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Italy secured top spot in the World Cup’s Group E in Hamburg on Thursday and a place in the last 16 with a nervous 2-0 win over Czech Republic.
In a tournament so far short of shocks, the Czechs are hardly slain giants. But they became the first side of tradition (two losing finals) and stature forced to go home.
The place they expected in the next round goes to Africa’s flag-carriers, Ghana. But the Italians were involved here and, with the national genius for such matters, they managed to turn the fairly simple task of qualification into both a drama and a crisis.
They achieved victory against the background of the imminent announcement back home of the charges against leading clubs and possibly individuals contingent on the country’s match-fixing crisis. Only in Italy would a prosecutor choose such a moment.
The Italian cause was given a boost when the Czechs were reduced to 10 men: Jan Polak was sent off just before half-time for a particularly foolish second yellow card.
With the towering Jan Koller injured and Milan Baros officially on the field but playing the invisible man role familiar to those who remember his stint with Liverpool, the once-feared Czech attack was reduced to impotence.
Two things kept them in the game until the closing moments. One was a performance of wondrous energy from their captain Pavel Nedved. Blond mane flowing, he surged round the third quarter of the field, without ever being able to find a gap in the Italian defence.
The other factor was Italy’s hopelessness in front of goal. This was by far their most controlled performance so far, one that at moments might have convinced observers they could yet be serious contenders – they played far worse than this in the early stages of 1982 and went on to win the trophy.
But football is decided by boring arithmetical supremacy rather than technical merit or artistic impression. And, like England, they appear to have omitted the small detail of sorting out how, why, where and when the goals might come. Luca Toni, hailed as a potential Golden Boot winner only
10 days ago, was dropped yesterday.
Indeed, it may have been fortuitous that centre-back Alessandro Nesta was injured early on. That brought on Marco Matarazzi, another of the tournament’s giraffes, who had the height to latch on to a 25th-minute corner and head the ball down into the corner of the net to put Italy one up.
That rescued the game from its early shapelessness. And in the second half, with the Czechs a man down, Italy were able to take
But their failure to put the result beyond doubt sometimes beggared belief. Mauro Camoranesi headed, or pony-tailed, the ball wide from in front of goal. Mario Inzaghi also missed a sitter of a header.
It was only when the Czechs pushed everyone forward in the closing minutes that Inzaghi was able to latch on to a pass in the centre circle and run right through a deserted Czech half that the equaliser came. And even then he almost failed to finish the job of rounding goalkeeper Petr Cech and side-footing home. Manager Marcello Lippi’s expression was one of exasperated relief rather than delight.
Ghana will give the knock-out phase at least a temporary sense of globalisation and romance.
Italy will provide all kinds of thrills and spills, on and off the field. But they have still only conceded a single goal. The traditional Italian defensive virtues are still there. And that gives them reason to believe, for a while longer at least.
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