Italy draws 1-1 with Paraguay to open World Cup defense
AP Sports Writer
Vail, CO Colorado
CAPE TOWN, South Africa – Italy opened defense of its World Cup title with a underwhelming, rain-soaked 1-1 draw with Paraguay on Monday.
Paraguay defender Antolin Alcaraz scored on a header in the 39th minute of the Group F match. Italy midfielder Daniele De Rossi equalized from close range in the 63rd after a miscue by goalkeeper Justo Villar.
Already without injured midfielder Andrea Pirlo, Italy’s fortunes took another hit when it lost perhaps its most valuable player, goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, after the first half. The 32-year-old Buffon was removed in favor of inexperienced backup Federico Marchetti due to an apparent back problem.
De Rossi made up for the opening goal, sliding in to redirect a corner kick from Simone Pepe. It was a solid start for the midfielder who was suspended for four games during Italy’s victorious 2006 run after bloodying the face of U.S. forward Brian McBride with a sharp elbow.
After a day of often intense rain, the match kicked off under a drizzle, leaving the field slippery. Temperatures stood at 46 degrees, but the swirling winds coming off the ocean made it feel colder.
There were relatively few fans from Italy and Paraguay among the near-capacity crowd of 62,869 at Green Point Stadium, although the usual buzz of vuvuzelas made it difficult to determine exactly who was rooting for whom.
Italy started with six holdovers from its 2006 squad, and with Riccardo Montolivo replacing Pirlo.
Paraguay coach Gerardo Martino left Roque Santa Cruz on the bench and started a two-man forward line of Nelson Valdez and Lucas Barrios.
Italy was organized from the start, pushing up the right flank with Gianluca Zambrotta and Pepe, but the Azzurri had trouble getting the ball in attacking position. Paraguay was content to sit back and wait for counterattacks and didn’t venture into Italy’s half until the 20-minute mark, when the South Americans won a couple corner kicks.
With the rain picking up and fans blowing harder on their vuvuzelas – seemingly demanding more action – both teams stalled in midfield for a while before Paraguay took the lead.
In the second half, Italy appeared rattled at first without Buffon shouting his usual orders, and Enrique Vera nearly scored in the 52nd minute when defender Giorgio Chiellini failed to clear the ball.
After De Rossi’s equalizer, Italy’s best chance for victory came in the 83rd with a long shot from Montolivo that Villar did well to push wide.
Also showing off swift passing skills, Montolivo was an able substitute for Pirlo, who could be back as soon as the next match against New Zealand. With Pirlo clearly recovering, the bigger worry for Italy is Buffon’s status.
The other two teams in Group F, Slovakia and New Zealand, play Tuesday.