Italy 1 Romania 1: Buffon grasps a lifeline for Italy as world champions avoid early exit

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The Independent Football

The world champions Italy, much changed following the humiliating 3-0 defeat by the Netherlands, played their part in a storming match in Zurich yesterday, but had only a point to show for it after a succession of dramas.

They would have lost and been out of the tournament had Gianluigi Buffon not saved a late penalty from Adrian Mutu, who had earlier put a surprisingly bold Romania ahead. Christian Panucci, the former Chelsea full-back involved in controversy over Ruud van Nistelrooy's "offside" goal, continued his highly eventful week by equalising within a minute, then conceding the penalty.

Roberto Donadoni stuck to his promise to shake up the starting XI, making five changes in all, and Italy looked all the better for them in an eventful if goalless first 45 minutes. The former Everton defender Marco Materazzi was among the fall guys, as well as Andrea Barzagli, Gennaro Gattuso, once of Rangers, Massimo Ambrosini and Antonio Di Natale. In came the adventurous Fabio Grosso at left-back, Giorgio Chiellini in the centre of defence, Daniele De Rossi, Simone Perrotta, the midfielder born in Ashton-under-Lyme, and Alessandro Del Piero.

Del Piero had been belatedly introduced during the Dutch debacle to support Toni, making a remarkable comeback at 33 after a season in which his achievement of finishing as Serie A's leading scorer persuaded Donadoni he was worth a place again. It was his 88th international, which meant that by Italian tradition he took the captain's armband from the Buffon, a novice with his 83 previous caps. Like Gianluca Zambrotta, who is about to move from Barcelona to Milan, Del Piero was even in the team that beat Romania in the quarter-final at Euro 2000.

Romania, still without their leading striker Ciprian Marica, made two changes and amended their philosophy as well to allow for the possibility of actually attacking the opposition. Having survived early pressure inspired by Del Piero, they were three times close to a goal in the middle period of the first half, two of them from long-range free-kicks. Gabriel Tamas, a centre-half, struck one from fully 35 yards that Buffon did well to push away and, although Italy should have been well aware of the set-piece abilities of Cristian Chivu, who plays for Internazionale, his strike from similar distance bounced off Christian Panucci's thigh and on to a post.

Another Serie A Romanian, Fiorentina's Mutu, also gave Buffon an opportunity to demonstrate why he rivals Petr Cech as the world's best goalkeeper. Having complained about being left isolated on the left in the previous game, the former Chelsea man burst through the middle but could not quite make his point with a goal, Buffon again saving well.

It was altogether much livelier fare than expected. Italy were positive too, with Grosso replicating his World Cup role as an attacking full-back and good crosses coming in from both flanks for the lanky striker Toni, who made good use of an advantage of several inches over his main marker Tamas.

He headed one cross down early on for Del Piero, whose shot was deflected wide, then provided a cut-back from the byline for the captain, who nodded wide.

After the little Romanian flurry, interrupted when Mirel Radoi clashed heads with a team-mate and had to be substituted, Italy finished the half on top. Four more times Toni won important headers, bringing one tremendous save from Bogdan Lobont just inside a post, and then beating him only to be wrongly given offside when flashing in Zambrotta's centre following a short corner. In between, he nodded down for Perrotta, who almost became the first Englishman to score at the tournament but was denied by Dorin Goian's tremendous block.

The second half began as the first had ended, with another cross chipped in for Toni, this time by Andrea Pirlo, to which the goalkeeper for once beat him. It did seem a mistake not to assign marking duties to Goian, much the taller of the two central defenders.

Romania, having made their point in every sense against France, were not prepared just to sit back for a second game. Mutu almost gave their excitable support a first goal of the tournament to cheer, cutting in to shoot at Buffon, then did so in the next attack. The right-back Cosmin Contra hit a huge free-kick more than half the length of the pitch which Zambrotta, trying to head back to his goalkeeper, laid straight into the path of Mutu, who thrashed it into the roof of the net before disappearing under a crush of yellow shirts.

But within a minute in what was becoming one of the best matches of the competition, Italy equalised. They won a corner on the left, curled by Pirlo to the far post, where Chiellini headed it back for Panucci to sneak behind two dozing defenders and tap in.

Still the chances came. Mutu, clearly enjoying his more offensive role, fed Florentin Petre in space, only for Grosso, who seemed to have been caught out of position, to recover and bring off a heroic block, which he then repeated to deny Daniel Niculae.

With 10 minutes left, the Norwegian referee took a leaf out of Howard Webb's book and awarded a penalty against Panucci for holding Niculae. Buffon was going the wrong way to Mutu's kick but got a hand to the ball, deflecting it onto his foot and away. What a game.

Italy (4-2-3-1): Buffon (Juventus); Zambrotta (Barcelona), Panucci ((Roma), Chiellini (Juventus), Grosso (Lyons); Pirlo (Milan), De Rossi (Roma); Camoranesi (Juventus), Perrotta (Roma), Del Piero (Juventus); Toni (Bayern Munich). Substitutes used: Cassano (Sampdoria) for Perrotta, 55.

Romania (4-3-2-1): Lobont (Dinamo); Contra (Getafe), Goian (Steaua), Tamas (Auxerre), Rat (Shakhktar Donetsk); Codrea (Sienna), Radoi (Steaua), Chivu (Internazionale); Petre (CSKA Sofia), Mutu (Fiorentina); D Niculae (Auxerre). Substitues: Dica (Steaua) for Radoi, 24. Nicolita (Steaua) for Petre, 59.

Booked: Romania Mutu.

Referee: T Ovrebo (Norway).