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World Cup: Continental crisis hits Italy, too

Let's recap the past few days in European soccer, shall we?

First a listless, discordant French team was beaten by Mexico, 2-0, on Thursday, leaving it winless, goalless and virtually hopeless heading into its World Cup group finale. So rather than fight on, the team staged a mutiny, refusing to practice Sunday.

Then, England failed to score a goal against Algeria on Friday, leaving it on the brink of elimination in the first round for the first time since 1958. That provoked a crisis that led to a team meeting that was either a) peaceful b) heated c) not really a meeting at all or d) all off the above.

And now the defending World Cup champion Italians are imploding after two ties, the last against lowly New Zealand in a match that the Kiwis actually led for a time. And the problem stretches beyond the Azzurri players in South Africa, according to Italian football federation chief Giancarlo Abete.

"It's a problem we're going to have to reflect on after this World Cup. But it's not a problem related to one or two specific players," Abete told the Associated Press on Monday, referring to Italy's two goals in two World Cup games. "We don't have any Golden Ball-level players anymore. It's a larger problem with Italian football. We're going through a generational change. There are also problems at the youth level and the under-21 team."

Midfielder Daniele De Rossi scored against Paraguay and forward Vincenzo Iaquinta converted a penalty kick against New Zealand. Many of the most dangerous scoring chances have been produced by midfielders -- with Riccardo Montolivo hitting the post against New Zealand. That has earned Coach Marcello Lippi wide criticism for never even considering calling up talented but temperamental strikers Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli.

Italy needs to beat Slovakia in its final Group F match Thursday to be sure of advancing. Paraguay leads the group with four points, Italy and New Zealand have two apiece and Slovakia is last with one point.

"If anyone isn't worried, they're not being responsible," Abete said. "But we can still qualify quite easily. We've got to stay positive."

Italy has scored five goals in its last seven matches, and only one forward has found the target in open play: Fabio Quagliarella in a 1-1 draw with Switzerland in a pre-World Cup friendly.

"We're not scoring much and therefore when we allow goals it becomes much tougher to turn the game around," Abete said. "We have a problem finishing. All the European teams are having problems."

If Italy and New Zealand both draw by the same score in their final group games, a coin toss will decide which side advances.

"I'm aware of the rule, but I don't even want to contemplate that possibility," Abete said.

-- Kevin Baxter in Johannesburg, South Africa

 
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