Italy left with work to do
Think of it: New Zealand hold Italy to a draw and one cannot even praise their goalkeeper Mark Paston for the result. Why, you may ask? Because doing so would suggest the Azzurri had laid siege to the New Zealand goal and only some goalkeeping magic had frustrated them. Well, Paston did have some great saves, but most of the shots originated from random situations, not as a result of the kind of set-up play that Italy were expected to produce against a moderately talented side.
Before the game, while basically letting everybody know he was going to use a 4-4-2 as he had done in the second half against Paraguay, coach Marcello Lippi had hinted at the approach his side would have to adopt in order to maximize its chances of a win: a) defend well on set-pieces, b) bring midfielders closer to the penalty area and c) move the ball quickly on the ground, taking advantage of the New Zealanders' lack of speed in defence.
It took all of seven minutes to take care of the first point, when New Zealand scored with the very move Italy had practiced, and been warned against. One of the strengths of the Azzurri in 2006 had been their defence, both from dead-ball situations and from open play, and this does not seem to be the case this time, at least as far as the former is concerned.
Giving away goals in such circumstances has, then, given Italy trouble in both games so far. For a side that does not seem to float in a cloud of confidence, each setback has meant several minutes of wasted time in recovering from the shock and reorganising, and, of course, trying to equalise. In Germany four years ago, the Azzurri played from a position of strength in all matches bar the final, and the presence of a calm recipient and distributor of the ball like Andrea Pirlo helped keep the status quo and set the tempo Italy required.
This time, Italy went behind early in both matches and their inability to break down defences has been all too evident, especially as they made it hard for themselves by failing to fulfil Lippi's requirements b) and c). Daniele de Rossi and Riccardo Montolivo did have good shots from outside the box, but the ball never travelled around the New Zealand 10-man wall quickly enough to find an attacker in isolation that could pose an immediate threat, and lure defenders out of their central zone.
Claudio Marchisio, back on the left side of the 4-4-2 after an indifferent game as a trequartista in the 4-2-3-1, never produced such a moment despite Lippi frequently urging that he take on an opponent. The half-time removal of the Juventus player and Simone Pepe may have been the result of their failure to follow the coach's orders (will they blame the vuvuzelas for that?). Although you wonder, as many have already started doing on TV and on websites, why leave at home players with one-on-one abilities like Mario Balotelli then ask others to do a job they're less qualified to do.
You do then feel Lippi is frantically trying to find the right combination. Those two substitutions at half-time may have smacked of desperation, but they were part of an interesting tactical ploy that Lippi himself revealed after the game.
Antonio Di Natale and Mauro Camoranesi, positioned as forwards in a 4-3-3, would try to lure the defenders on either side out of the centre, which in turn would open up more opportunities inside, but the change in tactics did not work. Neither of the newcomers managed to create the right opportunities and poor Alberto Gilardino, almost invisible for the second game in a row, was always crowded out by the New Zealand central defenders.
You can understand why Lippi quickly went to a 4-2-3-1, sending on Giampaolo Pazzini, a striker who's at his best getting on the end of crosses, while pushing Vincenzo Iaquinta and Di Natale wide and having Camoranesi link up play as a trequartista.
Apparently, New Zealand defenders looked at all of this with the same sort of bemusement they'd show if someone told them they're the greatest football team the world has ever seen. While Italian players were moving around at different paces - pace does seem to be a weakness this time - they kept their poise, their shape and their spirit, taking a leaf out of the well-worn book several sides have been going through in South Africa.
Italy are not alone in this tournament in their inability to break down a well-organized side, but the gulf in class between the Azzurri and New Zealand makes a draw an extremely disappointing result for them, and may well precipitate the kind of crisis that has become typical of Italy's involvement in most major tournaments, sometimes to good effect.
Oddly enough, before the game Lippi had appeared more confident than he'd been for a while, noting how his players had grown, in physical and psychological condition, since arriving in South Africa. Perhaps he sensed the sort of growing confidence that he had famously detected four years ago before the crucial semi-final against Germany.
Ironically, Italy may only need a draw against Slovakia, who did not impress in losing to Paraguay, in order to go through, but some things do need to be straightened out. Will Alberto Gilardino lose his place? Will Pepe, who had at times appeared to be the most energetic man in the Azzurri shirt before being left out after half-time against New Zealand? Will Lippi insist on considering Marchisio a starter? Will he ask Pirlo to speed up his recovery and place him in control of midfield, moving Montolivo forward? Will he put Pirlo in as a trequartista who can deliver a final ball?
And will everybody keep reminding us that the situation looks eerily similar to what happened in 1982, when Italy entered the final game of the group phase with a foot already out of the door then ended up winning it all? Of course, once you enter the knockout stage anything can happen, but anything may also include a quick trip back home.