| Italy's Fabio Cannavaro (left) and Czech Republic's Pavel Nedved shake hands after their group E match in Hamburg on Thursday. (AFP)
In an ‘open’ group in which none of the four teams were sure of qualifying till their final game on Thursday, Italy went on to face the Czech Republic knowing that a draw would suffice.
The situation, however, begged for attention in other respects as well. Meeting of familiar foes like Pavel Nedved, who has won three Serie A titles with Juventus, and AC Milan defender Marek Jankulovski, meant the Czechs were not strangers to Italy’s strengths and weaknesses. The Czechs may not boast of having a domestic league like Serie A, but they are No. 2 in Fifa rankings. Then, there was an urgency from both teams to top the group, because emerging as the second-best was an invitation to bump into Brazil’s path in the next round.
All this led to a cautious start for Lippi’s side, almost true to their tradition: A safety-first policy with no fuss about the job, however exigent it appeared to be. The Czechs, on the other hand, had to win to guarantee a place in knock-out stage and so, their start was in juxtaposition with the need: Forays into the rival box right from the word go.
Milan Baros ' who returned to the side after being forced to miss the first couple of matches with injury ' missed a sitter with an awful trapping in the eighth minute. Had he scored at that time, the Czechs might have got the momentum, they were looking for in surviving this battle of nerves. The Italian ’keeper then brilliantly negotiated two Nedved shots in quick succession. Soon after Nesta ' the fulcrum of Italian backline ' limped off the field.
So just when the Czechs were sniffing at a breakthrough by dint of continuous attacks into the Italian box, Marco Materazzi ' Nesta’s 17th-minute replacement ' changed the complexion of the game.
Not only did he hand his team a goal against the run of the play in the 26th minute ' his header off Francesco Totti’s corner was a clinical finish ' and helped his teammates win back confidence, but also upset the opponents’ plans. As if that was not enough, the Czechs were condemned into further difficulty when midfielder Jan Polak was given marching orders following a double booking in the first-half stoppage time.
It was not easy fighting for a cause with 10 men in the stage as big as the World Cup and I must say, the Czech Republic’s ambitions were shattered with this setback.
During the break, Ghana’s surprise 2-1 lead over the US must have reached the Czech camp, and understandably, they had no option but to go for an all-out attack in the second session. Nedved tried his best constantly distributing the balls towards flanks whenever the team was on the attack and even tasted Buffon time and again with his long-range shooting.
With the injured Baros being a shadow of his past (he had to be substituted in the 64th minute), the Czechs clearly missed the service of injured Jan Koller and suspended Vratislav Lokvenc upfront. So the attacking inspiration from Nedved didn’t have a proper channel to meet its destination.
You should also keep in mind Italy’s reputation as a defensive organisation. Hardly a weakness will be detected in this backline and from right back Fabio Grosso, to central defenders Materazzi and Cannavaro, to left-back Zambrotta, everybody put up a near flawless rearguard performance. In case such a strongly-guarded line of defence was breached, there was Buffon to frustrate Nedved & Co.
When a team goes on the full-range offensive, they do it being aware that their very own backline is exposed to quick counter-attacks. That’s exactly what happened to the Czechs when Filippo Inzaghi, another Italian substitute, made it 2-0.
You need luck as well as a good strike force to stay afloat in the World Cup. Sadly, the Czechs missed out on both counts. Conversely, it’s the big-club experience of the players which helped Italy sustain the Czech pressure and avoid an immediate clash with Brazil. But they are slated to meet the champions in the quarters. What a match it would be!