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Italy hit rock bottom, Slovakia building momentum

Italy manager Marcello Lippi and his players were self-critical after a humiliating 3-2 defeat to underdogs Slovakia left the defending champions at the bottom of Group F and out of the World Cup. 

The web sites of the three Italian sports dailies varied in the degree of severity in their headlines: “Everyone Home,” said Corriere dello Sport; “Back Home In Shame,” titled Gazzetta dello Sport; “Lippi, It’s Your Fault,” screamed the headline on TuttoSport.

Lippi concurred with the latter's assignment of blame.

“I take all the responsibility,” he said. “I believe I had an important part to play in the results we have earned and now I have my responsibilities for this elimination. I don’t know why it has happened. For an hour and 15 minutes we did not succeed in playing soccer, mainly for psychological reasons. I don’t understand it and so I take the responsibility.”

The loss to Slovakia was the first suffered by Lippi in a World Cup and marked his final match at the helm of the Azzurri.

“Evidently, I did not prepare the team as I had to,” Lippi continued. “I would have expected everything but not how the team played in the first half. It pains me to death to close out this experience in this manner. I’m not saying I was counting on winning the World Cup again, but not to go out like this. Best heartfelt wishes to my successor.”

That successor is former Fiorentina head coach Cesare Prandelli, who faces the task of rebuilding an Italian soccer which is mired in self-doubt about its real place on the world stage.

“If in three matches, two of which against New Zealand and Slovakia, you can’t even win one, it’s right to go back home and try to figure out what happened,” said veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. “Against Paraguay it was probably our best game, as far as intensity and pushing the game. It got worse with New Zealand and today, aside from the frantic finish, we did not ever show that we can be competitive with teams at a higher level.”

Other veterans chimed in on Buffon’s assessment, including Gennaro Gattuso, who played his last game for the azzurri.

“Italian soccer has to examine its conscience,” Gattuso said. “Tonight we hit rock bottom.”

“The current state of Italian soccer is this,” Buffon said. “It’s not the best moment for Italian soccer but we have been suspecting this for a while. It’s been two years that we’ve been saying there are too many has-beens but maybe the alternatives are fewer and are just not better.”

While it’s ground zero for Italy, Slovakia are looking to build on a victory they were never expected to have.

“Qualifying to South Africa was a great achievement in itself,” said Slovakia captain Marek Hamsik. “No one expected us to be in the second round, especially when we were playing our chances against Italy.”

“After the birth of my son it is the second best day of my life,” said Slovakia manager Vladimir Weiss. "Obviously I didn't expect us to perform as great as we did, but credit must go to the players for the commitment and fighting spirit they showed today."

Speaking of his son, Weiss kept the right winger on the bench on Thursday. The head coach had a tense lead-up to the match, clashing with media ahead of the Group F decider.

“Three days of preparation for Italy were not so easy for me because in my mind I had questions about the starting 11,” Weiss said. “This is life, you must be the coach and endure these situations.”

Weiss ultimately made four changes to his starting lineup. Forward Robert Vittek turned out to be the star with two goals on the night and Man of the Match honors.

"I wish I could break this trophy for everyone to have a piece,” Vittek said of his trophy. “I was just at the right place at the right time [to score]."

Vittek has scored three of his country’s four goals at the World Cup and will now look to continue his stretch in the Round of 16 on Monday in Durban.