Cannavaro under pressure as stakes rise

JOHANNESBURG, June 23 (Reuters) - World champions Italy need a win against Slovakia on Thursday to ensure they stumble into the World Cup second round and all eyes will be on captain Fabio Cannavaro after mistakes in the first two matches led to goals.

The fall from grace of the 2006 world player of the year, who inspired the Azzurri to glory four years ago with his superb defending, underlines how inferior Italy look at this World Cup.

A third error from the 36-year-old at Johannesburg's Ellis Park in their last Group F match on Thursday could let the Slovaks in and prompt a humiliating early exit for the holders.

Cannavaro failed to jump to stop Paraguay's goal in a 1-1 draw while he made a hash of dealing with a free kick when Shane Smeltz put New Zealand ahead in Sunday's shock 1-1 scoreline.

"We are a team, it's not right and we don't want to look for who was at fault," Cannavaro bluntly told reporters.

A lack of height, pace and confidence is hampering Cannavaro, who looks a completely different player to four years ago when almost nothing got past his own personal brick wall.

The wisdom of coach Marcello Lippi taking a man at the very back end of his career to South Africa was tacitly questioned in Italy but his hero status meant open criticism was rare.

Now Gazzetta dello Sport has run a poll asking if Cannavaro should be dropped and 69.2 percent of 23,000 voters said yes.

The Juventus defender, who will quit international soccer and enjoy a semi-retirement at Dubai's Al Ahli from July, will, though, stay in the team because reserve centre backs Leonardo Bonucci and Salvatore Bocchetti are very inexperienced.


It is not just Italy's defence that has laboured with the midfield failing to show any invention and the attack blunted.

Lippi hopes top creative midfielder Andrea Pirlo can return to the starting lineup after missing the first two games with a calf injury but his participation is not certain.

Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon is poised to miss out again with a back problem while Lippi could bring in Antonio Di Natale or Giampaolo Pazzini up front with Alberto Gilardino out of form.

"Not everything has gone well but we don't need to see the glass half empty," Lippi said. "Our World Cup could start here."

A draw is enough for sheepish Italy to sneak through with three points if group leaders Paraguay beat New Zealand.

Famous slow starters Italy went through with three draws at the group stage in 1982 before they picked up the pace and went on to claim the trophy by beating Germany in the final.

Slovakia have a point and can only progress if they win, although that might not suffice if New Zealand defeat Paraguay but the South Americans keep a better goal difference.

Coach Vladimir Weiss has been uncomfortable with the media recently, with his playing son saying the team are fed up with unrealistic expectations from fans in their first World Cup.

"There is a lot of criticism from back home, we're doing everything we can. We've not won a game yet but we've still got a chance so we're positive," Vladimir Weiss Jr told reporters.

They only had one shot on target in Sunday's 2-0 defeat by Paraguay so the nippy Miroslav Stoch could come in after injury.