Group E of the 2006 FIFA World Cup Finals reaches its conclusion this afternoon with qualification still a mathematical possibility for all four teams.
Fans will be looking forward to a tense pair of matches featuring Italy, Czech Republic, Ghana and the USA.
Italy and the Czechs meeting in Hamburg this afternoon in what is the pick of the two ties. Both teams enter the match on the back of disappointing results in their previous games. Italy failed to make an extra man count against the USA in Kaiserslauten last weekend in the 1-1 draw, while the injury ravaged Czechs were comprehensively out-played by Ghana in Cologne on the same day.
Italy will be certain of qualification if they avoid defeat this afternoon, and if Ghana fail to beat the USA in the other match then the Italians could progress regardless of their result today. The meeting today will be the thirtieth between the two sides, though the vast majority of the games took place before the Czech/Slovak split, when the Czechs competed as Czechoslovakia. The Czechs have a slight edge in historic results, but the results in the six competitive matches are perfectly balanced. Both teams have two victories and two draws. The most famous meeting between the pair was the 1934 World Cup Final in Rome when Italy triumphed 2-1 after extra time.
Italy coach Marcello Lippi has several suspension worries ahead of this afternoon’s match. Midfielder Daniele de Rossi will definitely miss the game after his disgraceful elbow on USA striker Brian McBride in Kaiserslauten. Compounding this problem is the fact that four players will face suspension from second round if they receive another yellow card today, and Lippi must decide whether or not to risk Mauro Camoranesi, Vicenzo Iaquinta Gianluca Zambrotta and Franceso Totti. If Totti suffers another booking, either tonight or in any prospective later games, he will suffer the dubious honour of becoming the most cautioned player in finals history.
Lippi has much confidence in his team and is hopeful of putting the sluggish performance against the USA aside. He is hoping to have Simone Perrotta available for selection after the midfielder picked up an injury against the USA. The Italian media’s praise for Lippi’s team, fulsome after the opening win against Ghana, has cooled significantly in recent days. One of the main topics of debate is a lack of pace and discipline, problems that have beset the ‘Azzurri’ at the last three major tournaments.
“All the praise that the team received for their performance might have cause some kind of easing off for my players,” admitted Lippi, who was unwittingly revealing his own shortcomings as a motivator.
“Italy has traditionally performed badly in the group stages. We are made for the knockout games as our mentality is to give our best when it is a one-off.”
Midfield playmaker Andrea Pirlo of AC Milan, hailed as Italy’s best player at the finals so far, insists that Italy will be going all out for a win this afternoon despite them only needing a draw for qualification.
“We always play to win,” Pirlo said on Wednesday, in what was a complete contradiction of his coach’s comments.
“That’s always been our approach, to walk out onto the field and play a winning game. That’s what we’ll be doing against the Czechs and we are determined to win and finish top of our group.”
Captain Fabio Cannavaro singled out his Juventus team-mate Pavel Nedved as the main danger to his country’s qualification hopes this afternoon.
“Pavel is an annoying player to play against,” revealed a smiling Cannavaro on Tuesday.
“He has great spirit, sets and example to his team-mates, has real inner strength and plays with passion. He is a genuine professional and a player to fear.”
Czech Republic coach Karel Bruckner is sweating on the fitness of his two star strikers ahead of this afternoon’s crucial match. Without both Jan Koller and Milan Baros the Czechs looked a pale imitation of a team normally viewed as one of the most attractive in Europe. It is far from certain that either will feature today and their replacement from the deserved defeat by Ghana, Vratislav Lokvenc, will also miss out after his second yellow card of the tournament.
Of the two injured players it is Baros who is the more likely to recover in time for this afternoon’s match, and Bruckner will be praying that he will. Baros has a formidable scoring record for his country and his direct style would inject some much needed pace to the Czech Republic’s attacking play. He works particularly well with Koller, but the likely absence of the giant striker means that Baros will partner Marek Heinz this afternoon if he is declared fit.
If Ghana win against the USA in Nuremberg in the group’s other match then only a win for the Czechs over Italy will be enough to secure their passage to the second round. For many teams this would be a daunting scenario, but Bruckner has been eager to deflate the tension around his players this week. He has also been utilising some of the experience of certain squad members, three of which play their club football in the Italian first division.
“All four teams will be under pressure on Thursday so my players need to realise that it is not just them,” Bruckner said on Tuesday.
“It is the same for all of us. The group will be decided in the final match, maybe even the last second. We must stay calm and focus on our own performance.”
“The coach has asked the three of us who play in Italy for advice,” AC Milan’s Marek Jankulowski revealed.
“He asked us about Lippi’s players and we provided him with plenty of information. We have a lot to play for and are aware of the task we face. After six years playing in Italy I can’t deny that this game will have a special flavour for me.”
In addition to Lokvenc, centre-half Tomas Ujfalusi is also suspended for today’s game and will be replaced in defence by Martin Jiranek. Further problems for Bruckner come in the form of potential suspensions for the next round for Zdenek Grygera, David Rozenhal and Tomas Rosicky. However, due to the significance of today’s game, all are likely to be risked by Bruckner as he tries to navigate a safe passage into the knockout phase.
By Mark Robinson
Italy: Buffon; Zaccardo, Nesta, Cannavaro, Zambrotta; Gattuso, Pirlo, Perrotta; Totti; Toni, Gilardino
Czech Republic: Cech; Grygera, Jiranek, Rozenhal, Jankulowski; Galasek; Poborsky, Rosicky, Nedved; Heinz, Baros
Referee:: Benito Archunida (Mexico)