Group F: Italy turn to Pirlo to rescue their faltering title defence

Slovakia v Italy; Today, 3pm, ITV 1. Paraguay v New Zealand; Today, 3pm, ITV 4
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The Independent Football

Paraguay will qualify with a draw or a win. They could even afford to lose and still go through if Italy fail to beat Slovakia.

Italy will definitely qualify with a win, but a draw could be enough if Paraguay beat New Zealand.

Victory for New Zealand will see them through, but a draw will do it if Italy lose. Slovakia have to win to qualify.

Belief in the Italian national team is so low, and corruption in Italy's football so rife, that senior politician Umberto Bossi, the coalition partner of the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, said yesterday the only way the world champions can qualify for the last 16 today is if they bribe their Slovakian opponents.

After two tediously dull draws with Paraguay and New Zealand, the champions of 2006 face elimination today should they fail to win their final group game. A draw may be enough, but a victory will ensure the Azzurri avoid exiting the World Cup at the group stage for the first time since 1974.

Bossi, the head of the separatist Northern League party, has little faith in coach Marcello Lippi's ability to inspire a victory. "Anyway they will buy the game," Bossi said. "You'll see. In the next season there will be two or three Slovak footballers playing in Italian teams."

Bossi was widely criticised for his remarks, which were dismissed as "disconcerting and offensive" by the Italian football federation, but they reflect the widespread dismay at the performances of Lippi's defending champions.

In both games the Italians have had to come back after falling behind. "I think we're trying too hard," Lippi said. "We were all sure of what we needed to do, but maybe allowing early goals in both games has changed our approach in some manner. We've got to take responsibility, because nobody is happy."

Lippi is expected to make changes from the side that drew against New Zealand, with Andrea Pirlo hopeful of returning to the side after injuring his calf in a friendly with Mexico on 3 June.

One crumb of comfort for Italy is that Slovakia, who came to South Africa with high hopes of qualifying for the knockout stages, have been even worse, losing 2-0 to Paraguay and drawing 1-1 with New Zealand. In total they have managed just three shots on target. "I really don't know what our problem is," the midfielder Miroslav Stoch said. "We are making a lot of mistakes."

Slovakia can, however, progress to the next round if they beat Italy while New Zealand and Paraguay draw. Group leaders Paraguay need only a draw to qualify, but will fancy their chances of beating the Kiwis. New Zealand, ranked 78th in the world, could still qualify if they beat Paraguay, and are confident following their unheralded draws with Slovakia and Italy. But their captain, Ryan Nelsen, admitted the surprise factor had now gone. "Probably people underestimated us, and now they're not," he said. "They know they'll have to play well to beat us."