Thursday, 24 June 2010

Group F - final games

Slovakia 3 - 2 Italy
Vittek 25, 73 Di Natale 81
Kopunek 89 Quagliarella 90 + 2

New Zealand 0 - 0 Paraguay

This was the stuff World Cups are made of. Italy follow France home, and both finish bottom of their group. New Zealand finish above Italy, something they can hardly have dreamed of, but don't qualify for the last sixteen. On the other hand, they haven't lost a game.

And if you see who finished last in the first six groups, it tells the story of the competition so far. France, Nigeria, Algeria, Serbia, Denmark and Italy. Four European and two African nations, some viewed as real contenders before the tournament began.

There was no clue to Slovakia's rebirth in their previous two games. Complacent and punished against New Zealand, they were overwhelmed by Paraguay. Against the World Champions they came out mysteriously rejuvenated, something so unlikely there's only one way to account for it. Slovakia? Translovakia, I say. Virgin's blood, that's their secret.

You can tell just by looking at Martin Skrtel. If ever a man's turned to the dark side, he's the one. There's only one foodstuff perks up a man like that, and I'm not talking about black pudding.

Whilst vampiric transfusion is obviously the main explanation, woeful Italian defending may have been a contributing factor. Vittek's goals both came from errors at the back. De Rossi gave away the ball to Hamsik, who slipped it through for the first, while Chiellini was embarrassingly slow to Hamsik's volleyed cross, allowing Vittek to knock it in at the near post. Hamsik to Vittek, you'd have thought they'd have been watching out for it.

Just before half-time, there was an incident which summed the game up. Gattuso caught Strba in a challenge, and his stud went right into Strba's knee. The camera zoomed in sickeningly on the hole, neatly punched in just below the patella. Slovakian coach Vladimir Weiss was halfway through bringing on Kamil Kopunek for him, but Strba, on the opposite touchline, waved him away. I suppose when you're up for it one and a half knees is enough.

He got through to halftime, they did some knee hole surgery on him in the break and back he came for the second half. In the end Kopunek didn't get on for him until the 86th minute, although when he did get on he got his moment. Gattuso, meanwhile, came off at halftime, a sacrifice to the Italian need for urgency.

The Slovaks just wanted it more, you see. Weiss is a bit of a hard nut himself. Before the game he'd responded to a journalist's hostile questioning by threatening to smack him in the mouth. The squad responded to this by boycotting the Press. It's a physical game, Slovakian football.

Italy came back and scored through Di Natale, but this was Kopunek's moment. Running through an Italian defence that hadn't really adjusted to his presence yet, he got onto a bouncing cross and lobbed it over Marchetti and in. Three one, and game over, you thought.

Earlier Italy had brought on Pirlo, icon of 2006, but Quagliarella was their best player. At one nil, his volley was hacked off the line by Skrtel. At two nil, his was the shot that rebounded to Di Natale to score. At two one he had a goal disallowed for offside, a highly marginal if probably correct decision. And at three one, his chip from twenty five yards gave them hope to the end. If Pepe had scored in the final seconds rather than scuffing his shot wide, they'd have been saved.

Afterwards, the Italian manager Lippi refused to shake Weiss' hand. There's been a little too much of that, if you ask me. Slovenia were guilty of some play acting towards the end, it's true, but it's a funny old world if the manager of Italy can get upset over a little theatricality.

Meanwhile, Paraguay and New Zealand played out a dull nil nil. Paraguay top the group, while New Zealand go home with three draws, and finish above Italy. Slovakia go second, and have to sell the plane tickets they probably bought. Perhaps the Italians could have them.

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