Italy in danger of not advancing at World Cup
The World Cup is no place for defending champions, with only Italy in 1938 and Brazil in 1962 repeating. The Azzurri are facing an early, ignominious departure from South Africa if they don't beat Slovakia on Thursday.
Sure, a draw could push the Italians into the second round from Group F, but only if Paraguay beats New Zealand is that assured. A win keeps Italy alive.
"We're worried," midfielder Daniele De Rossi said. "I said it before and I'll say it again: If we don't make it past the first round it would be a failure." Italy's forwards have had trouble scoring in their opening two games, 1-1 draws against Paraguay and 78th-ranked New Zealand.
"If we can't win we don't deserve to advance," De Rossi added. "We're Italy and we ought to be able to win one of these three games -- otherwise it would only be fair to go home." Perhaps helping the Azzurri stay will be midfielder Andrea Pirlo. The playmaker appears recovered from a left calf injury that kept him out of the first two matches. He was a key to Italy's title in 2006.
But Pirlo is an uncertain participant.
"I really want to weigh the options and choose the lineup with care, taking into consideration the players' conditions and involving them in the decision," Coach Marcello Lippi said. "As long as we stay positive we have a chance."
So do the Slovaks, who must win and have Paraguay either beat or draw with New Zealand.
Slovakia gave up a second-half injury-time goal to New Zealand in a 1-1 result, and then lost 2-0 to Paraguay.
The biggest winners at the final Group G game between Portugal and Brazil might be the fans.
The showdown Friday between two of the world's top three teams according to FIFA's rankings was one of the first World Cup matches to sell out.
"It'll be a very special game for sure," Portugal midfielder Tiago said.
Though the Brazilians are sure of advancing and the Portuguese have a massive goal advantage if they end up even with Ivory Coast on points, both teams still have something to play for.
Brazil has an eye on securing first place in the group, and Portugal wants to secure at least the draw that will guarantee its place in the knockout round.
"I think Portugal and Brazil have what it takes to put on a great football show for the world," Portugal Coach Carlos Queiroz said. "Let's see whether we and Brazil can focus the fans on football and less on the Jabulani [ball] and the vuvuzelas."
-- From news services