Two points from two games may represent an achievement for Group F minnows New Zealand, but for section rivals Italy it is a serious cause for concern. The four-time winners and current holders have failed to ignite at South Africa 2010 and go into their third and final group game needing to win to be sure of advancing.
Anything short of victory against Slovakia would leave La Nazionale flirting with elimination, but it is not a prospect that seems to be torturing the players’ minds. The fact that they still control their own destiny gives coach Marcello Lippi confidence and his charges are intent on sealing the outcome that will prolong their adventure.
“Honestly, we’re not thinking about elimination,” explained Gianluca Zambrotta, one of the most experienced figures in the squad at 33. “We’re thinking positively and see the glass half-full rather than half-empty. The only result that interests us is victory.”
Perhaps, but it is not the only result that could take them through. Should they draw at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, thoughts will quickly shift to the scoreline in Polokwane, where group leaders Paraguay take on the surprise package if the group, New Zealand. A success for Los Guaraníes in that game would spark celebrations among the Squadra Azzurra, while also bringing back fond memories for their travelling faithful.
Three points famously proved sufficient for Italy at Spain 1982, when Enzo Bearzot’s troops laboured through the group stage with stalemates against Poland, Peru and Cameroon. They went on to lift the Trophy and Lippi – who led the side to their next global triumph 24 years on – remembers the campaign well, having even cited the precedent following the failure to overcome New Zealand.
“This is a major disappointment for the players, but we need to win our next match,” he said. “If Paraguay beat New Zealand, we could even qualify with three draws like the 1982 team.”
The 62-year-old will also be inspired by a similar scenario from his own coaching career. “I’ve been in football for 40 years and I’ve won a few things, notably a Champions League title when we were heading for elimination during our final group match until someone scored in another game to send us through,” he explained.
Unfortunately, Lippi’s fierce optimism has somewhat muddied his recollections, and his Juventus side finished well clear at the top of their section before clinching the UEFA Champions League crown in 1996. It was in December 1997 that I Bianconeri needed events to play out in their favour to snatch a quarter-final berth as one of the best second-placed teams – and that year they succumbed in the final.
Heart and desire
Italy would perhaps settle for a similar run given that they have so far mustered no more than a pair of set-piece goals, Daniele De Rossi converting from a corner and Vincenzo Iaquinta burying a penalty. Worryingly, they have also conceded twice from free-kicks, but Lippi is used to flourishing in adversity. Few believed in Italy’s chances four years ago either, and yet he steered them to the summit. “We can still do great things and that’s entirely within our reach,” he said.
“You can look at our two matches in a negative or a positive way. The positive angle is that over the two games our opponents had only two shots on goal. We now need to take responsibility after two matches that didn’t go the way we'd hoped, but you can’t deny that this team has heart and desire.”
The veteran nonetheless accepts that “the players are not in top condition”, though they are likely to be given a boost by the probable return from injury of midfielder Andrea Pirlo, whose vision and set-piece prowess ought to give La Nazionale a fresh dimension.
That is Lippi’s hope and he is waiting to see the defending champions do themselves justice at last. “The team can do a lot better,” he said. “Our World Cup hasn’t really started yet.” Anything short of a triumph against Slovakia and it could be over before it has begun.