Rank tournament outsiders New
Zealand pulled off one of the biggest World Cup shocks in recent memory by
holding defending champions Italy to a draw in Nelspruit.
The Azzurri pressed hard for three
points in a pulsating second half, but the All Whites stood firm and could have
snatched a remarkable victory had 18-year-old West Brom forward Chris Wood not
guided a late left-foot shot just wide of the post.
Regardless, it still represents
easily the best result in the history of a nation which still does not have a
professional football league and is far better known for its daunting rugby
And Italy, who are sorely lacking
the creativity of injured AC Milan midfielder Andrea Pirlo, are now under real
pressure and needing to beat Slovakia on Thursday to guarantee a place in the
Should they only manage a draw,
then New Zealand – 2000-1 to win the World Cup before the tournament started –
could deny them with victory over Paraguay in their final Group D match.
Before this vibrant encounter at
the Mbombela Stadium, Italy coach Marcello Lippi had identified New Zealand’s
aerial threat as the main danger to his team – and that warning proved
prophetic within just seven minutes.
Simon Elliott whipped over a
curling free-kick from the left and with tall defender Winston Reid soaring
highest to flick the ball on, Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro – who lifted the
ultimate prize in world football back in 2006 – could only help it into the
path of Shane Smeltz.
The New Zealand striker looked
significantly offside but was nerveless in prodding his 20th goal in 37
internationals past Federico Marchetti, who was deputising for Italy’s injured
first-choice keeper Gianluigi Buffon.
The holders nearly hit back
instantly but All Whites goalkeeper Mark Paston clawed out a dangerously
bouncing Riccardo Montolivo free-kick with a posse of blue shirts waiting at
close quarters to pounce on any mistake.
Italy soon set about exploiting any
means they could to try and gain an advantage – Cannavaro accusing Rory Fallon
of using his elbow after another sturdy challenge in the air for which the Plymouth
striker was booked.
But AC Milan’s celebrated
right-back Gianluca Zambrotta injected some flair into the Italian charge after
23 minutes, firing in a spectacular shot which whistled just past the top
corner before Riccardo Montolivo surged forward in similar style to swerve the
controversial Jabulani ball against the upright from fully 30 yards.
Italy made their pressure tell just
before the half hour when Ipswich Town defender Tommy Smith conceded a penalty
after tussling with Daniele De Rossi as they battled to get on the end of a
cross, though the Roma midfielder seemed to