Italy desperate for Pirlo inspiration

NELSPRUIT - Holders Italy are in danger of tumbling out of the World Cup in humiliating fashion after again showing almost no invention or skill in Sunday's 1-1 draw with 78th-ranked New Zealand.

The aghast faces in the Italian contingent in the Nelspruit crowd could not believe they were watching a side which went all the way four years ago while New Zealand supporters were in dreamland as the bench jumped for delight at fulltime.

The Azzurri, average in their opening 1-1 draw with Paraguay, hardly got in behind New Zealand's stout defence once and when they should have really pushed on in the second half the verve just was not there.

A win against Slovakia in their final group game will put the holders through but a draw could also see the traditional slow starters squeeze into the last 16 if group leaders Paraguay beat New Zealand as is still expected.

Another laboured point for Italy at Johannesburg's Ellis Park on Thursday could equally spell doom if New Zealand manage a result against Paraguay and stun the soccer fraternity.

Ricki Herbert's side, who drew 1-1 with Slovakia first up, again proved the doubters wrong by playing to their strength in the air, setting their stall out and never wavering in the face of albeit half-hearted Italian pressure.

Italy had been warned about their difficulty defending free kicks into the box in Monday's draw with Paraguay where floundering centre back Fabio Cannavaro failed to jump as Antolin Alcaraz headed in.

Six days on and 36-year-old captain Cannavaro made a similar howler, this time connecting with the ball into the box but just letting it drop for New Zealand's Shane Smeltz to prod into the net on seven minutes.

A slight brush of a New Zealand head as the freekick came in could have prompted an offside flag but the fact the All Whites managed to cause bedlam in the Italy box so early showed the Azzurri had not fully heeded Marcello Lippi's words.

CANNAVARO STRUGGLING

He had drummed into them that New Zealand were good in the air and dangerous from dead balls and yet that is exactly how they scored with the first real chance.

Italian pundits will again question Lippi's reliance on Cannavaro, who won the world player of the year award for leading his side to 2006 glory but is struggling badly now in the twilight of his career as a lack of height is exposed.

But it was not just in defence that Italy again looked lacklustre, given they had to rely on a dubious 29th minute penalty from Vincenzo Iaquinta to draw level after Daniele De Rossi fell following shirt-tugging from Tommy Smith.

The midfield failed to offer any sort of spark or creativity with Andrea Pirlo still out with injury and Lippi will now be desperate for his 2006 hero to have shrugged off a calf injury in time to face Slovakia.

Simone Pepe, substituted at half time, pumped too many long balls forward and De Rossi was not as precise as he can be with his passing while he dropped so deep at times he stood between his centre backs.

Striker Alberto Gilardino was also hauled off at the break after again barely touching the ball and his replacement Antonio Di Natale offered more directness and is likely to keep his place against the Slovaks.

New Zealand had one late chance to steal all the glory but generally defended and kept their shape well, meaning Italy had few avenues to attack down.

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