Reigning champions Italy were sensationally knocked out of the World Cup by Slovakia, who clinched their place in the last 16 with victory in a match of incredible drama and tension throughout.
The Azzurri were looking to bounce back after two consecutive draws against lower opposition and knew that only a win would be good enough to book a place in the next round. In the days leading up to the game, Marcello Lippi had called for a step up in gear for a game that he knew could be his last if Italy failed to qualify.
The Italians had turned out in force in support of their team in Johannesburg, but it proved to be deja vu once again as they saw their side fall behind. Hamsik had gone close early on for Slovakia but only stubbed his shot. 25 minutes in and sloppy Italian passing in their own half invited Slovakia to take the lead. Daniele De Rossi’s pass was cut out by the excellent Kucka, who lost no time in moving the ball forward for Vittek, who beat Federico Marchetti with a first-time shot from the edge of the area. Little else in the form of chances fell to either side before the interval, barring a terrific volley from Kucka that flew narrowly off-target.
Lippi was forced into taking drastic measures at half-time, replacing the lethargic Gattuso with the lively Quagliarella and Criscito making way for Maggio. And when he saw Antonio Di Natale fluff a shot from a presentable opportunity just before the hour, he played the only card he had left and sent on Andrea Pirlo, the midfielder who had been unable to play so far due to injury. The decision appeared to backfire though, as Miroslav Stoch had already sent a shot narrowly wide by the time Vittek added his second, a goal that established beyond doubt Italy’s title defence was over. A failure to clear the danger from a corner allowed Hamsik to return the ball for Vittek to sweep in a near post shot for his second.
Only when seemingly out of the running did Italy make a fight of the game. Di Natale reduced the deficit with a tap in after Quagliarella’s shot was palmed back out; a number of players were then involved in a scuffle in the net as Quagliarella attempted to get the ball back for the restart. The Azzurri’s luck seemed well and truly out, as first a vital Quagliarella goal was ruled out for offside, then a Skrtel block looked to be behind the line, but Slovakia were given the benefit of the doubt. The pendulum then swung back in favour of the underdogs and with Italy throwing everyone forward, Kamil Kopunek (on as a substitute) ran straight through to latch on to a throw and lift the ball over Marchetti.
Even at 90 minutes was more to come; arguably the goal of the tournament so far in fact. Quagliarella gloriously chipped the Slovakia goalkeeper from the edge of the area to make the last couple of minutes more frantic, but Italy were timed out in the end, paying the penalty for not playing the whole match with the required intensity. The final whistle was met with jubilation from the smallest competing nation and with tears from the fans and players of Italy.
Lippi came clean about his mistakes after the game: ‘I accept that I should have started Quagliarella,” he said. “That was another of the choices I made. I accept all blame.”
The truth is Italy are no longer recognisable as the team who won the World Cup four years ago. This has been made glaringly obvious by on paper, poorer sides. The lack of pace, ability to defend adequately and poor finishing touch has contributed to the downfall of the Azzurri at this world cup and no doubt the nation will be demanding change to ensure that this embarrassment does not happen again.