World Cup Daily: Defending champ Italy humbled, Japan sparkles
Italy had its worst-ever showing in the World Cup, finishing last in its group
Behind two stunning free kicks, Japan qualified for the second stage
Japan's Honda produced a star turn with a spectacular goal and assist
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For the first time ever, the two teams that contested the last World Cup final have been eliminated from the finals tournament at the earliest opportunity. Having seen France go out in slapstick fashion Tuesday, Italy followed today despite a criminally late show of urgency that threatened to put it through at the expense of its opponent, Slovakia. There have been no player tantrums or public showdowns in the Italian camp, but that almost makes such a supine campaign harder to excuse. Certainly in Italy, supporters have branded their team "worse than France."
Though a draw might have been enough, Italy really needed to chase the win over Slovakia. Coach Marcello Lippi at least gestured towards a change of tack with his lineup, benching the ineffective Alberto Gilardino for Antonio di Natale and adding the gruff determination of Gennaro Gattuso to his midfield. But still Italy started the game as if sleepwalking through the motions; it was Slovakia -- so unimaginative against Paraguay -- that took the initiative. Coach Vladimir Weiss had made his own alterations among the front five, and was rewarded with a display of neat, crisp football that showed up the weaknesses in an Italian back line that had escaped too much scrutiny until now.
Even before he had set foot on a South African pitch, questions were asked about the ongoing selection of central defender Fabio Cannavaro (36), and today's performance confirmed that this was a tournament too far. After half an hour, he was forced to resort a blatant body-check on Juraj Kucka to halt a break down the left for Slovakia. The caution received left him even less able to make a rescuing tackle for the remaining hour. Beside him Giorgio Chiellini strained to cope with the running of Slovakia's two central front men. Gianluca Zambrotta coped better with Miroslav Stoch, but had Stoch's own inaccuracy, as much as anything, to thank for that.
Lippi, like France coach Raymond Domenech, came into the World Cup knowing it would be his final string of matches in charge of the national team, and was about as popular. Unlike Domenech, he ended his reign accepting full responsibility for the failure of his team, even talking about shame, but that won't alter the record books, which will show the holder finishing bottom of a supposedly weak group and heading home with a daunting rebuild ahead of it.
Keisuke Honda made a real impression up front for Japan, scoring the first and setting up the third in an act of selflessness for which few other forwards could so readily be relied upon. He refused to rely upon wingers Makoto Hasebe and Yoshito Okubo to do all the running, and held the ball up well (particularly against Daniel Agger, Denmark's liveliest player for long spells). Spare a thought for Fabio Quagliarella, though -- making his World Cup debut in the second half, he was easily Italy's best player, had one goal disallowed on a debatable offside call, and scored a goal of rare quality in this tournament. No wonder he was sobbing at the final whistle.
The two goals Italy had previously conceded had come from set pieces, but Daniele de Rossi's sloppy pass in front of his own penalty area literally gave the game away today. Kucka strode onto the ball, slipped it through to Vittek, lurking between Cannavaro and Chiellini, and the striker hit it early to leave goalkeeper Federico Marchetti reaching for thin air. Slovakia had already started brightly and the ease with which it claimed its first goal simply confirmed that the game was there to be won.
There's a relentlessness to Japan's Daisuke Matsui that'll win matches rather than headlines from the world's media. His passing isn't the greatest and he doesn't bother himself getting up and down the length of the pitch all day. Instead, tucked in behind Japan's front three, he dispossesses opposition players of the ball and any idea they might have of taking it anywhere. He pops up in nice spaces around the box, too.
Having recently been beaten by England, Serbia and South Korea (twice), the performance of the Japanese since arriving in South Africa has caught everyone off-guard, but today's display against Denmark was especially remarkable. Perhaps the sterility of the Danes encouraged a more attacking game plan, but Japan only needed a draw to progress from the group. Furthermore, it had had been Japan's defensive discipline that had protected a 1-0 lead over Cameroon in its first match and held the Dutch to a single goal victory in its second.
