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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

WC2006: Italy and Ukraine progress

I felt the Australians created good football to warrant a goal from and from the kick-off they pressed on the Italians to create an immediate aura that stated they were not playing merely as opponents. I wondered if Marcello Lippi is actually aware of his strongest line-up during the tournament as I expected Alessandro Del Piero to have started each game, and then we saw him line-up at the expense of Francesco Totti. I would have Gennaro Gattuso, Andrea Pirlo then Del Piero across the midfield, Totti behind Luca Toni and Alberto Gilardino.

Marco Materazzi stood in for the injured Alessandro Nesta, and during the second half both he and Tim Cahill went to challenge for an aerial ball with Gattuso. Cahill was judged to have flailed an arm onto Materazzi's face, for which the Everton midfielder was caution and made gestures to Materazzi he was making more noise about it than necessary. Materazzi told him to be quiet with a finger to the lips. However, minutes later that moment may have made its toll on the Inter defender. Marco Bresciano made good his route to the penalty box while being shadowed by Gattuso and Materazzi made a rash tackle that missed the ball and caught the Aussie midfielder. A booking at the most, the referee sent off Materazzi on a straight red.

That then pressurised the Italians, with Gilardino changed at half time for Vincenzo Iaquinta, Toni came off for four minutes later for Palermo player Andrea Barzagli to shore up the defence. The Aussies kept pressing at the Italian goal, Cahill headed over from Bresciano freekick and Bresciano himself hit an effort wide of the goal. Totti came on on 75mins for Del Piero and went on to dictate some of the control in midfield, setting up Simone Perotta for a shot blocked by Lucas Neill, who has looked one of Australia's best players in the tournament. Pirlo also struck a freekick that forced Mark Schwarzer to tip it over as it threatened to creep under the crossbar. Guus Hiddink introduced John Aloisi for Mile Sterjovski with 10mins of normal time remaining but he didn't manage to obtain enough of the ball to create an influence.

With the last seconds of injury time remaining, Fabio Grosso tackled through Jason Culina and then met up Neill in the box, and as the Palermo defender tackled Neill, he stumbled over him, but the referee gave a penalty. A contentious decision a granted penalty regularly is, this was more outrageous. Neill made no movement or attempt to indicate impeding Grosso and at best he could not get out of the way as Grosso fell but surprisingly the decision was given, and I have to respect the referee for granting it without hesitation, given the circumstances and the timing. Other referees may have decided to let it continue to avoid any controversy, which would mean not using their ethics, training, experience and self judgement. That, nonetheless, does not make this decision a right one.

Totti stepped up to take the kick, camera zooming in onto his eyes to see any fear, hesitancy or nervousness, and I began to recall Franco Baresi, Daniele Massaro and Roberto Baggio in USA '94. Missing the penalty would put the game into extra-time so it was not as essential as twelve years ago, but still the similarity speaks volumes. Totti stepped up and smacked the ball just out of Schwarzer's reach into the net. That was literally the last action of the game, Italy had progressed into the quarter-finals in dying drama, and the Australians were very hard done by.

Respectfully, there is little to write excitedly about Switzerland v Ukraine match, the 120mins of it. Andrei Shevchenko had an effort come of the post as Alexander Frei's freekick came off the crossbar. Marco Streller ran on into the box and set himself up to shoot but was superbly blocked by Andrei Gusin, and the Ukraine introduced in extra time Dinamo Kiev's Artem Milevski, star player recently at the European U21 championship where I understand the Ukraine lost out in the finals to a Dutch side. Milevski brought fresh legs and tenacity straight away to the game, taking on three or four players on two occasions.

The droll thing is despite the odd chances on goal and shots, both sides looked despondent in pushing forward in fear of opening up too much, thus the efforts on goal overall were low and not evident in quality. The mood of the night seemed to have been set via the official, Mexican Benito Archundia Tellez, who appeared to be reluctant in giving a booking AT ALL, despite a number of challenges occurring that would have warranted the firing squad with other officials. I suspect FIFA were crystal clear in debriefing Tellez after the Portugal v Holland officiating that brought 16 bookings, four dismissals. I still maintain Valentin Ivanov was fine in doing so. In last night's game, only Tranquillo Barnetta was booked but Ricardo Cabanas should have gone off for his stamp on Andrei Nesmachny and raking his studs down the shin of Vladislav Vashchuk. Nonetheless, I liked that the referee's reluctance may have deterred more diving or exaggerated contact, though at one point Streller dropped to the ground in spectacular fashion like a stuntman being shot in mid-air.

With 120mins of football failing to deliver any goals, penalty time arrived. For the Swiss Frei has been substituted and he could not therefore take part, someone I regard as a confident taker. The Ukraine began the elimination with none other than Shevchenko, he of the Champions League nightmare but he of the moment against Saudi Arabia. But his effort was weak and near to Pascal Zuberbuhler. For the Swiss, their starter was Streller, who hit his kick tamely for Alexander Shovkovsky to gather. I know little of the Ukraine keeper but I felt he had more guile for penalties, more so than Zuberbuhler, who I also felt should have been tested by low shots rather than the high ones and crosses he picked out with ease during the game.

Next was Milevski. The Swiss fans behind the goal booed and jeered as he stepped up but he was coolness personified. He took aim and then chipped the ball down the middle and then faced the jeering crowd with a finger to the lips, Jose Mourinho style. He could be a name to watch out for in future. For the Swiss came Barnetta for their second kick. Barnetta struck his effort off the bar. Sergei Rebrov stepped up to score the Ukraine's second penalty, down the keeper's left side and then Cabanas sent his kick weakly to Shovkovsky's left for the keeper to easily stop and hold. That meant the Ukrainians were one kick away from the quarter-finals and that kick was the responsibility of Oleg Gusev. With coolness and a lack of nervousness, the Dinamo Kiev defender, who had been very good during the match, stepped up and lashed his effort to score as Zuberbuhler dived the wrong way.

After looking a reserved side against the Spaniards, the Eastern bloc team were now meeting the Italians in the quarter-finals of their first World Cup. The Swiss set two records in being the only team to have not conceded at all in the World Cup and one who had failed to score at all during a penalty-shoot out. Coach Kubi Kuhn said the players gave no chance to the keepers in practice but on the night nerves crept in. I can't say I disagree with that, for the Swiss have proven to be better players than I excepted and thus I expected better penalties from them. Yet if the Italians continue to make much work of their playability, then the Ukrainians should be geared to take advantage. Something tells me the Italians will still win in Hamburg on June 30th.



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