Soccer: Beaten champions sink to the bottom

JOHANNESBURG: Marcello Lippi delivered a scathing verdict on his humiliated team yesterday after Italy was sent tumbling out of the World Cup by Slovakia, confessing he failed to motivate his ageing squad which had played with fear.

After the defending champions were eliminated without winning a game in one of the tournament's easiest groups, the veteran Italy coach had to accept the truth that everyone else had seen.

"I take full responsibility," Lippi said after the 3-2 loss to Slovakia. "I thought this team could do more and that's what I prepared it to do, but when you see a team that plays with fear in their legs and in their hearts you understand that you have failed."

Save for the final 10 minutes against Slovakia, Italy's attack was confused and unable to hit the target. Lippi started all three group games with different formations but could never find the right formula.

"It's my fault," Lippi added. "I wasn't able to motivate the team. When something like this happens, it's always the leader's fault. I thought I played an important role when the team won, so it's only fair to have had just as big an impact in this failure."

Lippi led Italy to the 2006 title, when the Azzurri conceded only two goals over seven matches. This time they let in five goals in just three games, with 36-year-old captain Fabio Cannavaro responsible in part for the first two in the opening 1-1 draws with Paraguay and 78th-ranked New Zealand.

Nine players on the squad were 30 or over.

"It's everyone's fault, not just Lippi's. We've all got to be accountable," defender Gianluca Zambrotta said. "When you finish last in a group with New Zealand, Paraguay and Slovakia, with all respect to those teams, it's only right to go home."

Combative midfielder Gennaro Gattuso, who will now retire from international soccer, declared that Italian football had hit rock bottom.

"When we get back to Italy we're going to put helmets on," Gattuso added. "And we're going to accept all the criticism."

Lippi didn't call up creative but ageing forwards Francesco Totti and Alessandro Del Piero and never even considered bringing along talented but temperamental strikers Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli.

Until Antonio Di Natale and Fabio Quagliarella scored in the final 10 minutes against Slovakia, no Italy forward found the target in open play. In the 1-1 draws with Paraguay and 78th-ranked New Zealand, the goals came from midfielder Daniele De Rossi and a Vincenzo Iaquinta penalty.

In the opening two games, Italy created numerous chances from start to finish but just couldn't find the goal. The first 75 minutes against Slovakia were even worse, with the World Cup debutante often dominating.

"I never would have expected that we would have played for 75 minutes like we did - not playing, lacking ideas, creating nothing," Lippi said.

Injuries to Italy's top two players didn't help. Midfielder Andrea Pirlo went down with a left calf injury in a pre-tournament friendly with Mexico and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon exited after the first half against Paraguay with a herniated disc in his 32-year-old back.

Pirlo returned in the second half against Slovakia, and was responsible in part for the assault in the final 10 minutes, when Quagliarella also had a goal disallowed for a close offside call.

Still, Pirlo called the overall performance "shameful".

"We didn't win a game and it's everyone's fault," he said. "We're a team and we've got to assume responsibility all together."

At 31, Pirlo said he would continue playing with the national team, although he acknowledged this was the "end of an era".

Cannavaro is also retiring from international football, and Lippi will be replaced by former Fiorentina coach Cesare Prandelli under a deal announced before the World Cup.

Lippi offered good luck to Prandelli and said he would take "a few months" before evaluating his future. He will still be remembered for leading Italy to its fourth world title, but this performance has removed some of the shine.

In Italy's 16 previous World Cup appearances, it had never failed to win at least one game.

- AP

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