First Argentina, now Italy. In the land of earthquakes, the old footballing empires are starting to shake. Like the tournament co-favourites the previous night, defeat has left Italy with little margin for error in their final group match.
First Argentina, now Italy. In the land of earthquakes, the old footballing empires are starting to shake. Like the tournament co-favourites the previous night, defeat has left Italy with little margin for error in their final group match. While Argentina have to beat Sweden to qualify for the last 16, Italy, who conceded two goals in four minutes against a lively Croatia side, must wait for the result of the match between Mexico and Ecuador today to determine the exact extent of their own task against Mexico in Oita on Thursday.
The odds are still on the Azzurri finding a way through the statistical maze. The last time Italy failed to qualify for the second stage of the tournament was 28 years ago in Germany. A similar humiliation, following the undignified exit of their clubs from European competition, would be too much for Italian pride. But, despite scoring two goals that were both disallowed by referee Graham Poll, the three- times world champions had only themselves to blame. This was a tactically sterile performance, which relied too heavily on the long ball into the channels for Christian Vieri to chase and on Christian Panucci's rapidly delivered crosses from the right for Vieri to head.
Without Alessandro Del Piero to complement Vieri, who scored his third goal of the tournament with a well-timed header from Cristiano Doni's cross 10 minutes after half-time, the creative duties fall too heavily on the slender shoulders of Francesco Totti. As the Roman was well policed all night by the combative Stjepan Tomas, Italy were woefully short of invention in the last third of the field. In contrast, Croatia, with Milan Rapaic, the impressive young Davor Vugri-nec and Niko Kovac forming a neat triangle in front of the Italian defence, looked unrecognisable from the aging side beaten by Mexico in their opening game. On the bench, Robert Prosinecki and Davor Suker sat side by side, knowing their days should have been numbered several months ago.
Not that Croatia's victory was without controversy. One perfectly good goal was disallowed for offside by the Danish assistant referee, Jens Larsen, and when the ball trickled apologetically into the Croatia goal in stoppage time, having evaded goalkeeper, defenders and attack-ers, it seemed that Italy's luck had held. But Poll had spotted a foul by Filippo Inzaghi and ruled it out.
At the final whistle, the English official was harangued by a succession of Italian players, but the neutral could only muster limited sympathy for the protests. The impression inspired by Giovanni Trapattoni and the languid demeanour of the players is that Italy already have one eye on the knockout stages. Some drastic surgery might be required if they survive that long, for Paolo Maldini has reached a World Cup too far and Alessandro Nesta was carried off after 23 minutes yesterday with an ankle injury. His replacement, Marco Materazzi, once of Everton, now of Internazionale, did not inspire the same confidence.
After the defeat by Mexico, Mirko Jozic, the Croatia coach, had been subjected to a barrage of criticism led by Miroslav Blazevic, who took Croatia to third place in 1998. Jozic reacted by dropping both Prosinecki and Suker, but it was the introduction of the 21-year-old Zagreb forward Ivica Olic in the 57th minute which effectively changed the course of the game. Olic tested the legs of the Italian defence in the 73rd minute, when Roberto Jarni's cross curled into the penalty area. Three Italian defenders seemed to have the ball covered, but none attacked the cross with the aggression of Olic, who stabbed the ball home from four yards.
"It took time for us to recover psychologically from conceding such a terrible goal," said Trapattoni. "But the second was a bit lucky. It was more an own goal than a Croatian goal."
But it could still be traced back to Maldini's initial error, compounded by Fabio Cannavaro's poor header. With the Italian defence in disarray, Rapaic's neat lob was undoubtedly deflected in a neat arc over Gianluigi Buffon by the hapless Materazzi, but questions will be asked about the amount of space bequeathed Rapaic. Italy looked shellshocked. At last they poured forward, Totti cracking a free-kick against a post and Gianluca Zambrotta forcing Stipe Pletikosa into a flying save from an angled drive. But Croatia held out, and celebrated joyously in front of their vociferous fans.
"We played some diehard football against very tough opponents," said a relieved Jozic. "But we must forget this game and concentrate on the next." Victory over Ecuador, the weakest team in the group, would ensure qualification. The Italians have to sweat for a few days yet, which is more than they have done so far.
Italy 1 Croatia 2
Vieri 56, Olic 73, Rapaic 76
Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 36,472