Italy 1 United States 1: Scars and stripes as misfiring Italy are taken to limit

Arena's men make their point in bruising battle that brings three red cards
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The Independent Online

A contest of countless heroes, notably US striker Brian McBride and goalkeeper Kasey Keller, and rather too many villains. After a series of World Cup group games designed to satisfy the aesthetes and purists, this was car-crash football at it most fascinating, a contest of three dismissals, countless yellow cards, and controversy, which leaves the group beautifully poised, the USA still dreaming, and the Azzurri wondering how victory eluded them.

It was only the fourth occasion in World Cup finals history that three players ­ Pablo Mastroeni and Eddie Pope of the USA and Italy's Daniele de Rossi -- were red-carded in the same game, and though the Uruguayan referee, Jorge Larrionda, had his work cut out, he appeared to be spot on with his decisions which followed a malicious elbow by De Rossi in the face of McBride to earn him a straight red and Mastroeni's nasty sliding challenge on Andrea Pirlo which received similar punishment. Pope was given two yellows.

Not that the US coach Bruce Arena concurred. By the finish he just about had control of his emotions, and was satisfied with the outcome. Earlier, he looked destined for a coronary. "That was a clear red," he said of De Rossi's assault on McBride, for which he later apologised. "It was a vicious elbow that could have broken his face. If Pablo's was a straight red... then that's the judgement of the referee."

But Arena added pointedly: "If our nation was a power in the game, we'd get a little more respect [from officials]. One day the US will get some of those calls in their favour. But we can't dwell on it, and I'm pleased with the way the guys responded in a difficult position. The way our team held together and got a point was fantastic."

Keller, the former Millwall, Leicester and Spurs keeper who was primarily responsible for his team securing the point with magnificent saves, particularly from Alessandro del Piero, paid tribute to McBride. " Brian's already got a few titanium plates in his face and he'll stick his head in where he shouldn't." The striker, whose face was covered with blood after De Rossi's assault on him, had three stitches in his cheek.

At one stage in a second half, almost all of which his team had to contest a man down, the USA looked as if they might even inflict a defeat on Italy, who, desperate though they were for the three points to ensure that they do not face Brazil in the knock-out stage, failed to dominate until the latter stages. Substitute DaMarcus Beasley actually had the ball in the net with a fine angled drive, but McBride was in an offside position, right in front of goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.

The earlier defeat of the Czech Republic by Ghana left the group wide open, and Italy knew they could not afford to yield points. Victory would leave Marcello Lippi's men poised to win the group. That would secure a meeting with, probably, Croatia or Australia. The runner-up will almost certainly face Brazil.

Only a game, they say, and that point was reinforced by the fact that Arena's men had the backing of troops from the nearby Ramstein air base, which despatches units to Iraq and Afghanistan. However, loose words had already caused controversy, with US substitute Eddie Johnson being castigated by the Italian media for suggesting that "we're here for war". As De Rossi inexplicably assaulted McBride in the first half, such a contention was, as an unfortunate sporting analogy, not far amiss.

Italy regrouped after the sending-off, leaving Alberto Gilardino up front. Towards the break, Francesco Totti was replaced by Gennaro Gattuso. Suddenly, a contest that had appeared a formality for Italy was transformed into a severe examination ­ though by the interval the USA were also reduced to 10 men.

The USA had swept forward dangerously in the opening minutes. Yet, for all their pressure, they fell behind midway through the half when Pirlo despatched a wicked free-kick in front of Keller. Gilardino dived forward to head past the keeper. Within five minutes the US were deservedly level. Cristian Zaccardo tried to lash Bobby Convey's in-swinging corner to safety, and instead succeed in diverting it into his own net.

Barely had the second half begun than US defender Pope was also dismissed, for a second yellow after bringing down Gilardino. Down to nine men, the US faced a seemingly impossible mission just to secure a share of the spoils, and Carlos Bocanegra almost did Italy's work for them by heading the ball against his own bar.

The dismissals opened up the play even further, andthe US looked likelier to take advantage. In the final minutes, Del Piero tested Keller, but the keeper was in Herculean form and the USA were rewarded with a merited draw.

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