On paper at least, Italy appeared to have a straightforward group from which to launch their FIFA World Cup™ title defence. Drawn alongside Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand in Group F, the form book was thrown violently out of the window, however, as Marcello Lippi's team fell at the first hurdle after failing to record a single victory.
How it finished1. Paraguay, 5 points
2. Slovakia, 4 points
3. New Zealand, 3 points
4. Italy, 2 points
What happenedParaguay*: *In keeping with Paraguayan tradition and history, theirs is a side with no high-profile stars but steady performers, able to defend well and launch effective counter-attacks. The difference for Gerardo Martino’s charges this time around is that they now possess forwards of the calibre of Nelson Valdez, Lucas Barrios, Roque Santa Cruz and Oscar Cardozo, though ironically their three goals so far have come from defender Antolin Alcaraz and midfielders Enrique Vera and Cristian Viveros.
Slovakia: *Cruising against New Zealand, to the point where complacency brought about the loss of an equalising goal in injury time, then outclassed 2-0 by Paraguay, the *Repre knew that it was win or bust in their final match versus Italy. In an astonishing encounter, the Slovaks emerged 3-2 victors, aided by a brace from the superb Robert Vittek, an outstanding display by Martin Skrtel at the back, and a controlled performance from Marek Hamsik in midfield.
New Zealand*: *While the Kiwis did not show a great deal of high-quality play, is it really possible to reproach them for it? Massive outsiders in the group and in the tournament as a whole, they fly home to Auckland unbeaten, having secured 1-1 draws with Slovakia and Italy, and kept Paraguay quiet in a 0-0 stalemate. Twenty-eight years after their first appearance at the FIFA World Cup, the All Whites will have certainly learnt a lot and will have won over many neutrals in the process.
Italy*: *Despite pre-tournament signs that Italy might have trouble defending the Trophy, it seemed inconceivable to many onlookers that a squad coached by Marcello Lippi and featuring the likes of Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso would fail to negotiate the group phase. But fail they did. Initially held by Paraguay and New Zealand, they then collapsed against Slovakia in their final match. The end of an era.
Moments to savour*A thought for absent friends
*Paraguay enjoyed a highly successful qualifying campaign for South Africa 2010, due in part to the contribution of striker Salvador Cabanas. Seriously injured in a nightclub shooting in January, he was unable to make the trip, but his team-mates have made a point of dedicating each victory and goal to him, which will hopefully offer some consolation to the player as he continues his recovery.
*First time for everything
*In their first appearance as an independent nation at FIFA's flagship tournament, Slovakia started off by acquiring their first point, then conceded their first defeat, before finishing with their first win. This succession of firsts combined to produce another even sweeter one: qualification for the Round of 16, secured with a dramatic defeat of the reigning champions.
*Banking on draws
*After three defeats in three games during their maiden appearance at Spain 1982, New Zealand's hopes of doing better this time around were high. And that they did, drawing all of their group matches. And totting up the points amassed by the All Whites would not have proved too tricky for midfielder Andy Barron, a semi-professional footballer who earns a living as an investment banker.
*Marcello Lippi changed systems – adjusting from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 – as well as goalkeepers, bringing in Federico Marchetti for the injured Buffon. He even changed his dress habits, trading in his shirt and tie for a tracksuit. Unfortunately for Italy's army of expectant fans, the biggest change came in the team's results, as they conceded five goals in three matches, compared with just two in seven back in 2006.
The stat0 –Italy have still not won a match in 2010 and exit the competition with Group F's wooden spoon to show for their efforts.
The final word"I assume complete responsibility for this failure. When a team goes into a match as important as this with fear in their stomachs and heavy legs, it's because the coach hasn’t prepared them well enough," Marcello Lippi, Italy coach.