisk whipped in a corner from the right that was headed out back to him. The Napoli midfielder took his time before whipping in a low pass to Robert Vittek, who had run past an off-guard Chiellini. Vittek tucked in the shot first-time between Marchetti and the near post.

Just when it looked like Italy had been bundled out of the World Cup, Quagliarella cut inside the right flank, played a neat one-two at the edge of the Slovakian penalty area and though his shot was parried by Jan Mucha, it only went as far as Di Natale, who tapped into an empty net. The goal gave the Italians a big-boost, as they poured men forward in search of an equaliser that looked sufficient at the time to see them through.

Quagliarella thought he had scored in the 85th minute, only to be given offside. The ball was crossed in low from the left, and Quagliarella tapped in but replays showed he had strayed just offside by the cruellest of margins.

Slovakia seemed to have put an end to all doubts, when they scored their third of the night. Kopunek, who had come on as a substitute, bisected De Rossi and Cannavaro to latch onto a throw into the box and lifted the ball over Marchetti into the far corner.

To their credit, Italy got over the setback quickly. Quagliarella scored a sumptuous goal from 20 yards out that dipped over Mucha and just inside the crossbar. Four minutes of added time had been allotted, and the Italians believed they could still cap-off an amazing comeback.

Unbelievable, Italy nearly got their goal. The Slovakians looked to waste time, with a number of players feigning injuries on different occasions to wind down the clock. Referee Howard Webb would have none of it, stopping his watch to nullify the eastern European side's tactics. In the 6th minute of time added on, Chiellini took a throw in down the right near the Slovakian penalty area. The Slovakians failed to clear it and the ball fell to Simone Pepe, who was completely unmarked, at the far post. Just as every spectator and player in the stadium, and all viewers around the world, held their breath, Pepe swung at the ball with his right foot.

But there was not going to be a fairytale ending tonight. Not for the Italians anyway. Pepe's effort was poor and went well wide, despite having a decent look at the goal. Howard Webb blew for full time, and for the fourth time in history the defending World Champions had been eliminated at the Group stage. And like their fellow finalists of 2006 France, Italy ended bottom of their group.

The manner of the defeat may have been cruel for Italy, but at no point did they seem deserving of going through to the last 16. Their first half play was preposterous, with Chiellini and Cannavaro particularly horrible in the centre of defence. The offensive play improved greatly in the second half, but they were left with too high a mountain to climb because of their mistakes at the back.

Slovakia did well enough tonight to ensure Italy suffered for their mistakes. While their defence, too, was unconvincing, they played intelligently up-front. The young side should be proud for making their way to the 2nd Round, although the quarterfinals may prove to be a distant dream if they don't work on their defence.

Line-ups:

Slovakia (4-2-3-1): Mucha; Durica, Skrtel, Zabavnik, Pekarik; Strba (Kopuneck 87'), Kucka; Hamsik, Stoch, Jendrisek; Vittek

Italy (4-3-3): Marchetti; Chiellini, Cannavaro, Criscito (Maggio), Zambrotta; De Rossi, Gattuso (Quagliarella 45'), Montolivo (Pirlo 56'); Di Natale, Iaquinta, Pepe

Final Score: Slovakia 3-2 Italy

Slovakia: Vittek 25', 73', Kopuneck 89'

Italy: Di Natale 81', Quagliarella 90+2)

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Photo by 2010 FIFA World Cup Organising Committee South Africa

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