x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Slovakians in dreamland after dumping out Italy

Defending champions are eliminated from the World Cup after a humbling 3-2 loss that sees Slovakia advance to the round of 16.

Slovakia players celebrate the second goal by Robert Vittek, centre, at the Ellis Park Stadium.
Slovakia players celebrate the second goal by Robert Vittek, centre, at the Ellis Park Stadium.

JOHANNESBURG // Fabio Cannavaro's dream of living in the UAE will arrive sooner than he would have hoped after Italy, the world champions, crashed out of the competition last night following a largely insipid display that Marcello Lippi, the Azzurri coach, took full responsibility for. Cannavaro, who signed a two-year contract with Dubai-based Al Ahli earlier this summer, was unable to prevent his side from conceding three goals in a World Cup match for the first time since 1970. The Italians also achieved the unenviable record of joining France in making this year the first tournament where both finalists of the previous tournament have failed to progress from the group stages. "I didn't expect to win the World Cup, but I did expect to perform better than this," Lippi said. "I take all responsibility for what happened, because if the team shows up for such an important game with terror in their hearts and in their legs, it means the coach didn't train the team as he should. They weren't ready for such an important match." Italy began the day second in Group F and knew a drawn could take them through, so long as New Zealand failed to beat Paraguay, the group leaders. Slovakia needed to win to have any chance. Lippi's side started sluggishly, while their opponents, in contrast, immediately looked threatening. Marek Hamsik, Slovakia's captain and midfielder who plays for the Italian side Napoli, should have opened the scoring, but scuffed his early volley wide with the goalmouth beckoning. The Azzurri looked abject and insipid and failed to heed Hamsik's early warning.

Midway through the first half, the 22-year-old was allowed too much time to feed Robert Vittek and the Ankaragucu forward's toe-poke evaded the outstretched dive of Federico Marchetti and nestled in the corner of the net. It was the third consecutive game in which the champions had fallen behind. The Italians' confidence looked battered as wayward passes were capitalised on by the speedy Slovaks. Lippi made two changes at the interval, but it was the 60th-minute introduction of Andrea Pirlo, making his first appearance at these finals following a calf injury, that finally gave the three-time World Cup winners a creative edge. Yet with the Italians now stretched and chasing the game, Slovakia were dangerously hunting a second. And it came when Hamsik played a delightful cross into the front post. Vittek again was first to the ball and knocked past Marchetti. "It's a huge success," said Vittek, whose side will now face Holland in the second round. "We've moved the limits of Slovak football. We couldn't have dreamt about this. Of course, we didn't expect such domination; we were better during the match. We played with our hearts and that's what decided the match." After the second goal, it was as if the Italians had suddenly realised the result would see them leave South Africa early; a sense of urgency became apparent. Within 10 minutes, Antonio Di Natale had pulled one back and Fabio Quagliarella, who had caused the Slovaks problems after being introduced at half time, saw his equaliser ruled out by a linesman's flag. However, Kamil Kopunek, the Slovakian substitute, ended any hopes the Azzurri had when he proved too fast for the Italian backline in the final minute. His inch-perfect lob sailed over the head of the out-rushing Marchetti, rendering Quagliarella's delightful chipped drive two minutes later redundant. "Everybody had the desire, the dream to get through, but we didn't and it's our fault," said Gianluigi Buffon, the Italian goalkeeper who missed the game with a back injury. "Slovakia and New Zealand are teams worth respecting, but nothing more, and if we can't beat at least one of them it's only fair that we go home." Slovakia burst into celebration yesterday. Fans who were watching the match in front of a giant screen in downtown Bratislava and all across Slovakia were screaming in joy after the win, some with tears of joy in their eyes. "It was not a miracle, but reality on the pitch in Johannesburg," said Ivan Gasparovic, the Slovak President, in a text message sent to The Associated Press through his spokesman. "Our players were doing all they could, played fantastic and deserved to win," he said. "I'm absolutely delighted and so is the entire Slovakia." gmeenaghan@thenational.ae Man of the match: Marek Hamsik (Slovakia)

Group F
Country M W D L GF GA Pts
Paraguay 3 1 2 0 3 1 5
Slovakia 3 1 1 1 4 5 4
New Zealand 3 0 3 0 2 2 3
Italy 3 0 2 1 4 5 2