The biggest “win” in New Zealand soccer history was also a major victory for the Italian national team.
Slovakia was the better club for ninety minutes today, taking a 1-0 lead over New Zealand early in the second half on a goal by Robert Vittek. The All Whites, who looked like a club playing in their first World Cup in decades, hung tough but could not find an equalizer until Shane Smeltz sent in a cross which Winston Reid headed past Jan Mucha in the third minute of stoppage time. The draw was New Zealand’s first World Cup point ever and only their second point in a FIFA competition.
But more importantly for Azzurri fans, Group F is back to square one. All four clubs have a point and are squared on goal difference and points scored. While this raises the importance of every subsequent match – since any unseen tie or victory could be even more definitive – it also should be a relief for Italian fans everywhere.
Italy’s draw with Paraguay can generously be described as a poor performance. You can read an excellent summary of the match here, but in short Lippi’s squad played as many detractors said they would play – slowly and uncreatively. As Serie A fans know, the Azzurri have a wealth of talent and are a squad that can play with the best in the world. Maybe Italy has joined clubs like England, the Netherlands, and Portugal as quality clubs that are off to slow starts.
But the draw today allows Italy to continue to control its own destiny over the next two matches. If Slovakia would have won today, it would have been atop Group F and Italy may have depended on other results to see if it would advance. Now Italy’s path to the next round looks a bit easier. New Zealand looked pretty good against Slovakia but this squad’s goal was to earn a point before going home and building off of that for future tournaments. An angry Italian team should gain a full three points from the All Whites, which would allow them to control their own destiny heading into the final match against Slovakia.
And after yesterday’s performance, this may be the best thing they can ask for.
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