Wednesday, 23 December 2009

A View From Slovakia - Part 3 - Italy

With the notable exception of the host country, every Pot 1 team has displayed qualities that are superior to those of Slovakia. The dream of being drawn into the same group as South Africa did not materialize and Slovakia ended up in Group F with the 2006 World Cup winners - Italy. 

"Campioni del Mondo"

Having emerged victorious from Group 3, Slovakia's abilities were far from properly tested during the 2010 World Cup qualifiers. Four games [in total] with the Czech Republic [seed 1] and Poland [seed 2] provided the team with a sense of hope and self-consciousness that was nowhere to be found throughout the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s. The Czechs have found it difficult to replace their "golden generation", which fared so well at the Euro 2004 in Portugal - Pavel Nedvěd bid his farewell in the aftermath of the 2006 World Cup, Jan Koller is by no means the force upfront he once was, and the career of "The Little Mozart" [Tomáš Rosický] has been ravaged over the past three seasons by countless injuries. The Polish side did not prove to be any better, and some miserable goalkeeping on Artur Boruc's behalf, and a truly remarkable own goal by Seweryn Gancarczyk, all but paved Slovakia's path to the upcoming World Cup in South Africa. Moreover, Czech and Polish football had to cope with scandals that involved corruption within their football associations [more info on Czech and Polish scandals], squad members spending their nights on the bevy and with the ladies of the night [Czech and Polish], sackings of their coaches, Petr Rada and Leo Beenhakker, and even a fan boycott ahead of Poland's last game in Group Three.

"Don't Stop Me Now"
[Šesták scores against Poland after Boruc's poor goalkeeping]

When faced with formidable opposition, Slovakia stumbled on all four occasions. The 2-1 defeat in Slovenia was slightly unfortunate as Martin Petráš's equalizer was disallowed. The 4-0 defeat at Wembley was a painful one, although it is hard to tell whether a better performance could have been expected ahead of a crucial encounter in Prague [1-2]. In the autumn of 2009 Slovakia faced the excellent Slovenian team once again and failed to convert a chance to seal the World Cup deal [0-2 - a draw would have sufficed]. In November it played a friendly with Chile and lost yet again [1-2].

"Jump around"
[Rooney scores against Slovakia]

With six months to go, it seems that the cup is half-empty rather than half-full. Will Ellis Park Stadium witness a comfortable Italian win or is there still hope?

Italia [Italy]
My personal connection with Italian football is rather strong - aged three, I received a metal model of a Ferrari bearing an "Italia '90" logo on its roof. In the summer of 1994 I found myself passing by a nameless beach on the Italian eastern coast, only to see an Italian fan burning his country's flag in the aftermath of Roberto Baggio's (in)famous penalty miss. Twelve years later I was getting deja vus yet again - sitting by another beach in north-eastern Italy, the Italians seemed to lack another Baggio and converted all five penalties. As Fabio Grosso slotted the fifth one in, the crowd in the cafe below erupted with joy and the fan-van's roof [an old Fiat Uno with Il Tricolore painted on its roof] must have experienced the most demanding 15 minutes of its unreliable life...

"Simple twist of faith"

The past three years have not been easy for Italian football. Calciopoli [2006] shook the very foundations of Seria A. In 2007, football hooliganism reared its ugly head with the most serious of outcomes, as the Italian poliziotto Fillipo Raciti lost his life during the Catania v. Palermo football derby. Two months later, more violence followed during the Champions League AS Roma v. Manchester United fixture. Although AC Milan won the 2006/07 Champions League, most Italian clubs have not been too convincing over the past couple of years - just recall AS Roma's abysmal result against Manchester United [1-7], AC Milan's recent Champions League clashes with FC Zürich, or the defeat that Juventus suffered to Van Gaal's Bayern that is having a rather catastrophic season. At the club level, Italian football seems to be struggling with all sorts of problems, on as well as off the pitch and the major Italian teams seem to be losing touch with their Spanish and English counter-parts [fair dues to Fiorentina though!].

"To the left [?]"
[Villa beats Buffon at Euro 2008]

Although equating club to international football is a dangerous endeavor, filled with many pitfalls, Italy's performance in June 2008 [Euro] was far from convincing. In Group C ["C" for "death"] the Azzurri suffered a comprehensive defeat to the Dutch, drew with Romania and only a 2-0 win against Raymond Domenech's France [that name says it all...] enabled Donadoni's men to progress into the next stage. Italy lost to the overall winners [Spain] on penalties in the quarter-finals, exactly a year and a half ago. Italy did not lose a single game in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers, finishing six point ahead of Republic of Ireland, with which it drew twice [the Croke Park match was a real spectacle - Group 8 could have got an interesting spin had Gilardino not scored in the dying second of the game].

