Three quick thoughts on Italy-Slovakia (World Cup Group F)
Three quick thoughts after Slovakia's 3-2 victory over Italy in Group F on Thursday:
1. Italy didn't wake up in time. Throw out the final desperate 10 minutes, when Italy pressed forward with abandon, and the lack of urgency that scarred Italy's first two games in the World Cup was omnipresent. It was as if the Italians felt they could wait until the final moment to turn on the winning switch. There are a million reasons why Italy lost -- injuries to goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and playmaker Andrea Pirlo, the failure to fully transition to a younger generation of players, etc. -- but Italy's group was still soft enough and its talent deep enough to get through. That the Azzurri fell to fourth in the group had more to do with a lack of motivation than a lack of talent.
2. Nothing Marcello Lippi tried sparked his team. Italy's manager made two changes to the starting lineup, dropping Albert Gilardino and Claudio Marchisio for Antonio Di Natale and Gennaro Gattuso. Di Natale missed on two decent chances in the first half and Gattuso was thoroughly ineffective. At halftime, Lippi dropped Gattuso for Fabio Quagliarella (who stunningly had yet to play in the tournament) and swapped defender Domenico Criscito for Christian Maggio. That didn't jump-start the team, so Lippi played one final, desperate card: He brought on Pirlo, who has been battling a calf injury and hadn't played all tournament. Pirlo's first contribution was to miss a ball and let it roll out of bounds, a sign of his rust. He did play some telling balls, but it wasn't enough.
3. Slovakia won the physical battle. It was always going to be a grind; both teams aren't afraid to mix it up. But it was striking how much Slovakia outmuscled the Italians, particularly in the first half. Robert Vittek, who scored Slovakia's first two goals, manhandled Italy's back line, shaking off his reputation as a player who struggled to score for his country. In a game with no shortage of yellow cards (eight), fouls (37) and hard challenges, the Slovaks were never intimidated, and it was their defense, not the vaunted back line of Italy, that played organized and strong.