Champions Italy let off the hook by yet another goalkeeper gaffe

Italy 1 Paraguay 1
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The Independent Football

At the end of his last match in a World Cup, which also finished in a 1-1 draw, Marcello Lippi returned to his hotel room in Berlin, poured himself a whisky, lit a cigar and replayed the game that won him football's ultimate trophy. What he would make of this match is rather less certain. The campaign to retain the trophy had been launched with a reasonable display, although the loss of goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon halfway through might have rather deeper consequences than the result.

Perhaps because, mingled in with the emotion that comes with winning a World Cup, is the realisation that you are unlikely to taste it again, motivating world champions at the beginning of a tournament is notoriously difficult. Given that the last 10 world champions mustered just six goals between them in their opening games when they returned to defend their trophy, Italy were actually above par.

Lippi's side in general and Riccardo Montolivo in particular were sometimes brutally treated by a Paraguay side that is a considerable improvement on the one overcome by England in the dry summer heat of Frankfurt four years ago. Here, in driving, incessant rain, their attacking options had been brutally curtailed by the shooting of Salvador Cabanas in a Mexican nightclub in January and the less dramatic injuries that prevented them starting with the obvious first-choice pairing of Roque Santa Cruz and Oscar Cardozo. When the latter came on, the cameras focused to one of his supporters offering a prayer. They would have settled for this and so, although they were the better side, would Italy.

Had Justo Villar, the Paraguay keeper and captain, not pushed away Montolivo's drive as it threw up a fountainful of water, Italy might have won. They, like Paraguay, required a set-piece to score as Daniele De Rossi met Simone Pepe's corner fractionally ahead of Lucas Barrios before running over to the bench to rub beards with Gennaro Gattuso, who appeared made for this unforgiving contest but who was strangely ignored by his manager.

Like a lot else in South Africa, the meteorological forecasts tend to be blunt and the one for the Western Cape read simply "terrible weather". It was not wrong and for once the sound of this World Cup, the humming of the vuvuzelas, was replaced by the pounding of ocean rain on to the roof of Green Point Stadium.

These are conditions that Antolin Alcaraz will come to recognise at Wigan, having agreed to join Roberto Martinez's club from Bruges last month. He might, however, find the DW Stadium could fit comfortably in one corner of Green Point.

Six minutes before half-time, as the rain streamed down, he rose above De Rossi and Fabio Cannavaro to head home a curving, curling, beautifully delivered free-kick from Aureliano Torres. The ball made itself at home in Buffon's net and the world champions wondered what had happened. Lippi gave a faint shrug of his shoulders. His opposite number, Gerardo Martino, who had spent the preceding half an hour wiping raindrops from his glasses, punched the air.

The Italians had arrived in Cape Town disparaged and dismissed. They were too old, Lippi had put too much faith in the men who had won him the trophy in Berlin, they had been performing badly for as long as anyone could remember. In fact, there were only four men over 30 while Lippi relied on just three of the team that had started the last World Cup final, which was reduced to two when Buffon was replaced by the rather less heralded Federico Marchetti after the interval.

Once Montolivo had recovered from the shock of being scythed down by Cristian Riveros with the kind of reckless cynicism that might have seen Paraguay reduced to 10 men before a minute had elapsed, Italy played quite well without ever threatening to take the game by the throat or even by the lapels. They were struggling to impose themselves, goals were elusive and they were being shown scant respect. In short, they were playing like world champions.

Italy (4-2-3-1): Buffon (Marchetti, h-t); Zambrotta, Cannavaro, Chiellini, Criscito; De Rossi, Montolivo; Pepe, Marchisio (Camoranesi, 59), Iaquinta; Gilardino (Di Natale, 73).

Paraguay (4-1-3-2): Villar; Bonet, Alcaraz, Da Silva, Morel; Cacares; Vera, Riveros, Torres (Santana, 60); Valdez (Santa Cruz, 69), Barrios (Cardozo, 76).

Referee B Archundia (Mexico).