Italians left on the brink of disaster

Italy 1 Czech Republic 2

Thirty years on from Italy's embarrassing exit from the 1966 World Cup in England, they face elmination from Euro 96 in the group stage after falling to the first major shock defeat of the tournament.

Not only did the Czech Republic defeat them thanks to goals from Pavel Nedved and Radek Bejbl, they also had Luigi Apolloni sent off. He will miss their final game in Group C against Germany on Wednesday, a game, realistically, the Italians now need to win to reach the quarter-finals. Even that might not be enough if the Czechs defeat Russia on the same night.

It was a damaging night for the Italian coach, Arrigo Sacchi, who has never been able completely to shake off his critics at home even though he guided his team to the World Cup final two years ago. Last night he gambled on making five changes to the team that defeated Russia and lost heavily.

As early as the fifth minute the Italians, among the tournament favourites, were in trouble. The Czech coach, Dousan Uhrin, had prepared his players to counter the Italian offside trap and when Karel Poborski, a constant problem with his pace and dribbling, crossed from the right, Nedved stole in on the blindside of Roberto Mussi. The Sparta Prague midfielder controlled with his chest and as Angelo Peruzzi came out stabbed the ball past him with his right foot.

The lead lasted just 13 minutes before the Italians replied with a quicksilver counter-attack. A pass from the Czech's Jan Suchoparek was intercepted by Diego Fussi deep in the Italian half, the ball was interchanged with Chiesa down the right wing and a second later Fussi was crossing low for Chiesa to score.

If the Italians thought they had survived their crisis they were wrong. After 28 minutes they were down to 10 men when Apolloni was sent off for his second bookable foul - a hack from behind on Pavel Kuka - and six minutes later they were trailing 2-1.

Again the Italians failed to react to a midfield player arriving late into their area, this time Kuka providing the cross and Bejbl a sharp finish. The Slavia Prague player was 15 yards out and had to meet the ball on the volley but side-footed with great precision and power past Peruzzi's right hand.

The mould was set. The Italians, depleted or not, had to attack while the Czechs dug in behind their one-goal lead, making only isolated raids from their trenches. It made for thrilling stuff: would the team pressing forward be enticed too far, could they break through?

Twice the Czechs almost put the game beyond reach, Peruzzi charging out to save from Vladmir Smicer and Poborski. But the Italians had their chances, too, Paulo Maldini just over with a lunge and Roberto Donadoni grazed the bar with a fierce drive from the left.

The final, decisive act of frustration came in injury time when Gianluca Zola crossed to Pierluigi Casiraghi. The Lazio striker had the goal at his mercy but he snatched at the shot and it went high over the bar. His gesture, falling to the earth, head in hands, summed up the night.

Goals: Nedved (4) 0-1; Chiesa (18) 1-1; Bejbl (35) 1-2.

ITALY (4-4-2): Peruzzi (Juventus); Mussi (Parma), Apolloni (Parma), Costacurta (Milan), Maldini (Milan); Fuser (Lazio), Albertini (Milan), Baggio (Parma), Donadoni (New York/NJ MetroStars); Ravanelli (Juventus), Chiesa (Parma). Substitutes: Carboni (Roma) for Baggio, 39; Casiraghi (Lazio) for Ravanelli, 57; Zola (Parma) for Chiesa, 78.

CZECH REPUBLIC (5-4-1): Kouba (Sparta Prague); Latal (Schalke 04), Kadlec (Kaiserslautern), Suchoparek (Slavia Prague), Hornak (Sparta Prague), Nedved (Sparta Prague); Poborsky (Slavia Prague), Nemec (Schalke 04), Berger (Borussia Dortmund), Bejbl (Borussia Dortmund); Kuka (Kaiserslauten). Substitutes: Smicer (Slavia Prague) for Berger, 64; Nemecek (Servette) for Latal, 88.

Referee: A Lopez Nieto (Spain).

Bookings: Italy: Appoloni, Fuser. Czech Republic: Suchoparek, Latal, Kuka, Kadlec. Sent off: Italy: Appoloni.

Man of the match: Poborski. Attendance: 37,320.

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