Slovakia survived a late onslaught to beat Italy 3-2, reach the Round of 16 and eliminate their illustrious opponents. A Robert Vittek double and a stoppage-time lob from substitute Kamil Kopunek proved enough for Vladimir Weiss's team to advance as Group F runners-up, after late goals from Antonio Di Natale and Fabio Quagliarella had ensured a dramatic conclusion to a thrilling contest in Johannesburg.
Slovakia went into the meeting at Ellis Park needing victory to progress. While Italy also required three points to guarantee a place in the knockout phase, they knew a draw would likely prove enough, as transpired to be the case. Disappointingly for the FIFA World Cup™ holders, the visionary Andrea Pirlo was only fit enough to make the bench, but Gennaro Gattuso and Antonio Di Natale were handed starts.
Weiss had urged his Slovakia side to be bold but rational against Marcello Lippi's men, and they were clearly enjoying the better of the play in the initial exchanges. They could certainly claim to have had the better chances. In the sixth minute, Vittek nodded a long ball into the path of Marek Hamsik, but the latter could only drag his volley wide. And the two exchanged roles six minutes later, with Hamsik squaring the ball to Vittek, but Italy goalkeeper Federico Marchetti was quickest to react.
So, perhaps, it came as no surprise when, in the 25th minute, Marchetti found himself picking the ball out of the back of the net. The pressure of the occasion clearly got to Daniele De Rossi, whose pass was easily intercepted by Erik Jendrisek just outside the Italian box. He promptly found Vittek and the Slovakian fired into the bottom corner to give his side a deserved lead.
Marcello Lippi's men had failed to get going in their previous two matches, and they were lacking inspiration here, too. Di Natale, De Rossi and Simone Pepe all found themselves in potential scoring positions, but were unable to make them count. Gattuso's threatening cross was headed over by Martin Skrtel as Vincenzo Iaquinta looked to profit, but there was no real punch to the Italy attack. The AC Milan veteran was typically terrier-like in midfield, looking to knock the Slovakians out of their stride, but it was Weiss's side that continued to look the more likely scorers – Zdenko Strba forced Marchetti to palm his 35-yard drive off target, Miroslav Stoch had a shot blocked, and Juraj Kucka watched his long-range effort flash inches wide deep into first-half stoppage time.
Lippi reshuffled his side at the break, with Christian Maggio and Quagliarella coming on in place of Gattuso and Domenico Criscito, as Italy went in search of a crucial goal. Iaquinta almost the found the target five minutes in but his header lacked direction. The same could be said for his team as a whole, who were lacking the required creativity – which explained why the Italian fans, at last, found their voice when Pirlo was introduced to the game in the 56th minute, shortly after a woeful finish from Di Natale.
As Pirlo begin to guide proceedings from the centre of the park, Di Natale almost made up for his miss but Jan Mucha was equal to his curling shot. Italy were, at last, stepping up a gear and when Pepe's cross was beaten away by the Slovakia goalkeeper, Quagliarella could only look on in dismay as his left-footed shot was hooked off the line by Skrtel. Slovakia, however, remained a match for Italy and minutes after Stoch's drive had fizzed a yard over, Vittek thought he had put the game out of Gli Azzurri's reach when he beat Giorgio Chiellini to Hamsik's squared ball. However, Di Natale was able to pull one back ten minutes from time, before Kopunek restored the two-goal advantage. Quagliarella's late strike set up a thrilling finish, but it was not enough for Lippi's men, who were left to contemplate a disastrous FIFA World Cup campaign.