Toothless Italy offer meek surrender
When a champion is deposed, they often bare their teeth one last time before their crown is surrendered. So it proved as Italy lost their grip on the World Cup. Here, a late surge of energy and determination was not nearly enough but in briefly revealing a spirit previously lacking in their performances at these finals, 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 valour, 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 are fully justified in taking their 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 their crown, Italy join the French in World Cup ignominy, but cannot even offer a soap opera of in-fighting and backstabbery to explain their exit. The truth lies somewhere between twin realisations that the Italians were either not good enough or did not play well enough. Same difference; they have simply 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 ageing team that has not moved on from the glory of 2006. But that does not mean it was the same team. Of the starters against the Slovaks only Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluca Zambrotta and Gennaro Gattuso remained from the starting line-up 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 their 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 his country's captain and inspiration who, despite his addiction to tattoos, is a one-man marketing machine back in his home nation. The Italians will have been 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 they 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 listless and listing performance of the first 75 minutes confirmed that a manager can only be as good as his players. Lippi may 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 of '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 round the pitch. Injuries have seen to that and he was sacrificed at half-time for a forward in Fabio Quagliarella, a highly influential figure 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 the Milan playmaker once had in his heyday. The old master, just about playing on one leg, may 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 half-time, when, clearly 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 while 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 for the goal that gave the Slovaks a half-time lead. He also supplied the second from a Hamsik pass as Cannavaro in particular was found wanting in defence. 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".
MAN OF THE MATCH - Miroslav Stoch. Exploiting the space that had been opened up by Italian shackles being placed on Hamsik, the FC Twente man made murderous use of his captain's sacrifice by coming in from the wings to run at the single-paced centre of the Italian defence. Signors Zambrotta and Cannavaro were both exposed to his running and he can only have hastened the end of their international careers.
ITALY VERDICT: The best that can be said is that the second half offered more than the first. Yet it also exposed the soft centre of the Italian defence, as they succumbed to two breakaway strikes.
SLOVAKIA VERDICT: Their nation can be rightly proud of their efforts in first frustrating their supposedly illustrious opponents from being able to get into any type of flow and then scoring goals in clinical style. Coach Weiss tried to hold back the tears. "I am very proud of my team," he eventually blubbed.
THE BEST ACTOR AWARD GOES TO: Slovakian goalkeeper Jan Mucha has missed his calling. His, while not exactly a fail-safe showing in his day job, was a bravura performance of play-acting whenever an Italian came near. Quagliarella was the recipient of the first act and referee Howard Webb erred in not booking the goalkeeper. He was, however, yellow carded later for striking at Iaquinta when he should have perhaps have been shown a red for holding on to the ball and then lashing out after Italy's first goal. Webb may not be too amused as he may yet be assessed by FIFA as getting that decision wrong.