Italy down brave Mali in extra time (1:0)
Fans inside the Karaiskaki Stadium had to wait 116 long minutes to see the ball hit the back of the net this evening. It finally took an Olympic debutant in the shape of Italy's Cesare Bovo to score the only goal of the game and fire his country into the semi-finals.
The Italians also had the first major chance of the game after just three minutes when a defensive error played in Alberto Gilardino. However, the young striker shot wide from a promising position. Italy were without Daniele de Rossi for this quarter-final clash, suspended after picking up two yellow cards to give Cesare Bovo his first taste of Olympic action.
Mali adopted a positive approach from the off, using individual runs and short passing to make headway, but could not manage to pose a serious threat to Ivan Pelizzoli's goal. Nevertheless, Italy were often forced to resort to fouls to break down Mali's pacy attacks. The European's were excessively passive in this period and scarcely progressed as far as the Mali penalty area.
Italy's goalkeeper, Ivan Pelizzoli, came under close scrutiny for the first time in the 30th minute when Mamadou Diallo shot from an acute angle, the Italian shotstopper making an impressive save. There was soon further excitement in the Italian penalty area when a foul on Dramane Traore prompted Carlos Torres to point to the spot. Momo Sissoko stepped forward and placed the ball towards the bottom right-hand corner. But Pelizzoli dived the right way and parried. The ball rebounded straight at the feet of Diallo, but the AS Roma keeper thwarted the Mali player for a second time in quick succession.
Italy were lacking in inspiration in the final third and Gilardino and Co. were often caught languishing in offside positions. Realising that their intricate passing approach was not paying dividends, Mali began to shoot from long range. Jimmy Kebe unleashed a 30-yard effort shortly before half-time, but the shot soared just above the crossbar. Diallo tried his luck from 20-yards and goalkeeper Pelizzoli parried into the path of the oncoming Ndiaye, who arrived a fraction too late to capitalise.
The game shifted up a gear after the interval. Mali had a good opportunity after Ndiaye back-heeled the ball to Diallo in the area, but the latter took too long over his shot. Italy responded with the best chance so far through Gilardino. The striker received the ball in the penalty box with his back to goal, before shooting on the turn but Mali keeper Cheick Bathily was alert to the danger and pushed the ball out of play with an acrobatic save.
|Italian players celebrate after Cesare Bovo's goal. AFP PHOTO/DANIEL GARCIA|
The fans also began to rouse, providing vociferous support for both teams. Ndiaye tested the Italian number one yet again after another fine shot on the turn from 12 yards, Pelizzoli claiming the ball at the second opportunity.
The finest attack of the game came when Andrea Pirlo played a defence-splitting pass into the run of Gilardino, who shot unmarked at Bathily's goal, but unfortunately just wide. The game petered out appreciably in the latter stages. Inaccurate passing and careless mistakes preventing any concerted build-up play. Italy were more committed to the task, but still fell short in the final third.
Mali carved out another promising situation shortly before the end of normal time. Ndiaye made a surging run which was halted illegally on the edge of the area. Mamadi Berthe curled the free-kick around the wall but also a foot or so wide of the post.
And so the game entered extra time. Abouta tested Italy's Pelizzoli with a 13-yard shot after 11 minutes before Gilardino had his fourth major chance of the game. Del Nero masterfully beat two defenders down the right-hand side before whipping a perfectly timed cross into the area and onto the head of Gilardino, who contrived to head wide of the goal from five yards out.
Italy's Matteo Ferrari had a gilt-edged opportunity to decide the tie in his country's favour in the second period of extra time when he was picked out on the edge of the six-yard box by Pirlo before somehow lofting the ball over the bar. Shortly after, the Europeans finally made the decisive breakthrough when Pirlo delivered a free-kick into the area from the right flank. Cesare Bovo rose and directed a powerful header past the Mali goalkeeper to secure a 1:0 (116') victory and book Italy's place in the semi-finals.
"The last African representatives are out. But we went down fighting," said Mali coach Checik Kone afterwards. "The turning point was our missed penalty, but it was written in the stars and the heavens that Italy would win,"the coach added philosophically.
Counterpart Claudio Gentile was full of praise for his team: "When you consider the circumstances, the heat, the climate and the tiredness of my players, it was a well deserved victory. We missed a string of chances but we are delighted with the win."