Gilardino is a heart-breaker

In my opinion, Italy may succumb to the "Czech disease". The team is not getting any younger, and Fabio Cannavaro recently told Francesco Totti and Alessandro Nesta to return to Italy. Andrea Pirlo is a prolific player, but what would his injury do to Italy's midfield? Can Italy's defense keep up with fast-paced football or could it do a "Maldini"? Will Gilardino continue his impressive performances and can you imagine him upfront with Totti? Will Marcello Lippi resurrect the spirit of 2006? These questions might not matter as far as Group F is concerned, although Lippi has been somewhat careful, commenting that the Azzurri "aren't satisfied or disappointed". Italy did "overcome monumental NZ effort", as a TVNZ headline proudly announced, but yet another meeting of the two sides in South Africa is likely to take place under completely different circumstances and with a much higher amount of effort [or motivation?] on the Italians' behalf. Even if the Italy-Paraguay game promises be a good one, the bookies and most experts alike still see Italy as Group F's favourite, with the odds of 1/2 to win the group and 1/10 chance to qualify. What will happen on 24 June 2010 in Johannesburg?

"Put on a happy face"

Slovensko [Slovakia]
This article could have been much different - in October Vladimír Weiss announced that Slovakia was likely to face Italy in a friendly on 18 November. In the end, Italy decided to play Sweden in a game that lacked many great players on both sides [Buffon, Pirlo, Cannavaro and Ibrahimovic were absent], but which the Azzurri reserves won 1-0.

Ellis Park Stadium
[South African Tourism via Flickr]

Italy and Slovakia have met only once - in January 1998 in Catania. An Italian side that included the current West Bromwich Albion manager Roberto Di Matteo, Milan legend Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Del Piero, but also Alessandro Nesta and Filippo Inzaghi, cruised to a comfortable 3-0 victory. Vladimír Weiss has a personal experience with playing the Italians at the World Cup [Czechoslovakia lost 0-2 and current Slovak coach played 58 minutes] - it is quite a shame that Roberto Donadoni is no longer Italy's coach, since he played in the very same match and in the very same position [midfield].

"Then and now"
[Slovakia manager Weiss at 1990 World Cup]

Given Slovakia's poor record against much better sides, it be could easily concluded that this will be yet another 3-0 victory to Italy. Republic of Ireland did, however, show that Italy is not invincible, having drawn 1-1 in Italy and 2-2 at home. Slovakia's most gifted player and team captain Marek Hamšík [SSC Napoli] seemed rather pleased with the draw and claimed that "we know more about the Italians than they do about us", but also conceded that the Squadra Azzurra is a "particularly strong opponent". Will this be sufficient to secure a point or push for three?

Marek Hamšík
[SSC Napoli midfielder]

A Slovak daily claims that 2 points might be enough for Slovakia to go through [although a sentence later warns that not even 6 points guarantee the second spot]. The game against Italy will be Slovakia's third at the World Cup - giving it enough time to get things right - something that the manager and most players emphasized in their post-draw reactions. Moreover, most commentators in Slovakia were fine with playing Italy as opposed to Brazil, Argentina, England, Spain or the Netherlands - i.e. Italy is seen as an "acceptable" option when it comes to Pot 1 teams. There is a ray of hope, and fans on some forums see the possibility of salvaging a draw. The concept of the final fixture of the group stages does create a certain amount of hope - fans hope that the Azzurri might end up either calculating [trying to avoid the Netherlands?] or resting their key players ahead of the second round, giving Slovakia a greater chance of securing a good result. Relying on the opponent is, however, short-sighted and could easily backfire. Let me therefore conclude on a similar note as in my Paraguay preview - Slovakia needs more experience and more games against solid opposition. The March friendly against England had a similar effect to the one played against Chile eight months ago, showing that Slovakia is no match for big teams that easily punish (nearly) every single mistake. Experience comes from big games and does not necessarily emerge from drawing boards or video analysis of the opponent. If Slovakia was to play Italy today, I would say we do not stand much chance. The real question is - how much can Weiss get done within the next half a year?   
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