Reigning champs Italy held by Paraguay

Italy's Fabio Cannavaro, bottom right, walk away as Paraguay's players celebrate after Antolin Alcaraz scored a penalty goal during the World Cup group F soccer match between Italy and Paraguay in Cape Town on Monday. The matched ended in a 1-1 draw.

Italy's Fabio Cannavaro, bottom right, walk away as Paraguay's players celebrate after Antolin Alcaraz scored a penalty goal during the World Cup group F soccer match between Italy and Paraguay in Cape Town on Monday. The matched ended in a 1-1 draw.   | Photo Credit: Themba Hadebe

Wigan Athletic players are not generally known for their capacity to humble the world champions on football's grandest stage but such a remarkable storyline might have played out in Cape Town last night, if not for a goalkeeping howler.

When Antolín Alcaraz completed his move to the DW Stadium last month, as a Bosman free agent signed from Club Brugge, the Wigan manager, Roberto Martínez, said: "I think everyone will realise what a quality player Antolín is when we see him at the World Cup for Paraguay."

Nobody told Italy. When the central defender rose to attack a free-kick in the 39th minute, to send the ball spinning beyond the rooted Gigi Buffon, they were forced to confront the unthinkable. Alcaraz was buried under an avalanche of delirious team-mates.

That Italy recovered in the second half owed everything to the unfortunate Justo Villar. The Paraguay goalkeeper, all at sea when Simone Pepe curled over an inswinging corner, failed to connect with his punch and Daniele De Rossi gobbled up a close-range volley.

Italy have only lost one competitive fixture under Marcelo Lippi and sullying that record on the first night of their title defence was not on their agenda. They were the better side, although their inability to fashion clear-cut chances caused some alarm. Their lone striker, Alberto Gilardino, ploughed a lonely furrow. For Paraguay, this result will bolster their conviction that they can advance to the knockout phase. Lippi's suggestion that La Albirroja would be Italy's toughest Group F opponents looked accurate.

This felt a long way from the picture-perfect World Cup scene. The rain had lashed down all day and a cold wind whipped in from the sea to reinforce the oft-forgotten fact that this is South Africa's winter. Waterproofs were needed. Beforehand, riot police had moved in to disperse stewards who had attempted to strike over low rates of pay. Police helicopters buzzed overhead. Yet with the floodlights on and the action under way, passions took over.

Paraguay have, by common consent, their best ever squad, with silk, steel and, significantly, depth. Oscar Cardozo, Benfica's 36-goal striker, was not fully fit but Gerrado Martino, the manager, could omit Roque Santa Cruz, which just about put the tin lid on the Manchester City striker's season. Martino put his faith in Borussia Dortmund's Nelson Haedo Valdez and Lucas Barrios and promised to attack.

In the early running, however, there were cynical moments from his players. Cristian Riveros ought to have been sent off inside a minute for a horrible over‑the‑top lunge at Riccardo Montolivo which, remarkably, went unpunished. Montolivo's shin‑pads did their job. Then, after De Rossi had skipped a couple of challenges, sprayed the ball wide and galloped for the penalty area, he was tripped by Victor Cáceres. Again, there was no whistle.

Lippi named five players who had played in the 2006 World Cup final, ignoring the critics who say they are past it, and there was a cool assurance about Italy. In a drab first half, some of their passing interchanges were neat. It was Italy, rather than Paraguay, who pressed. Pepe showed some fancy footwork and Montolivo and De Rossi impressed.

Yet the Italians were stunned just before the break. Azzurri teams have always prided themselves on their defensive solidity and nobody in blue would have relished the inquest that followed Paraguay's goal. Aureliano Torres floated in a free-kick and having got in front of De Rossi, Alcaraz out-jumped Fabio Cannavaro to guide a textbook header into the corner.

There had been little of note in front of either goal beforehand, save for a half‑chance for Montolivo and a shooting opportunity for Torres which he dragged well wide. Suddenly, Italy were required to dig themselves out of a hole. For all their patience and nonchalance in possession, they struggled to raise the tempo, to force the issue as they had to. Their starting line-up lacked pace. Lippi had hoped that these players would be "born against Paraguay and grow thereafter" but Alcaraz's goal gave Paraguay a tonic.

Sitting deep and looking to snap forward on the counter, they might have added a second goal in the 54th minute when Enrique Vera lashed a shot high and towards the near top corner. The ball deflected just wide, although no corner was given. By this time, Federico Marchetti had come on in goal for Italy, Buffon having been forced off at the interval.

Italy finished strongly, with Montolivo threatening to score the winner from distance but they were left thankful for gift offered to them by Villar.

© Guardian News and Media 2010

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 3:47:11 PM |

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