Some random observations after the third group fixtures:
Paraguay 0-0 New Zealand: Paraguay was the aggressor early, but New Zealand pulled everyone back on defense, forcing long shots only. Paraguay dominated possession in the first half, but the Kiwis’ discipline on defense frustrated them and neither goalie was tested. The All Whites opened up somewhat in the second half, but still played very conservatively. Paraguay earned the first corner of the game 15 minutes into the second half, but the crowded penalty area prevented several shots from getting through. New Zealand brought on a defender for a forward and then a midfielder for another forward in the second half. Apparently the Kiwis are more concerned with preserving a tie instead of going for the win that would advance them. Unable to get through passes, La Albirroja tried to get some long balls into the box but could not connect on those either. The Kiwi defense really took the Paraguayans out of their game. The draw still netted Paraguay the top seed out of the group. New Zealand, the lowest ranked team in the World Cup, failed to advance as expected, but should be proud to have finished with three points and ahead of the defending champs in group play.
Slovakia 3-2 Italy: As with earlier group fixtures, the Italian offense was stale and unable to penetrate the box early on. Slovakia, which had played leadenly in its prior game, came out with much greater intensity against the Italians. The Italians lacked any kind of coherence and gave away the ball far too often. Daniele De Rossi played an extremely poor pass in front of his own box that was easily intercepted by Juraj Kucka, who then struck a through ball to Robert Vittek and he beat the goalie with a well hit shot to the left post. The Italian defensive reputation has taken a real hit in the group fixtures and their lackluster play calls Marcello Lippi’s decision to field the oldest squad in the Cup into question. They nearly gave up another goal in first half stoppage time on an excellent volley by Kucka from 35 yards out that was barely wide. The Azzurri came out with a little more energy in the second half, but were still slow and inaccurate on their passes. Andrea Pirlo, the star of the 2006 World Cup winning Italy team, came on a sub early in the second half, his first action since a calf injury just prior to the tournament. The Slovaks pulled back into a more defensive posture, but found some counterattacks as they out-hustled Italy all over the field. Midway through the second, the Italians got their first real opportunity when Fabio Quagliarella fired a half-volley from the corner of the goal box that was blocked by a defender’s knee at the goal line. It was very hard to tell if the ball crossed the line before hitting the knee and no goal was given. Minutes later, the Italian defense again failed on a poor clearance of a cross that got pushed right back to Vittek near the right post and his quick turn and shot to the near post caught the goalie off-balance for Slovakia’s second goal. The Azzurri finally broke through when a blocked shot deflected to Antonio Di Natale who easily put it into the open goal. The goal finally woke up the Italians. After not testing the Slovakian goalie all game, they began peppering him in the last 10 minutes. Another Italian goal got called back for an offside. Their defense failed to react quickly on a long throw-in to the box, however, and Kamil Kopunek simply raced past the defenders and lifted a chip over the on-rushing goalie for Slovakia’s third goal. Italy struck right back though when Quagliarella lifted a beautiful chip from 20 yards out over the goalie. It was too little too late and unbelievably, Italy’s loss sent them home, just like fellow 2006 finalist France. Both teams played poorly in their first two fixtures, but Slovakia earned its invitation to the second round because they played a full 90 minutes when it counted and the Italians did not.