With the waves of scandal breaking around them, Italy yesterday brushed off the cobwebs from the deadbolts which for so long secured their defences and defined their football. They then ruthlessly shut the Czechs out of this tournament, ending for good the World Cup ambitions of one of the most celebrated players of their domestic game.
While Pavel Nedved goes home the Italians stay, perhaps to receive visits from the prosecutors investing the match-fixing claims back home. It is an odd way to contest a World Cup but, indicated their coach, Marcello Lippi, it is bringing the squadra together. "This team has terrific spirit, probably the most I have had in any team," Lippi said. He added: "We deserve to qualify, we played two great games to beat Ghana and Czech Republic."
Their second game, when they failed to beat nine-man America, had prompted much introspection leaving Lippi to decommission the "trident", his three-man attack. Alberto Gilardino led the line, with Francesco Totti supporting. The Czechs also fielded a solitary striker, but it was through necessity not fear that Milan Baros climbed off the physio's couch.
An already difficult task became nigh insurmountable when Marco Materazzi headed in Totti's 26th-minute corner, and impossible when Jan Polak daftly got himself sent off just before half-time. After that only wasteful Italian finishing kept the game alive, Filippo Inzaghi finally killing off the game late on.
"Playing with 10 men was just too difficult," said Karel Bruckner, the Czech coach. Even before Polak was dismissed Baros was isolated. All the Czechs' threat came from Nedved who played like a man possessed. If he was the player the Czechs looked to for inspiration he was also the man Italy worried about. Alessandro Nesta clattered into him early on. Rene Gattuso, who never strayed far from his side, was later booked for bringing him down.
Despite this Nedved etched his quality on the game. If it is to be his farewell it was a noble one, albeit to no avail. After nine minutes he wrong-footed the Italian defence as he delivered, with the outside of his boot, an invitation to score which Baros, if match-sharp, would have accepted. With Tomas Rosicky smothered by a blue blanket whenever he went forward, and Karel Poborsky ineffective, Nedved became a one-man assault force. He peppered Gianluca Buffon's goal with a series of shots stretching his Juventus team-mate time and again.
It was not enough. Italy, having barely left their half, silenced the Czechs with Materazzi's goal. The defender had replaced Nesta who suffered a groin injury. It was like substituting extra virgin olive oil with chip fat but Materazzi's power has its uses and no one got near his towering header.
After Polak went, having received yellow cards for a mild challenge on Mauro Camoranesi, and a reckless one from behind on Totti, Italy took control. Petr Cech twice denied Totti, Inzaghi missed two sitters, Fabio Cannavaro volleyed over after a sublime corner routine. Eventually Italy broke unchallenged and Inzaghi rounded Cech to score.
At the end Nedved sunk to his knees before being consoled by Totti, an old foe. Team-mates Cannavaro, Alessandro Del Piero, who had watched from the bench, Camoranesi and Buffon followed. It remains to be seen whether they will all be meeting up at the Stadio Delle Alpi next season, and what division Juve will be in. For now the Italians can look forward to a date in Kaiserslautern on Monday. Nedved has only the yawning void of another disappointment to deal with.Reuse content