Well, the headline maybe a little apocalyptic but this certainly an important game for the Azzurri but at 3pm on Thursday 24th June 2010 they will play their final group game. For Italy there is the possibility that this will be their final game at this World Cup, drawing to a close an unspectacular tournament for Lippi’s men. When they take the field tomorrow against a Slovakian team representing their country for the first time at the World Cup they will need to show that they truly are as ready as they say.
To top the group Italy will require a favour from New Zealand. If New Zealand are able to acheive a low scoring draw against Paraguay, 0-0 would be preferable, and Italy can somehow beat Slovakia 3-0 they will go through as group leaders. This scenario is highly unlikely and most Italian fans have not even entertained the possibility of such events unfolding. Instead they are simply looking for a win to guarantee qualification. A draw would suffice if Paraguay defeat New Zealand by any margin.
Slovakia have not been a revelation at this World Cup though they were never expected to do anything more than turn up by many. This is no reason to assume that Italy will brush them aside, they have some very good players and will look to be as difficult as possible to beat. They will also be looking at the possibility of qualification in their first World Cup, if they win and Paraguay avoid defeat then they will qualify in second place. I expect them to line up in something resembling a 4-4-2/4-5-1, depending on the starting line-up tomorrow.
Their key man is Marek Hamsik, he will be well known to the Italian players as he plies his trade at Napoli in Serie A. At 22 years of age he is one of the youngest players to be named captain at the World Cup. The flair player is expected to carry his country forward in attack and is the main creative outlet; however he has failed to live up to this billing thus far in the tournament. Fans of the Azzurri will be hoping that he has yet another quiet game. He will most likely start in the centre of a midfield duo, possibly moving to the left wing as as he did during the second half against Paraguay on Sunday.
The Slovaks also have two very quick and nimble wingers in Vladimir Weiss and Miroslav Stoch (available after being injured against Paraguay). These two have buckets of pace and energy but like many players at their age in this position, they lack consistency with their final deliveries. Nevertheless the Italian full backs will need to be wary of allowing them too much space to run at them.
The news circulating from journalists who have been allowed to attend Italian training is that Rino Gattuso will be asked to start the game alongside De Rossi and Montolivo. This could be a move to shutdown Hamsik in the Slovak midfield, or simply a chance to give Gattuso some game time in what will be his last International tournament. Personally I would have liked to have seen Camoranesi given the chance to start in a slightly wider central midfield role, he had shown his worth with two substitute appearances so far.
In the past couple of games the Italians have started to put together signs of promising attacking play, despite the efforts of both Paraguay and New Zealand to get 11 men behind the ball and stop the Italians playing through them. The strikers are yet to show up at this tournament but we are hoping that Slovakia’s desire to qualify will open up some space for the attacking players.
Lippi is expected to maintain his faith in Gilardino and Iaquinta as well as partnering them with Serie A top scorer Antonio Di Natale. This will leave Pazzini and Quagliarella as the available substitutes should Lippi wish to change the course of the game.
It has been noted quite stereotypically that Italy are always slow starters, and many journalists have made reference to the disastrous group stage in 1982 when they scraped through with three draws on goal difference alone. But from here on in it is a straight knock out tournament for Italy, win 5 games and they will retain the World Cup.