Italy coach Marcello Lippi admitted on Wednesday that playmaker Andrea Pirlo is still not fit enough to start the reigning champions' crucial final FIFA World Cup™ Group F clash against Slovakia. Pirlo missed Italy's first two group games - both dismal 1-1 draws against Paraguay and New Zealand - due to a calf injury and the Squadra Azzurri were hoping he would be ready for their final group match.

But Lippi dashed those hopes ahead of Thursday's game at Ellis Park. "Pirlo can't start but he will be on the bench," said the 2006 FIFA World Cup winning coach.

This is a match the champions must win to be sure of going through to the last 16, although a draw would also be enough if Paraguay do them a favour against New Zealand. Italy's main problem so far this tournament has been breaking down their opponents and creating chances, and Pirlo's ingenuity is seen as vital towards providing the champions with the key to unlocking stubborn defences.

Lippi said that it is up front where he needs a marked improvement, although he is also wary of Slovakia's attacking prowess. "We expect them to play like they did in their last two games, that's the way they play," he said. "They have fast and capable strikers who change positions, we saw this in their games.

Pirlo can't start but he will be on the bench.

Marcello Lippi, Italy coach

"I don't think they're looking for a [new] way of playing, they can only get one result if they want to stay in the competition [a win]. We'll try to do better up front than we have done up until now. We need to do like we have done in defence, whilst doing a bit better defending crosses. Defence and midfield have been good but up front we need to improve."

Italy have come in for a lot of criticism recently, particularly as they have yet to win a game in this calendar year. But veteran captain Fabio Cannavaro insists the champions are still seen as a team to avoid. "It's difficult, the World Cup brings together the best teams in the world. We're coming into it off the back of difficult [club] seasons," he said. "It's difficult to relax and play well. Everyone says we're old, we don't know how to play and all we do is defend, but no-one wants to face us."

For a team standing on the brink of elimination, both Lippi and Cannavaro seemed remarkably relaxed and almost nonchalant about their chances of progression. "It would be a real shame to go home after just three games," was the extent of Cannavaro's passion while Lippi simply repeated numerous times that they wanted to win and go forward.