SAPPORO — Italy had only lost one game (vs. Ireland in U.S.A ’94) in regulation time in the World Cup since Mexico ’86, conceding only 10 goals in those 19 games. This record was to remain untarnished as Italy used two goals from Christian Vieri to cruise to a 2-0 win over Ecuador in their Group G game at a chilly Sapporo Dome on Monday night.
Italian coach Giovanni Trapattoni had called on Francesco Totti “to take the team in his hands and carry ‘the Azzurri’ forward.” Totti did not let his coach down with an inspirational display that had the 32,000 fans gasping in admiration.
Trapattoni, opted for a 4-4-2 formation, moving away from his favored 3-5-2, electing to pair forward Totti up front with Inter Milan’s Vieri and leaving Juventus playmaker Alessandro Del Piero on the bench.
To counter Italy’s dangerous strikeforce, Ecuadorean coach Herman Gomez packed his midfield, selecting an uncommon 4-5-1 formation in a move that suggested Ecuador would be aiming for a point.
It did not take long for Totti to make his mark on the game when in the sixth minute he released Vieri on goal with a sweeping move. Vieri however had a poor first touch allowing Ecuador ‘keeper Jose Cevallos to close down the space and block his shot.
The very next move produced Italy’s opener with Totti again the man to start the move, breaking through the Ecuador defense before squaring the ball to Vieri, who unleashed a powerful first-time drive into the top left corner of the net.
The execution of the move was clinical, confirming Italy’s status as one of the tournament favorites.
The early attacking was all Italy with Totti cracking a spectacular volley from 30 meters out that Cevallos did well to save.
In the 25th minute, a cheeky backheel flick from Totti found midfielder Gianluca Zambrotta in space. He in turn sent an inviting through ball for Vieri, only for the striker to crash his shot high into the stands.
Vieri made amends two minutes later latching on to a ball from Luigi Di Biagio, outmuscling the last line of the Ecuadorean defense and firing home into an empty net after squeezing the ball past Cevallos.
With an Italian defense tighter than lycra pants on a sumo wrestler, the signs looked ominous for the Ecuadoreans. To their credit they never gave up and created chances of their own, the best of which falling to Augustin Delgado. The joint top-scorer in the South American World Cup qualifiers, however, took too long to pick his spot and Italian ‘keeper Gianluigi Buffon pulled off a fine save.
The second half lacked the excitement of the first with Italy content to sit back and protect its lead, the loudest applause of the half being reserved for the popular Del Piero when he was brought on in the 74th minute for Totti who had covered the pitch like a man possessed.
Earlier, Cristiano Doni had had the crowd on its feet with a karate-style volley off a corner that hit the crossbar but would have made Bruce Lee proud.
In the 90th minute, Ecuador had its best chance of the match when the ball broke for Delgado in the box only for Buffon to show why he is the most expensive goalkeeper in the world with a brilliant save.
While Ecuador in no way disgraced itself, the performance of Italy — and Totti in particular — will give the other teams in the competition something to think about.
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