James Lawton: Ageing Azzurri were doomed to early failure

There will be no more poignant exit from this World Cup than the one made by the reigning champions Italy here yesterday.

Fabio Quagliarella said the haunting goodbye with a gloriously chipped goal at the end of the Azzurri's 3-2 defeat by Slovakia but on the touchline his coach Marcello Lippi still looked like both witness and victim of a terrible road crash.

In football terms this was certainly his status, staggeringly in view of his brilliant success four years ago when he guided an ill-considered side to the world title. But then the hugely decorated Lippi, a Champions League winner with Juventus, had had some time to consider his fate.

It was clear in leaden draws with Paraguay and New Zealand that he had ignored one of the oldest truths of the game. He had failed to re-seed his team with youth and the inevitability of the outcome was written all over the face of his greatest lieutenant, the 36-year-old player of the 2006 tournament, Fabio Cannavaro.

The defender, like Lippi, grew old as Slovakia ran freely and confidently at an ageing, hopeless team. Rarely has there been such a slowly choreographed but foreseeable football disaster.

Lippi received Italy's highest civil honour for creating the nation's fourth World Cup triumph in Berlin, a record that leaves Italy just one behind Brazil. Now he can only reflect on the experience of his predecessor Edmondo Fabbri when he returned from England in 1966.

Then, Italy were expelled by the unknowns of North Korea at the group stage and Fabbri was bombarded with rotten fruit when he returned to Rome.

Lippi's record suggests he will avoid such a fate but he cannot expect to be quickly forgiven for what is seen widely as an unacceptable refusal to make a break with the past. He insisted that he had the balance right, that experience and youth had been carefully blended, but the illusion was shattered by Slovakia, who once formed one half of the fine football nation Czechoslovakia, European champions and World Cup finalists in 1962.

Yesterday one half of that tradition simply engulfed the second most successful nation in World Cup history and left it deeply wounded. Lippi's face said that he was a broken man.