In many countries, April Fools jokes are only valid until noon. In others though, including Ireland, the jokes last all day. When German referee Wolfgang Stark reached for his pocket after just two minutes to red card Giampaolo Pazzini for an unintentional brush to John O'Shea's face, you would have been forgiven for thinking that this was indeed a very bad, and unbelievable, April Fools prank.
But then Pazzini began to walk off the pitch, he continued to walk, and then it sunk in that this was no gag – this was just a simply horrific refereeing decision, one that conditioned what could have been a very entertaining World Cup qualifier.
As soon as Vincenzo Iaquinta gave Italy the lead on 10 minutes, it was obvious that the Azzurri were going to sit with their 10 men and try to protect their advantage. The remaining 80 minutes, with the exception of Robbie Keane’s late equaliser, and a flurry of even later Irish openings, were dreadfully dull and predictable. I openly confess that I often had more than half an eye on Argentina and Diego Maradona’s stunning self-destruction at the hands of Bolivia.
Ireland boss Giovanni Trapattoni said it best in the post-match interview, when he stated: “For the referee to make a decision like that so early into the game he has to be sure. You can tell it really wasn’t serious.”
Italy coach Marcello Lippi made no secret of his disgust, and openly blamed Stark for his side’s failure to win all three points.
"We played 90 minutes with 10 men for an interpretation of violence that was seen by everyone. These things shouldn't happen in international football. It's absolutely wrong,” he roared.
It was absolutely wrong, but what was also wrong was Lippi’s own personal performance on the night. Granted, it is difficult to play with one man less for an entire game but, with all due respect, Ireland are a very ordinary side. Their midfield of Keogh, Whelan, Andrews and Hunt, minus the services of three fine players in Damien Duff, Aiden McGeady (both injured) and Stephen Ireland (self-exiled), should have been completely out of their depth. These were Championship-standard players up against World Cup winners like De Rossi and Pirlo.
Italy should still have still been able to control proceedings, and for much of the first half they did do that. Pirlo was comfortably the best player on the pitch, spraying some delightful passes around, and combining superbly with the marauding Grosso, both in the build-up to Iaquinta’s opener, and on other occasions. The Milan star was the only Italian prepared to put his foot on the ball to ensure Italy had some territory. But then, Lippi bizarrely substituted him at half-time for ‘tactical reasons’, introducing the defensive Angelo Palombo. The middle of the park now consisted of three holding midfielders, and for the duration of the second half, the trio barely passed the halfway line.
This was an open, and misguided, invitation for Ireland to attack, as Lippi chose to play a deep defensive line. Without McGeady and Duff, Ireland did not have the pace or craft to hurt Italy in open spaces, and indeed their best chance of equalising was always going to be via long balls and crosses pumped into the box in order to cause confusion. Eventually this was how the leveller arrived, as a route-one Shay Given goal kick caught out a ridiculously deep Italian defence, and substitute Caleb Folan re-enacted the famous Niall Quinn flick-on for Keane. If the Azzurri had pushed up, even with 10 men, Ireland would not have had the ability to play around, or get in behind, them.
Lippi’s second substitution was also Claudio Ranieri-esque, as he replaced an attacking wideman, Simone Pepe, with a left back, Andrea Dossena. For the last 35 minutes, Italy were playing with five defenders, three holding midfielders, and Iaquinta all by himself up-front, 10 miles ahead into the horizon. If each and every Italy player had one leg, the balance in the team could not have been any more wobbly. Where Dossena was supposed to be playing is a mystery. He popped up at left midfield, left-back, and even in the trequartista position. Yes, trequartista!
It is clear that the current squad is one of the weakest Italy has had for a very long time, and a great deal of improvement is required if they are to defend their World Cup with pride and honour. However, the pool and team could be far stronger if only Lippi would select the right players. To repeat for the umpteenth time, there is simply no attacking creativity. The team is crying out for an Antonio Cassano, Francesco Totti or Sebastian Giovinco-type support striker. Lippi appears to be going down the Inter road of trying to grind out victories, only Italy do not have Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Lippi has often reacted to criticism that he is relying on old players by citing the presence of Giuseppe Rossi. How many minutes did the Villarreal man play during this World Cup double-header? A big fat zero. Like Cassano, what does the 21-year-old have to do for his club? Simone Pepe can barely make the Udinese starting XI, yet Rossi is starring in the Champions League.
Goal.com International’s Chief Editor, and Spanish football expert, Ewan Macdonald says, "Rossi may not top the Liga goalscoring charts, but he is nonetheless utterly integral to the success of Villarreal, in dropping back and linking up with midfielders. He is without question one of the top forwards in a league as competitive as Spain's, which leaves one wondering what more he has to do to earn Marcelo Lippi's trust.”
It was a bad night all round for Italy. Referee Wolfgang Stark deserves to be vilified for his performance and, without Pazzini’s unjust red card, it is 90 per cent likely Italy would have won. But serious questions must be asked of Lippi. Just because he is a World Cup winner does not mean that he is immune to criticism. World class players will eventually lose form as they get older, this can be the case for coaches too. Lippi’s squad and team selection, his tactical and formation choices, and most of all his substitutions, have question marks printed all over them.
What are your views on last night’s game? How bad was the referee’s decision to send off Pazzini? What do you make of some of Lippi’s choices? Is this Italy team going to struggle at the World Cup unless changes are made? Goal.com wants to know what YOU think
Carlo Garganese, Goal.com