By Christopher Boulay

Italy drew minnows New Zealand on Sunday, making the defending world champions chances to advance to the Round of 16 even more difficult.

A team, who certainly were not as strong at the beginning of the tournament as they were when they lifted the trophy in Germany, now face elimination against Slovakia on Thursday. While a draw may put the Azzurri through, a win is certainly the most comfortable option.

The Italians have just looked plain awful this tournament, and while they still should, (and probably will) advance; the team has not looked nearly as dangerous as originally pegged.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

Against the All Whites; Italy gave New Zealand their first lead in the World Cup ever. Shane Smeltz scored in the seventh minute, and Italy looked to be playing catch-up the rest of the match. Daniele De Rossi earned a questionable penalty for Italy, and Vincenzo Iaquinta slotted it home in the 29th minute. The rest of the match, even with the Italians pressing, they could not figure out the New Zealand defense, and the draw was the result. The consolation for the Italians might just be that they didn’t have as poor of a showing as their arch rivals, the French, who are already eliminated.

This poor group stage showing is nothing new from the Italians, as they have a history of starting off slow, but if they want to strike fear in anyone, they will have to not only win, but win convincingly. Without a convincing win, Italian fans will wonder if this tournament is already a lost cause, and none of their future opponents will rate them very highly.

The Italian forwards have been invisible this entire tournament. Antonio Di Natale has looked like he doesn’t belong in the World Cup at all, while Iaquinta’s goal was only from the penalty spot. Pazzini, Quagliarella, and Gilardino also haven’t been up to snuff. Someone needs to take initiative quickly if the Italians are planning on doing anything this tournament.

Fabio Cannavaro, the Italian captain, has not looked his best, and it is becoming very obvious that the sun has set on his national team career. I know that he only took part in this tournament because of his injury before Euro 2008, but the Napoli-born captain just doesn’t have it anymore.

Also, keep in mind that Gianluigi Buffon, thought of as the best goalkeeper in the world by some, is out with a bad back for the remainder of the World Cup. Regardless of the ability of the team,. to have someone of that importance and experience out is always a massive blow.

With all of this negativity surrounding Italy, let’s try to look at some of the positives around the team. First off, with Buffon’s injury, having Federico Marchetti isn’t the end of the world. Marchetti, 27, has few caps for the Azzurri, but is very experienced in Serie A, where he currently plays with Cagliari.

This is still Italy we are talking about. The last time they have failed to make it out of the World Cup Group Stage was in Germany in 1974. This team doesn’t bow out easily, and they shouldn’t this time around.

Italy’s duty in the final match is simple – play like you belong in this tournament. If they do that, they will be back on track and may allow themselves to have some sort of a rebirth. If not, it will be time for the Azzurri to look to the future; one that involves a younger, hungrier squad with a new manager. But why be negative? Isn’t this the defending world champions? Time will tell which Italy will show up, but I think it will be the one nations tend to fear.

Chris Boulay is a soccer journalist who attends Central Connecticut State University majoring in Journalism. You can follow his articles via Twitter @chrismboulay.

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