Santa Cruz motivated by stricken strike partner's plight

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The Independent Football

There will be a shadow over Roque Santa Cruz throughout this World Cup, cast by a man who but for a burst of gunfire would have been leading the Paraguay attack with him. More than almost anyone else, Salvador Cabanas was responsible for Paraguay's progress to South Africa until the small hours of 25 January, when he was shot in the head in a Mexico City nightclub as a robbery went badly wrong.

The bullet was too deeply lodged in Cabanas' skull for it to be removed and, although there were initial hopes he might even recover to accompany Paraguay to the World Cup, they proved illusory. "It is very painful to see him the way he is now," Santa Cruz said yesterday. "The first thing is for him to get a proper life and so far he is doing fantastically well. But not to see him with us and not to see him 100 per cent is very painful. We can feel it in the team and we miss him a lot but we are thankful that he should be able to lead a decent life with his wife and kids.

"We have talked to him through Skype and he can recognise us and talk properly, although you do notice that he is not the same as he was yet and that, too, is very painful. We are trying to help him by asking his doctors if it's OK to talk to us. We only want him to be the same person he was before."

Santa Cruz did not start Monday night's sodden 1-1 draw with the world champions, Italy, in Cape Town, suffering from the kind of niggling injuries that so reduced his impact at Manchester City. Three league goals – only one of which was scored for Roberto Mancini – does not represent much of a return on a £17m investment and Santa Cruz expects competition to be even fiercer at Eastlands next season.

"The supporters were disappointed because they knew what was achievable for the team with all the big names we had," Santa Cruz said of City's fifth-placed finish. "Next year will bring a lot of pressure.

"I think Manchester City will sign more strikers in the summer; we want to fight for the title next season so we expect to strengthen the team and, if strikers do come, they will be big names. But I will be ready. Last season the fight for places was incredible and next season we want it to be even tougher."

For the Italians starting slowly is nothing new, and their coach Marcello Lippi was far from worried after the Azzurri opened the defence of their World Cup title with a less than spectacular draw.

When Italy won their third World Cup in 1982, they opened with a 0-0 draw against Poland. And in 1994, when they went on to reach the final, Arrigo Sacchi's side were beaten 1-0 by Ireland in their first game.

"At a World Cup you've got to build belief, confidence and condition game by game," Lippi said yesterday. "I've never seen a team start off at 100 per cent and maintain that for seven games."

Italy did begin their title run four years ago with an encouraging 2-0 win over Ghana, but then stumbled in the next match, drawing 1-1 with the United States, before finding the consistency to reel off five more victories.

"Four years ago in our debut we risked much, much more – although we also created several more chances," Lippi said.

While Paraguay rarely challenged Italy's defence during open play – their goal came from a set piece – Italy struggled to organise in attack, rarely getting the ball to their centre-forward Alberto Gilardino.

"We've got to improve, and I'm sure that we will improve. But so far I haven't seen any perfect squads at this World Cup," Lippi said, adding that he would continue to tinker with his formation.

Lippi started without Serie A scoring leader Antonio Di Natale, bringing him on only for the final 22 minutes. Simone Pepe excelled on the right wing at the start, but then swapped places with Vincenzo Iaquinta for the second half, when midfielder Daniele De Rossi slid in to redirect a corner for the equaliser.

Lippi wasn't interested in making comparisons with Germany's 4-0 win over Australia on Sunday. "If yesterday we had scored four goals, won 4-0 and dominated, of course I would have been happy," Lippi said. "But for something like that to happen it's nearly impossible. It happened to Germany because the match took a certain turn. Let's not forget that they played with an extra man after the Australian was sent off."

Italy next meet New Zealand on Sunday, then finish their Group F schedule against Slovakia four days later. "Our condition is improving and as we get better we'll start creating more chances and scoring more goals," the coach said, adding that he was pleased with the performance of Riccardo Montolivo, who replaced the injured midfielder Andrea Pirlo.