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June 24, 2010

Deposed champs never had a chance

By John Brewin
ESPNSoccernet
(Archive)

JOHANNESBURG -- When champions are deposed, they often bare their teeth one last time before their crown is surrendered. So it proved as Italy lost its grip on the World Cup. At Ellis Park against Slovakia, a late surge of energy and determination was not nearly enough, but in briefly revealing a spirit previously lacking in their performances at this World Cup, they had pinpointed the true reason for their demise.

Departing Azzurri coach Marcello Lippi said he knew the reason, too. Himself. Blind-siding what was expected to be a baying Italian press pack, Lippi repeatedly took full responsibility. "We had terror in our hearts and legs; the coach did not train them as he should have done," he said. "It's a logical matter. I take all responsibility."

In this last act of valor, Lippi shielded his underperforming players from a barrage that surely -- and deservedly -- awaits them. Slovakia meanwhile had pulled off a victory destined for national legend, and is fully justified in taking its place in the knockout stages. An emotional coach Vladimir Weiss stated: "The whole of Slovakia is very happy. It is a fantastic day for us."

In surrendering its crown, Italy joins the French in World Cup ignominy, and cannot even offer a soap opera of infighting and backstabbery to explain its exit. The truth lies somewhere between twin realizations that the Italians were either not good enough or did not play well enough. Same difference; they simply have not been deserving of a place in the second round.

Italy's previous efforts in Group F had been poor but did not share this depth of surrender. The accusation has frequently been that this is an aging team that has not moved on from the glory of 2006. But that does not mean it was not a different team. Of the starters against the Slovaks, only Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluca Zambrotta and Gennaro Gattuso remained from the starting lineup in the final in Berlin four years ago, while Daniele De Rossi, a substitute that night, nominally played in the position vacated by Andrea Pirlo, whose metronomic passing was key to Italy's victory then. De Rossi's current companions are clearly not of a class anywhere near as high as their predecessors. Pirlo would later be introduced in emergency but he too is now victim to the passing of time.

Slovakia's jewel in the crown is the much-coveted Napoli playmaker Marek Hamsik. At 22, he is his country's captain and inspiration and, despite his addiction to tattoos, is a one-man marketing machine back in his home nation. The Italians are familiar with his talents, since all are with Serie A clubs. Very few of their team -- Cannavaro, Zambrotta and Gattuso aside -- have served time out of their home country, and the Italians rival the English in their low footballing import/export ratio. That Hamsik is so lauded in Italy should have served as a counterpoint to the troubles of his adopted home's own team. How Lippi would have liked a player to have provided such energy and, as Weiss put it, "high quality."

The Italians' listless and listing performance of the first 75 minutes confirmed that a coach can only be as good as his players. Lippi might have been the architect of Italy's fourth world title, but he was blessed then with a squad at its peak. Now, despite his protestations that he came back with "great enthusiasm," his return can now serve as further proof of that old footballing adage, "Never go back."

The same goes for his heroes of four years ago. Cannavaro had been speaking of international retirement after this tournament. On this evidence, it should not be left to his personal choice. Zambrotta is a pale shadow of the man who destroyed Ukraine in the last eight in 2006, while Gattuso can no longer snap and snarl his way around the pitch. Injuries have seen to that and he was sacrificed at halftime for a forward in Fabio Quagliarella, a highly influential man in Italy's late surge, but not nearly enough to rescue the now-former holders.

Pirlo's return was a last throw of the dice that came after just 55 minutes. It was a risk, but one worth taking. Riccardo Montolivo had proved to be a weak replacement as he and De Rossi combined could not nearly match the influence Pirlo once had in his heyday. The old master, just about playing on one leg, might have soon been exerting influence, showing off his ability to locate space and supply pinpoint passing, yet his designated forwards were not of the quality that the likes of Francesco Totti or Alessandro Del Piero once provided. Or even Luca Toni, for that matter.

Injured Gianluigi Buffon, the saver of those French penalties in Berlin, could play no part, yet his anguish was apparent at halftime, when, steering clear of the dressing room, he made his feelings clear to his fellow reserves. His expression reflected an Italian desperation that grew ever greater as Howard Webb's full-time whistle approached. Their pressing for a foothold in the game opened up space for the Slovakians to exploit, with Miroslav Stoch, once of Chelsea, finding space where Hamsik was being watched.

All three Slovakian goals exposed the depths of Italian weaknesses. Robert Vittek was the recipient of slack work from De Rossi on the goal that gave the Slovaks a halftime lead. He also supplied the second from a Hamsik pass as Cannavaro in particular was found wanting in defense. The third -- from Kamil Kopunek -- was a breakaway of the type the Italians should have patented after Germany 2006, and it sent their fans streaming for the exit.

Lippi, still playing the humility card, tried to deliver a telling valediction on a contrasting pair of tenures as Italy boss. "I don't regret coming back. It was an experience I wanted to be replicated. I played an important part when we had good results in the past," he said of 2006. On 2010, all he could offer was, "I'm sorry."

John Brewin is the senior editor for ESPNSoccernet.com.