Italy coach Marcello Lippi, to his credit, did not hide after the world champions' embarrassing 3-2 loss at the hands of Slovakia (and consequent last place finish in Group F). He did not blame the marginal offside call which struck off one Italy goal (very close, could have gone either way) or question whether Martin Skrtel's clearance, which negated another, came before or after the goalline (most camera angles suggest the referee got it right). Nor did he blame misfortune, or the ball, or injuries (Gigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo), or even his players (though Simone Pepe's missed sitter at the end of the game was straight out of a horror show).
Nope, the buck stopped with Lippi. And so it should. Because no matter what excuses or mitigating circumstances you care to conjure up, what happened is simply not acceptable. World champions do not finish last in group stages. Certainly not in groups where the competition is -- with all due respect -- Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia.
Lippi has to bear responsibility because, for two years, he had absolute control over the national team, doing whatever he thought best with the near total backing of the Italian FA. He never gave AntonioCassano a shot, when most of the nation was crying out for him. He shut the door on MarioBalotelli and FrancescoTotti. He stuck with FabioCannavaro, even as it was plain to see that time was taking its toll. He threw RinoGattuso into a key game like Slovakia and watched the once-proud warrior go out with a whimper: again, not exactly a surprise to anyone who watched him play this season.
Tactically, his insistence on ClaudioMarchisio -- who thankfully was left out of the third game- was also baffling. At 22, the best is, no doubt, yet to come with Juventus midfielder, but surely playing him out of position- whether out wide or in the hole -- was always going to be a recipe for disaster.
The above are all fair indictments of Lippi. The rest are somewhat more debatable and of the "hindsight is 20/20" variety. Could he have used ChristianMaggio sooner, with GianlucaZambrotta moving to the left and DomenicoCriscito to the bench? Sure, but Criscito had a good season and there was reason to believe he would turn the corner. Could he have done a better job with his strikers, perhaps not waiting until the last 45 minutes to unleash FabioQuagliarella? Sure, although the bottom line is that this corps of strikers is what it is. VincenzoIaquinta is a useful role player and man off the bench, he's clearly not a week in, week out, centerforward. AlbertoGilardino is streaky, not much you can do about it. AntonioDiNatale may have been Serie A's top scorer, but it was obvious as far back as the training camp in Sestriere that something was off. GiampaoloPazzini -- like Cassano -- seems to have his own cheerleading section in the media, but, in fact, has yet to make the transition from rising star to top-drawer centerforward (and, given that he's now in mid-career, he may never do so). Then there's Quagliarella, who is as inconsistent as he's gifted. These are the Italy forwards, this is what he had to pick from.
"This is pretty much it," Buffon said after the game. "This is what we are. We'd like to think we can do better and I think we should have done better, but, maybe we're wrong. Maybe we need to take a step back and accept the basic fact: we're not that good."
That's not a surprise. We knew Italy wasn't that good, certainly not on a par with Spain or Brazil or even Argentina and England. What is surprising is that Italy would be this bad. And, make no mistake about it, had Italy squeezed through in the next round -- either because the linesman disallowed ShaneSmeltz's goal for New Zealand or because Pepe found the back of the net in the dying minutes or for whatever bad break went the Azzurri's way, it would not have changed the fact: this Italy side was poor. And while Lippi may not have been 100 percent responsible, there is little question that he made a bad situation worse.