By Adam Vaccaro
What happened Thursday: Despite entering its finale having experienced two very disappointing results (a pair of 1-1 draws against Paraguay and New Zealand), Italy's fate was in its own hands Thursday morning. A win against last place Slovakia, participating in its first ever World Cup as an independent nation, would give the 2006 champions the opportunity for a proper title defense in knockout play. But the Slovaks brought pressure throughout and Robert Vittek scored once in each half, putting Italy on the verge of elimination. Azzurri mounted a comeback after the 80th minute but were caught off-guard when Kamil Kopunek bolted past their back line on a throw-in and delivered an easy finishing touch to ice the match. The Italians scored once more in stoppage time but it was too little too late. The 3-2 loss means Italy joins France, its 2006 Finals opponent, as disappointing spectators for the remainder of the tournament.
New Zealand shocked the planet in drawing Italy last week and entered its match against Paraguay knowing that victory would spell advancement. The Kiwis again impressed in playing the group's leaders to a scoreless draw but the single point wasn't enough. Paraguay wins the group with five points, and Slovakia proudly joins them in the Round of 16 as runner-up with four.
Also Thursday: In a winner-moves-on afternoon match-up, Japan dominated midfield play and scored on two first half free kicks to defeat Denmark 3-1. Keisuke Honda bent the first score beautifully to get Japan off to a strong start, and Yasuhito Endo deceptively netted the second as Honda had set up for the shot before suddenly giving way to the defensive midfielder. Shinji Okazaki provided the insurance strike in the waning minutes, converting on a Honda assist. The Blue Samurai played strong defense and the Danes' only goal came off the rebound of a probably undeserved penalty kick. Denmark heads back to Europe with a third place finish in the group, meeting the modest expectations of most observers. Japan joins South Korea as Asian representation in the second round.
The Netherlands got what they needed to win Group E in beating Cameroon 2-1. In truth, the Dutch were likely to take the group on goal differential even with a loss, but going unbeaten in group play boosts their stock some as the second round gets set to begin. The Netherlands advance past the first round for the fifth time in the last six Cups. Cameroon scored its goal on a penalty kick by captain Samuel Eto'o, but the Indomitable Lions entered the match already eliminated and have to be disappointed to not even take a point away from the first ever World Cup on their home continent's soil.
What it all means: By winning Group F, Paraguay avoids the Netherlands and will meet Japan in a match that should provide an interesting contrast in style. The Samurai advance despite having been projected by most to serve as Group E's caboose following a string of poor exhibition results leading into the tournament. For the Dutch, a tilt with Slovakia who will probably be the weakest team in the Round of 16 puts them in very good position to see the quarterfinals. But if Holland is known for anything beyond an exciting attack and its enthusiastic, sometimes wacked-out supporters, it's coming up short in knockout play after strong group stages. The Oranje can't afford to look past a very confident Slovak bunch.
Italy and New Zealand have both been eliminated, but they leave South Africa with very different perspectives. For the All Whites, going unbeaten in group play and collecting their first three ever World Cup points is a wonderful achievement and should boost soccer some in Oceania. It's a whole other story for Italy, however. Everybody knew the Italians were old and few thought they'd go too far this time around, but its winning Group F was one of the most easily assumed projections heading into the tournament. To finish last in the group and head home this early is a tremendous disappointment for Italy and a stain on its proud soccer history.
What to watch on Friday: Group H leader Chile must face vaunted Spain in what should be a very active and energetic match. Running opposite that contest, the Swiss will play lowly Honduras. The most likely results wins for Spain and Switzerland would put all three teams at six points, meaning that for the first time in World Cup history, a team with two wins in group play would go home. Should these results occur, the Swiss would need to outscore Honduras by two or for Spain to do so to Chile in order to guarantee the Round of 16 by goal differential. Of course, upsets in either match would change everything. A Spanish loss or draw would make Chile the group's winner and most likely give La Furia Roja an extremely early send-off.
Also Friday: We already have a pretty clear picture of who will advance from the Group of Death. Even in a losing effort against Brazil, Portugal will likely move forward on goal differential by virtue of its 7-0 assault on North Korea. It's unclear if there's an advantage to winning the group as Spain who plays in the later time slot, and who both teams will want to avoid in the second round could end up winner, runner-up, or eliminated in Group H. But with Spain being as strong as it is, both Portugal and Brazil will likely assume that winning the group is to its benefit. Look for both sides to go for three points in a star-studded match between two of the world's three top-ranked teams.
To extend its tournament, Ivory Coast doesn't just need Brazil to win and it doesn't just need to also beat North Korea. The Elephants are in the tough spot of needing to erase the nine goal difference that separates them from Portugal. We've seen a lot of teams that need to play it safe in the group finales. That won't be the case in this one. Ivory Coast will be pushing the attack hard and looking to score as often as possible. Nothing but a lopsided win against North Korea probably more lopsided than Portugal's will do. It should make for some fun viewing.
Question of the Day: Is Cristiano Ronaldo ready to break out? The Portuguese skipper played well in the first two group matches but until his very late strike against North Korea, Ronaldo had gone over 16 months without scoring in international play. Such a streak did nothing to silence notions that the polarizing star doesn't come up in big spots. His goal against North Korea removed a goalless monkey from his back, but will it also serve to get him scoring regularly?
Full schedule (all times EDT): North Korea v Ivory Coast Mbombela Stadium, Nelspruit 10:00 a.m.; Portugal v Brazil Durban Stadium, Durban 10:00 a.m.; Switzerland v Honduras Free State Stadium, MangaungBloemfontein 2:30 p.m.; Chile v Spain Loftus Versfeld Stadium, TshwanePretoria 2:30 p.m.
Quote of Note: Tonight, we touched rock bottom. - Azzurri midfielder Gennaro Gattuso on the state of Italian soccer following his team's early elimination.