You are Italy. You have won the World Cup four times. You are the holders, having beaten France in the 2006 final. You are the country of Zoff, Rossi, Baresi, Maldini, Del Piero, Meazza. Yet you are going home, humbled by finishing bottom of a group comprising an unfancied South American side, a European country of five million people, and an Australasian nation who would normally rather watch the rugby, thanks. The draw with Paraguay was acceptable, the draw with New Zealand the very opposite, but the worst humilation of all was saved for last. For not only did Slovakia beat you, it was barely a shock. Italy exit at the group stages for the first time since 1974, and can have no complaints.
For this Italy side have been dismal throughout the tournament. France’s exit was shameful – and the two sides now share the dubious honour of being the first World Cup finalists to both exit the following tournament at the group stage – but their problems run far deeper than just football. This is the worst Italian team I have known in my lifetime. They never looked like winning here and, even with two goals disallowed late on, can have no complaints.
This was a scrappy, nervy game until Robert Vittek opened the scoring after 25 minutes. It was a defensive error that made it, Daniele De Rossi playing a lazy pass out of defence that Juraj Kucka intercepted. He rolled the ball through to Vittek, who fell over as he shot low from the edge of the area. Marchetti got a hand to it but it was not enough to stop the ball going just inside the keeper’s right hand post.
Italy tried and failed to get back on terms before the interval, Montolivo and Iaquinta both missing the target, but were just thankful to head down the tunnel with eleven players. Fabio Cannavaro, player of the tournament in 2006 as Italy conceded just two goals en route to victory, was lucky not to pick up a second yellow card with a rash hack at Marek Hamsik.
Slovakia sat back and played on the counter but were still having the best of the chances. Vittek lifted the ball back to Kucka who struck a fierce volley from all of 30 yards that whistled past the post. Italy continued to press and would have drawn level but for Martin Skrtel clearing Quagriella’s volley off the line.
Lippi threw on Andrea Pirlo, the Milan playmaker who is the only player of his kind in the squad but had been struggling with an injury. He could not make the desired impact and Lippi may have felt a pang of regret that he left arguably two of Italy’s most direct, dynamic players at home in Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli.
It was a frantic finish with four goals in the last 15 minutes. Vittek made it 2-0, turning a low Hamsik cross in at the near post. Italy cranked up the pressure but Slovakia broke in numbers at speed. It was real end-to-end stuff and hearts met mouths as Italy pulled one back.
Antonio Di Natale got the goal but the credit goes to to Fabio Quagliarella. Picking up the ball on the right wing, he cut inside his man and ran towards goal, playing a neat one-two on the edge of the box with Iaquinta, before lashing a shot that Mucha could only parry into Di Natale’s path, and the Udinese forward slotted home from close range.
Quagliarella did put the ball in the net minutes later but he was correctly judged to be offside. After a frantic few minutes Slovakia put the game to bed, a quick throw in over the top of defence met by a surging run from deep by Slovakian substitute Kamil Kopunek, who lifted the ball over the advancing Marchetti to make it 3-1.
There was still time for the best goal of the night, Quagliarella getting the goal his performance arguably deserved with an excellent chip from outside the area that left the keeper with no chance. But Slovakia held on with some timewasting tactics straight out of the Italian textbook, and now face the Netherlands on Monday.