JOHANNESBURG, June 23 – Defending champions Italy face Slovakia in their final Group F showdown on Thursday playing for their World Cup survival as the Azzurri face the shame of a first-round exit.With just one game left to go in the group stages and after two 1-1 draws, Italy, like Germany, England and Spain, are in serious danger of facing the ignominy of joining France on an early plane back home, without even making the knock-out stages.
With just two points in Group F, the second-placed Italians must now beat Slovakia at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park to guarantee a place in the last 16, but another draw would also see them through if Paraguay beat New Zealand.
However it is an uncomfortably precarious position for the holders and one veteran full-back Gianluca Zambrotta says doesn’t even bear thinking about.
"We haven’t thought about it and we’re not thinking about it," he said from Italy’s Casa Azzurri, just south of Pretoria.
"If it happens we’ll think about it then, it doesn’t even enter our heads. We’re looking at the glass half full, not half empty.
"It’s not the first time we’ve had this type of game, we know the importance and we’ll give it everything."
However combative midfielder Daniele De Rossi says the Azzurri must raise their game significantly if they are to have any chance of defending their title.
"We’ll have to improve quickly, because otherwise we won’t be going far," he said following the 1-1 draw with New Zealand.
"We weren’t at our best and we can do a lot better than that.
"We were lacking up front. We played the entire match in their half but we don’t have enough to show for it."
Italy are struggling to finish the chances they create which stems back to before the World Cup.
During their last seven matches only one forward, Fabio Quagliarella, who is not even first choice, has scored a goal from open play.
But even though their scoring problems are evident, Zambrotta says it is in their traditional strength that they have to improve: defending.
"We’ve still got a great chance to progress but we need to work on defending dead balls," he said, referring to the fact that both goals Italy have conceded so far have come from just such situations.
"In two games we’ve conceded two goals from dead balls. We don’t have a magic wand so we have to be more careful and more decisive defending them."
The Italians are not the only ones feeling the pressure.
Slovakia coach Vladimir Weiss has made a habit of walking out of press conferences at this World Cup after his side has recorded just a point from their opening two games and were beaten 2-0 by Paraguay on Sunday.
Weiss’ side could still qualify for the Round of 16 if they beat the struggling Italians although they would still need a helping hand from the Paraguay-New Zealand match in Polokwane.
The Eastern Europeans are also struggling up front as Slovakia enjoyed just one shot on goal in the entire 90 minutes against Paraguay as man-of-the-match Enrique Vera ran riot.
Weiss admitted the side’s chances were not great, but pledged to do their best against the Azzurri.
"We will give everything in our last match against Italy," he said.
"My favourite (for the group) has always been Paraguay," he said.
"It’s a good learning opportunity. We are very happy that we got to the World Cup."
Key to the game
Italy must find some goals from somewhere, anywhere, in what promises to be a tense affair between two sides playing for their World Cup survival. Defence will be the key as both sides are goal shy at this tournament, but the pressure is on defending champions Italy to at least make the Round of 16.