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.
Some random observations after the second group fixtures:
Slovakia 0-2 Paraguay: Early on, Slovakia looked tentative while Paraguay controlled possession, a much better attack than they showed in their first fixture. La Albirroja’s offense employs much of the Brazilian style of short quick passes and through balls, they just don’t execute it as well. However, Lucas Barrios expertly slipped a through ball to Enrique Vera speeding into open space in the box with a point blank shot that he did not miss. Slovakia played with no urgency in the first half and did not test the Paraguayan defense though they shed some of their tentativeness after allowing the goal. In the second half, Slovakia managed a few flurries of offense, but only one shot on goal and very few shots overall. Paraguay maintained pressure throughout, even after substituting another defender for a forward and barely missed several more goals before Christian Riveros slammed home a second goal while in the middle of three defenders, none of whom looked like they wanted to challenge him. Not much was expected of the Slovaks and they lived down to those expectations this day. While not technically eliminated yet, Italy should put them out of their misery in their final fixture. Paraguay is now in position to and should win Group F.
Italy 1-1 New Zealand: As with the Paraguay game, Italy’s normally reliable defense was vulnerable again on set pieces when the All Whites got Shane Smeltz behind the defense in the penalty area for a quick score. Looked like offside initially, but the side judge got the call right as the ball did not glance off the head of one of Smeltz’s teammates as it initially appeared. The Italians flopped all over the place and appeared to be trying to draw yellow cards on New Zealand. That is really shameful play against an opponent they should be crushing and it unfortunately paid off when Daniele De Rossi went down in the box and drew a penalty kick. There was some slight holding going on, but the great bit of acting drew a penalty kick. Vincenzo Iaquinta converted it easily. New Zealand were very aggressive before their goal, but were content to sit back on defense after. The Azzurri peppered lots of shots from outside the penalty area, likely in reaction to their inability to penetrate the box. In the second half, the All Whites went into the prevent defense with everyone falling back on defense. They looked like they were content to play for the draw. Marcello Lippi brought in a third striker, Giampaulo Pazzini, for a midfielder, no doubt hoping his speed would create some better opportunities, but this was in vain. With Italy’s inability to get good shots, one wonders if Lippi regrets his decision to leave Luca Toni and Francesco Totti (who offered to come out of retirement) off the squad. The Italian defense broke down and allowed a near goal by Chris Wood, who simply beat a defender off the dribble and took an unimpeded shot that just missed outside the far post. Unbelievable result with the Kiwis coming away with the draw. Major kudos to their defensive effort, which denied the Azzurri any good opportunities in the box. The Italians had 23 shots, but very few from close range. Every key stat went in the Italians favor…shots, shots on goal, corners, and possession, but the only stat that counts is the final score. The Azzurri will no doubt be pilloried in the press back home for this result. Italy will still likely advance with a win or tie against Slovakia. The All Whites came into this Cup without ever having scored a point and now have two points on the back to back ties. They could advance with a win over Paraguay or possibly a tie if the Italians cannot muster a better game against the Slovaks. The fact that they are in a position to possibly advance after two fixtures was unthinkable when the Cup began.
Some random observations after the first group fixtures:
Italy 1-1 Paraguay: After all the talk of Italy playing too many of their older players from four years ago, they actually took the field with only three players who started the final four years ago. Most of the players on the pitch were not on the team then. Both teams have so much faith in their defense that neither felt the need to keep midfield players back (especially Italy, whose backline played very far forward, practically in support of the midfield). No attack from Paraguay to speak of. After about 15 minutes Paraguay started to make some long countering breaks through the center into the Italian penalty area, taking infrequent advantage of that advanced Italian backline. Italy is still one of the best teams on set pieces there is. Clearly what makes Fabio Cannavaro great is not just his world-class defense but also his intelligent distribution once he gains possession. Shock set piece strike from Antolin Alcaraz for Paraguay off a Torres spot-on free kick, where Italy was surprisingly asleep at the wheel (Italy’s first goal allowed during the run of play in a World Cup since 2002). Most of the game Italy lacked a certain productivity going through the center, which got a little better when Mauro Camorenesi finally got on the pitch. Italy got its equalizer on –- what else – a set piece corner from Daniele de Rossi when the goalkeeper missed the cross into the box entirely, leaving a wide open net. That’s when Italy began to play with confidence, putting passes together, making diagonal runs and finding space in the final third. Disciplined, workmanlike organization for Paraguay to preserve the point, while Italy is lucky to get even that.
New Zealand 1-1 Slovakia: Cold weather and a half-empty stadium – no surprise with this fixture. Slovakia controlled the possession but New Zealand did more to challenge on the offensive end with a direct attack. More long-range tries from both sides than any sustained attacks into the box. Mostly an east-west game, not a lot of diagonal runs or passes. Very pedestrian game, neither side took advantage of space or showed any particular skill at anything. Like two boxers feeling each other out, both sides seemed to just want to not give up too much, hoping not to get too adventuresome for fear of making a mistake. Both sides were pretty decent on set pieces. Robert Vittek of Slovakia began to find some avenues into the box and had the better chances on goal, mostly from Kiwi mistakes that led to easy interceptions, with Vladimir Weiss creating some direct attacking quality. On the other hand, New Zealand’s Shane Smeltz also made a few diagonal runs on the offensive end and found his shot on occasion. After halftime Slovakia opened things up offensively, building from the back, spreading the field and putting together passes in combination, resulting in a early second half score on a Vittek header from a well timed and well-placed Weiss cross. Very disciplined midfield for Slovakia, who did not give the Kiwis any space to get forward. Not much width from New Zealand, who didn’t use the flanks or switch play to break down the Slovakian midfield and create space in the center. Only in the last five minutes did New Zealand play with any urgency, finally putting together some sustained attacks in injury time to break down the Slovakian defense and get a shock goal from a Winston Reid header in the box off of a Smeltz service. Two 1-1 draws in Group F results in a 4-way tie in the group.