The reigning champions, Italy, are the latest big European name to bite the dust at the World Cup. Slovakia stunned them in taking a two-goal lead thanks to Robert Vittek and some curiously lax defending. It was only when Vittek's second went in with around ten minutes to go that Italy came out of their shells. They'd been poor, but suddenly looked up for it. Antonio Di Natale drew them level after Slovak keeper Jan Mucha couldn't hold a shot from range and an ever-so-tight offside call - different camera angles tell different stories - denied Fabio Quagliarella. Instead, Slovakia went up the other end and made it three.
A horrible backpass did Federico Marchetti no favours and he was forced to hoof it out for a throw rather than concede the corner. In hindsight, he might have been better leaving it. His defenders stood and watched as Kamil Kopunek jogged past them, latched onto the throw and chipped Marchetti for what was surely the decisive goal. But no. The one thing Italy will go home with is a contender for goal of the tournament, Quagliarella flighting an absolute peach of a shot out of Mucha's reach and into the top corner. That came with two minutes of stoppages remaining, but Slovakia held firm. The final whistle saw Marcello Lippi disappear down the tunnel - no handshakes with his opposite number.
With the other game, New Zealand and Paraguay, remaining goalless, all Italy needed was a score draw, but only for about five minutes did it look remotely possible that they'd get it. Impossibly negative in the opening two games and eighty minutes, they've ended up with what they deserved: nothing. Lippi got the old band back together, but it's never the same. It's like seeing the Four Tops. You know they were great, but there's not many of the original line-up left and even those aren't as good as they were four years ago. Fabio Cannavaro, so imperious in Germany, looked two years too old throughout. Gianluigi Buffon only lasted 45 minutes and Andrea Pirlo only came in as a last throw of the dice by Lippi. There was no spark, no pace and no ideas. As a result, they finish bottom, below New Zealand who bow out despite remaining unbeaten. On the flip side, Vladimir Weiss was brave. Having seen his side disappoint in the opening two games, he dropped his own son, also Vladimir, and went more attacking with Miroslav Stoch getting his first World Cup start. It paid off in an inversely proportional way to Italy's steadfast refusal to change.
It's often been said that Italian teams returning in disgrace can expect to be pelted with tomatoes. Let's hope for the players sake that the tifosi that greet them this time have taken them out of the tins.