Italy Takes Lead, Then Pushes Ahead

Italy's Andrea Pirlo flashes a kiss after he scored the first goal during the Italy vs Ghana, Group E, World Cup 2006, soccer match at World Cup stadium in Hanover, Germany, on Monday, June 12, 2006. The other teams in Goup E are United States and Czech Republic. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
Italy's Andrea Pirlo flashes a kiss after he scored the first goal during the Italy vs Ghana, Group E, World Cup 2006, soccer match at World Cup stadium in Hanover, Germany, on Monday, June 12, 2006. The other teams in Goup E are United States and Czech Republic. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno) (Luca Bruno - AP)
By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 13, 2006

HANOVER, Germany, June 12 -- A goal for the Italians, it has been said, is like two goals for any other team, because defense has long been their team's greatest identifying characteristic. That lockdown style of play -- catenaccio -- is nearly interchangeable with il calcio , the Italian's name for the sport.

This, however, is not your grandpapa's Italy.

Italy, version 2006, does not sit back in a shell, wait for one glorious opening and play for a one-goal win. On Monday at AWD Arena, with the Italians already holding their trademark 1-0 lead, they were far from satisfied. Coach Marcello Lippi pushed midfielders into the attack, brought on forwards rather than defenders as late substitutes and was rewarded with sub Vincenzo Iaquinta's 82nd-minute breakaway goal for a 2-0 win over Ghana.

The second goal made the United States' chances of advancing from Group E even more slight, and also kept the Italians close with the Czech Republic, 3-0 winners over the Americans. The United States and Italy will play on Saturday.

When midfield general Francesco Totti had to leave with an injury early in the second half, Lippi had sufficient offensive pizzazz on his bench, and replacement Mauro Camoranesi spearheaded several ambitious runs. When dominant striker Luca Toni left to a riotous ovation in the 82nd minute, on came gifted forward Alessandro Del Piero, who would be a certain starter for most other countries. There was no thought, it seemed, to sitting on the lead against first-time World Cup qualifier Ghana.

"We are so proud tonight with how we play," midfielder Daniele De Rossi said.

This team boasts several noted scorers, and almost always plays the ball forward, not laterally or backward as so many Italy clubs of the past have done. If anything, Italy may have some defensive vulnerabilities, especially with mainstays Gianluca Zambrotta and Gennaro Gattuso nursing injuries. Ghana discovered this as its players took off on repeated counterattacks, using their speed and one-touch passes to probe away.

Had Asamoah Gyan been awarded a late penalty kick after splitting two Italians and falling inside the box, there may have been a different outcome. But Ghana Coach Ratomir Dujkovic was adamant that the better team won, and, as he expected, the match-fixing scandal rocking Italy right now had no bearing on this game.

"As you see, Italy is really strong," Dujkovic said. "Everything going on [in] the country didn't affect the team."

Italy went at the goal early and drew 11 corner kicks in the first half, a sign of their offensive progress. Toni, an emerging striker who could become the face of the team by tournament's end, drew the ninth of those corners in the 40th minute with a weaving run down the left wing -- turning defenders inside out with cuts left and right; sprinting, then stopping, then sprinting again. Midfielder Andrea Pirlo received the short corner kick at the left corner of the penalty area, and his low shot to the far side would have been difficult for anyone to stop.

Toni, 29, a nimble and incisive 6-foot-4, 214-pound force, can do great things with his head, but his speed, cunning and dribbling prowess are of equal import. He nearly scored another superb goal in a tournament already full of them, heading a ball onto his long stride, then rocking a right-footed volley off the crossbar, rattling the camera on top and sending the ball violently back to the turf.

Ghana, meantime, performed admirably in its World Cup debut. The Black Stars nearly cracked the Italian backline on several occasions, and the win was not secure for Italy until Iaquinta scored.

Ghanaian defender Samuel Kuffour, whose giveaway led to the second goal, believes he will not be the only player to be made to pay by the Italians in this tournament.

"They have a very clever system and some great players," said Kuffour, who plays for AS Roma in Italy. "They are a very good team."


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