An ageing Croatia side are going to have their work cut out to repeat their third place from the last World Cup. The heat and humidity in Niigata proved too much for them and they ended up losing to a second half penalty against one of the theoretically easier sides in their group, Mexico.
Their early challenge died out quickly as the Central Americans took charge, and Borgetti missed the easiest chance of the half. Then on the hour mark the Chinese referee Mr. Lu awarded a penalty when Zivkovic fouled Cuauhtèmoc Blanco. The Valladolid player stepped up to convert the kick himself and give his side a useful win which should see them through to the next round.
Spanish league players: Cuauhtèmoc Blanco as usual saves his best performances for the national side, and he provided the vital play for Mexico's goal. He even managed his Cuahtemiña kangaroo style jump, something hardly seen at all in his two years with the Spanish club. After a good game he was replaced by Espanyol's Palencia for the last ten minutes. Sevilla's Torrado played the full 90 minutes in his usual midfield position.
Cristian Vieri! Il cappo de tutti li cappi! The Aussie born canionero give the Azzurri what they want, a comfortable opening victory against World Cup new boys Ecuador. Seventh minute, Totti races into the penalty area and pulls the ball back. Vieri gets on the end of it, shoots into the roof of the net, 1-0. Twenty-fourth minute, Zambrotta cuts out a poor back pass and crosses in for Vieri, just wide. Twenty-seventh minute, Italy clear the ball out of defence, Vieri chests it on, Cevallos half blocks his shot but Vieri follows up and scores, 2-0.
Less than half an hour gone and game over, we can all go home. Well, there is another hour left, but you know Italy. Ten men back in defence, and if that fails there is always Buffon to save the day. He stops a late efforts from Delgado to make sure of his clean sheet, doesn't want anyone to spoil his perfect record. Italy are on their way, no need of a Schumacher this time to steer the prancing horse first past the post. Watch out world!
Spanish league players: Barcelona's Coco (who goes back to his home country next season) doesn't get a game for Italy this time. Neither does Kaviedes for Ecuador, who is still on Celta's books even though he is earning his money in Portugal these days.
Another surprise in this game, not quite as much as the defeats of France and Portugal but on current form unexpected. With Italy comfortably winning their first game against Ecuador and Croatia losing to Mexico, the Azzurri were strong favourites to win. However a changed Croatia side, with Suker and Prosinecki on the bench, came from behind to steal away a vital win. Mirko Jozic's team gave Italy as good as they got in the first half, but were overpowered early in the second. English referee Graham Poll incorrectly ruled out a diving header from Vieri for offside, but a few minutes later Vieri did put Italy in front when he headed Doni's cross over the stranded keeper.
Italy closed ranks as usual, but with Nesta off the field injured, his replacement Matarazzi failed to cut out Jarni's cross and substitute Olic gleefully stuck the ball in the net. While the young striker was disentangling himself from his shirt, his side took advantage of Italy's confusion to bear down on the goal once again. After two close efforts, Rapaic finally got in a shot which took a wicked deflection off the unfortunate Matarazzi to balloon over a surprised Buffon and in to the net.
Italy threw everything forward and Totti hit both posts with one brilliantly struck free kick. Then a long clearance from his own half in the last minute by Matarazzi bounced past everyone and in to the net. Italy started to celebrate, but the linesman once more had his flag up for a pull by Inzaghi on Simic's shirt, and Poll ruled out another goal. Trapattoni was furious, but his side have lost and now have what could be a tricky last match with Mexico to reach the next round.
Spanish league players: Many old faces, Panucci, Vieri, Jarni, Vlaovic, Prosinecki and Suker who have all played in Spain in the past. However only Coco is current, and he is also on his way out of Spain. He spent some time warming up, but never got on the pitch in the end.
Mexico moved to the top of their group and now have a great chance of reaching the next round after winning their Latin American clash with Ecuador 2-1. They were caught out though early on when Southhampton's Delgado leapt above the defence to head a cross from De La Cruz past the flailing Oscar Pérez. However Ecuador failed to capitalise on their lead, and Javier Aguirre's side levelled the scores before the break when Borgetti turned in a low cross from Morales. Mexico came out in the second half inspired by Torrado, and the Sevilla midfielder scored the winning goal with a long shot around the hour mark.
Their two goal difference means that Mexico can now afford to even lose by the odd goal against Italy in their last game and still finish above them, but even if they do worse than that Croatia still have to beat Ecuador for Mexico to be out of the competition. Ecuador have a mathematical chance of staying in, but need to beat Croatia by two goals or more and hope Mexico beat Italy, a tall order on their current form.
Spanish league players: Sevilla's Torrado was the inspiration for Mexico, commanding midfield and scoring the vital goal. Cuauhtèmoc Blanco played all but the last minute, being substituted for tactical reasons by Javier Aguirre, who has confirmed that he will be taking over at Osasuna after the World cup. Espanyol's Palencia did not got on the park.
Italy have made it through the back door once again after a late equaliser against Mexico. Trapattoni's side were trailing for much of the game after Borgetti put the Mexicans in front, heading home Cuauhtèmoc's through ball ten minutes before half time. Up to then Italy had done most of the attacking, and had even got the ball in the net from Inzaghi only to see it ruled offside. Borgetti's goal meant that Italy were out, although when Ecuador took the lead in the other group match just after half time, they moved back up to second spot on goal difference.
It was a tight thing though, and another goal in Yokohama could mean elimination for the Azzurri. The game had even stopped an important international summit meeting of the FAO in Rome, and a nation held it's breath as the clock ticked by. Once again they got the ball in the net, this time by Montella, only to see the Brazilian referee Carlos Simon say offside again. Shades of the game against Croatia where two goals were also disallowed, and nerves started to become frayed.
Mexico seemed to be about to pull off a miracle, three victories out of three and a first ever win against Italy, and Trapattoni had to turn to Alessandro Del Piero, the villain four years ago when Italy were knocked out. But this was his moment to redeem himself, and when Montella knocked on a quick throw in into the box, there was the Juventus star to head the ball past Oscar Pérez. Italy are still in the competition, finishing in second spot behind their opponents who are proving to be a hard nut to crack. Remember, its not all over until the fat signorina sings.
Spanish league players: Sevilla's Torrado and Valladolid's kangaroo hopping Cuauhtèmoc Blanco, two players who have not made much of an impact in the Spanish league, are showing that they have more to offer when playing for their country. Both played the full game for Mexico, and Espanyol's Palencia came on for the last ten minutes. Barcelona's Coco finally made his World cup debut for Italy, replacing ex Real Madrid full back Panucci around the hour mark. Incidentally, of the four players mentioned, only Torrado is currently staying in Spain next season.
After surprising Italy in their last match, Croatia appeared to be back on song and were expected to beat new boys Ecuador to go through to the next round. Nothing of the sort however, and they were dumped unceremoniously out of the competition by an Ecuador side who were all but mathematically out but who wanted to leave with something. The South Americans controlled midfield in the first half, although they were not able to provide the finishing touch and the best goal chances fell to Croatia's Boksic, who saw a shot hit the post shortly before the interval.
The half time news from the other game was that Italy were losing, and that meant that Croatia would classify in second place. However within three minutes of the restart Ecuador took the lead, Méndez finishing off past the despairing Pletikosa after Delgado played the ball in to the goal area. Now it was a three way tie for second spot, although Italy just had the nod over the other two on goal difference. Exciting stuff, with Croatia pushing for the equaliser that would take them through but knowing that two more from Ecuador and they could even qualify. But the two teams cancelled each other out, and when Italy scored near the end of their game both confirmed their bookings for the early plane home.
Spanish league players: None.