Sunday, 20 June 2010

Italy v New Zealand

Italy 1 - 1 New Zealand
Iaquinta (pen) 29 Smeltz 7

Well now we really have seen everything. I myself have some words to eat. For I said this to my new housemate Mick. It's Italy New Zealand next. I wouldn't bother with it, Italy will slaughter them.

Mick demurred, pointing out that it was the World Cup and anything could happen, but I, bless my little brain, insisted that a slaughter would be on its way. And I was right in a way, because Italy did slaughter New Zealand, one all.

The New Zealand goal came early. Eliot's free kick was flicked on by someone in a melée, bounced off the unwitting Cannavaro's arm and fell to an astounded Smeltz, who whacked it in.

It was clearly offside if the crucial flick was off Winston Reid's head, but not, obviously, if it the head was Italian. The consensus seems to be that it was Reid and the goal should have been disallowed. I couldn't tell from the replay during the game, and the quality of the webcasts isn't adequate to resolve the issue. It counted, anyway.

Italy, stung by the impudence of it all, immediately launched an eighty minute attack. It nearly succeeded instantly, as a Camoranesi free kick travelled all the way through, but Paston was alert and fended it off. Zambrotta was next, but his thirty yard scorching shot went just wide left and over. You felt it was just a matter of time.

The best chance fell to Montelivo, with a shot from about the same position as Zambrotta's. It seemed to be flying wide as well, but then it swerved as it passed in front of the standing Paston and hit the post. The rebound passed behind the still standing Paston a tenth of a second later, probably leaving him wondering if he was playing in quadrophonic or what, but was then cleared.

Struggling for inspiration, Italy turned to their traditional methods. Tommy Smith tugged on De Rossi's shirt at a free kick, De Rossi went down half a second after he'd let go and the referee gave a penalty. It was definitely a foul, but there was more than a hint of histrionics in the time delay. In fact there were several bushels of histrionics in the Italian response to physical challenges all day. The last time I saw such exquisite expressions of pain was the torture scene in the Battle of Algiers.

Iaquinta scored routinely from the penalty, and it seemed like the first of many, but in the end that was their lot. In fact, despite their pressure, New Zealand defended so well that Italy only had two shots in the last twenty minutes of the half, Criscito's going over and De Rossi's being blocked by Paston. He was having a much better game than he did against Slovakia, when he'd looked vulnerable. Tonight he commanded his box.

After the break things carried on in much the same vein. Di Natale got in behind the back line, but his angle was tight and his shot was saved. Iaquinta was closed down on a Da Rossi pass, and his effort went well wide.

New Zealand had clearly been told to try and hang onto the ball, and they did for short periods, just knocking it among themselves without threatening much. The object wasn't to attack, so much as to catch their breath before the next Italian onslaught. They did have a second shot of their own, which fell to Vicelich. It was from thirty yards out and went well wide, but it's the principle of the thing. You want to get a second attack in at some point, then you know that when you're talking about it in an Auckland bar in twenty years time you can legitimately refer to your chances.

The Italians seemed unable to respond. They've had similar problems with the newer footballing nations at previous tournaments. In 2006 they could only get a one all draw with the US, and then just squeezed by Australia in the second round with a contentious last minute penalty. In 2002 they were knocked out by South Korea.

They tried. Montelivo, trying to replicate his spectacular effort in the first half to greater effect, evaded two tackles and shot from thirty yards, but Paston saved and the rebound went to a Kiwi, as they always seemed to. Soon afterwards the New Zealand captain Nelsen had to stretch to clear a cross as a forward lurked behind him, the net gaping in front of him, then Tommy Smith took a bouncing ball off Iaquinta's foot just in time.

In one mad minute Cannavaro, Camoranesi and Di Natale all had chances, but suddenly Wood nearly nicked it for New Zealand, battling his way through Cannavaro's challenge and shooting from a tight angle. The shot flew just past the far post, fortunately for Italy, but it seemed to reignite their traditional caution. At the end, it felt like Italy weren't too dismayed with the draw. After all, a win against Slovakia in their last game still takes them through.

For New Zealand, it was the greatest day in their football history. For some of their players, the prospect of a Premiership payday looms alliteratively. And for the ones going back home after this, they'll never have to pay for another beer again.

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