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Surprising Slovakia stages breakthrough

Associated Press / June 25, 2010

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The stunned looks and the tears told the story — for both teams.

For defending champion Italy, the ignominy of being sent out of the World Cup in the first round sank in immediately.

For Slovakia, which beat the Azzurri, 3-2, yesterday in Johannesburg to advance, well, the celebrating might not stop before Monday’s second-round game against the Netherlands.

“We’ve shown that we’re not here for a holiday,’’ said forward Erik Jendrisek.

The party ended in stunning fashion for four-time champion Italy, which finished last in an opening-round group for the first time. Italy hadn’t been eliminated in group play since 1974.

“I take full responsibility,’’ said coach Marcello Lippi, who led the Azzurri to the 2006 championship. “If the squad went out with fear in their legs and hearts it means the coach didn’t prepare the match well tactically or psychologically.’’

For the third consecutive game, the Azzurri allowed an early goal and this time they never recovered.

Robert Vittek put Slovakia ahead in the 25th minute, taking advantage of an errant pass from midfielder Daniele De Rossi. Vittek doubled the lead from close range in the 73d following a corner kick.

Antonio Di Natale scored for Italy in the 81st, but Kamil Kopunek ended Italy’s chances eight minutes later, even though Fabio Quagliarella scored in injury time for Italy.

The loss marked the end of an era for Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro and Gennaro Gattuso, who already announced their retirement from the national team after the tournament. Lippi is also moving on, with Cesare Prandelli already chosen as his successor.

Italy’s squad featured nine players 30 or over and Prandelli will be charged with a major overhaul. Italy hasn’t won since beating Sweden, 1-0, in a friendly in November, drawing five times and losing twice.

“It’s not a very good moment for Italian football, but the level of the Italian game isn’t what you saw tonight,’’ Lippi said.

Many of the Slovak players were in tears at the end of the match, and the reserves gathered in a circle, jumping up and down in celebration. It is the first World Cup for Slovakia as an independent nation.

“That’s unbelievable,’’ Slovak goalkeeper Jan Mucha said. “I never played a match like this one.’’

Netherlands 2, Cameroon 1 — The Dutch produced their first goals of flair and finesse to win in Cape Town and finish first in Group E with three victories.

Robin Van Persie finished off an end-to-end move in the 36th minute, and substitute Arjen Robben sent a shot against the post in the 83d that Klaas Jan Huntelaar only had to slide in for the winner.

In between, Samuel Eto’o scored on penalty kick for Cameroon.

Cameroon lost all three of its matches. Coach Paul Le Guen announced he was leaving the position with Cameroon.

Japan 3, Denmark 1 — Spectacular first-half goals by Keisuke Honda and Yusuhito Endo in Rustenberg, South Africa, helped lift the Japanese into the round of 16 for the first time on foreign soil.

The Danes, who scored in the 81st minute, failed to advance from the group stage for the first time in four World Cup appearances.

Japan’s first two goals came from free kicks less than 15 minutes apart, and Shinji Okazaki scored an insurance goal in the 87th to punctuate his team’s second-place finish in Group E. Japan will face Paraguay Tuesday.

Paraguay 0, New Zealand 0 — Despite being held to a scoreless draw in Polokwane, South Africa, Paraguay still won Group F and moved into the round of 16.

Neither team created much in the way of scoring chances — the Kiwis had exactly zero shots on goal. New Zealand still finished third in the group with three points.

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