Though Denmark had stuttered having arrived at the finals with an exemplary record in qualifying, the stylishness of its comeback against Cameroon seemed to suggest there would be a defensive requirement for Japan again today. Indeed, Danish coach Morten Olsen said before the game that he was alert to Japan's cautious approach in its two opening games. But Takeshi Okada's men went full throttle for a win almost from the off; the first two goals may have come from free kicks, but they bristled with an energy that Denmark could neither match nor handle.
A feast of great goals today, from Kamil Kopunek's delicate hook over Marchetti to Quagliarella's sumptuous chip as Italy finally pressed its case for advancement. Even choosing between Japan's goals is difficult -- Yasuhito Endo's curled free-kick wasn't drastically outshone by the earlier free kick from Honda. But Honda's was struck from the kind of distance that has made plenty of players look silly for trying, and drilled with the kind of power that Cristiano Ronaldo would be proud of.
Slovakia coach Vladimir Weiss has taken a lot of criticism from his national media, first for his squad selection (Martin Skrtel came into the tournament carrying an injury; Vladimir Weiss Jr. was deemed a risky pick) and more recently for the lackluster performances his side has turned in. So he deserves credit for making four changes to his starting lineup today -- including benching his son. Kucka's presence next to Zdenko Strba allowed Marek Hamsik greater freedom to roam, while the removal of Stanislav Sestak saw Robert Vittek link up with Kaiserslautern forward Erik Jendrisek. The Italian defense struggled with the increased movement and the improved forward passing.
"Maybe I didn't succeed in unifying the team and bringing the team together. I will not point fingers or accuse anyone. I thought I would have got better results with this match" -- Cameroon coach Paul le Guen resigns after a 2-1 defeat to the Netherlands that saw the team out of the competition without a point.
52 -- the number of international goals Jon Dahl Tomasson has scored, equalling Poul Nielsen's record. He almost didn't make it when Eiji Kawashima saved his penalty strike, but reached the rebound at the cost of a pulled muscle.
Wayne Rooney limped off the pitch during England's match with Slovenia yesterday, but will shake off a slight knock to the ankle in time for Sunday's meeting with Germany. For the Germans, Bastian Schweinsteiger (thigh) is reportedly unlikely to do the same.
As far as tomorrow's matches are concerned, Deco (hip) will still, apparently, be missing for Portugal, while Elano has now picked up a calf strain in training to put him out of contention for Brazil. Philippe Senderos remains doubtful to appear for Switzerland with an ankle injury.
The group stage finishes tomorrow with groups G and H tying up the loose ends. Each groups' top two will face each other in a pair of tantalizing ties: Portugal versus Brazil (at 10 a.m. ET), and Chile versus Spain (2:30 p.m. ET).
Brazil is already through, and Portugal could afford to lose the second World Cup meeting between these two thanks to its healthy goal difference. Perhaps naively, I'm hoping that'll produce a somewhat devil-may-care approach and some attractive attacking soccer -- a win for either side would mean top spot and the potential easier match-ups in the rounds ahead. Kaka is suspended for Brazil, but moving Robinho, who's looked lively so far, into the middle wouldn't be a bad move.
The game between North Korea and Ivory Coast (10 p.m. ET) means little unless Brazil beats Portugal and Sven-Goran Eriksson's team can swing a -9 goal difference to take second place. Despite being beaten 7-0 by Portugal, I doubt North Korea is that bad, and question whether Ivory Coast is that good -- its looked a little blunt going forwards. Eriksson might make things a bit sharper by bringing in Gervinho from the start, however.
Spain needs a win over Chile to confirm its place in the next round, while Chile needs a draw to do the same. There have been calls for Vicente del Bosque to fashion a more attacking Spain team, so Andres Iniesta's return might see him replace Sergio Busquets. Chile, whose play has been entertainingly attack-minded, has acquired a slightly unfair reputation as Spain-lite; in fact it's attacked with greater speed than the Spanish. This is an intriguing matchup.
Incredibly, Switzerland, which has scored one goal so far in this tournament, could qualify for the round of 16 with a (scoring) draw, if Chile beats Spain. I'd like to think we'll see a bit more intent from the Swiss, against a Honduras side which has yet to score and which has registered one shot on target so far. If Switzerland wins and (it may seem unlikely, but) scores plenty of goals, it has an excellent chance to go through.
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