End of the road for Lippi's Italy
World Cup 2010: Johannesburg
It might have been a slow burner but Thursday's match at Ellis Park eventually exploded into life and provided the most drama, desperation and edge-of-the-seat excitement that we have seen so far at the World Cup.
However, Italy's shock 3-2 to defeat to Slovakia won't be remembered fondly by Marcello Lippi and his players - most of whom could not get down the tunnel and into the very private sanctity of their dressing room quickly enough after the final whistle.
Only retiring skipper Fabio Cannavaro hung around, heading towards referee Howard Webb to vent some of his fury and frustration in the direction of the English official.
Eventually, as Slovakia's players and their entire backroom staff congregated in a giant huddle in the centre of the Ellis Park pitch to celebrate their extraordinary victory, Cannavaro was teased off the field by a member of the Italian delegation.
It was a sad end to a great career for the 36-year-old central defender, who has won 137 caps for his country, but the referee was not to blame for his team's exit.
Only in the final 15 minutes against Slovakia did we finally see some attacking cohesion and desire from an Italy side that had previously misfired.
Italy trailed 2-0 and 3-1 but twice moved back to within one goal of the draw that would have seen them sneak into the round of 16. They created enough chances in the final 15 minutes to pull off a stunning comeback - and would surely have done so if substitute Fabio Quagliarella's late strike had not been ruled out for offside.
It was all too much for the 27-year Napoli striker, who was a lively presence after his half-time introduction but who left the field in tears.
It proved to be the final game of coach Marcello Lippi's second spell in charge of Italy and afterwards the 62-year-old spoke with great dignity and honesty about the campaign.
"When you see a team that plays with fear in their legs and in their hearts you understand that you have failed," said Lippi.
Four years ago, Lippi used the negative publicity that surrounded the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal to galvanise his squad, who had arrived in Germany unfancied but left clutching their fourth World Cup title.
But they, like fellow finalists France, have been eliminated at the group stage in South Africa - and Lippi stressed time and again that he accepted total responsibility.
Every question, whether about selection, tactics, motivation, preparation or psychology, saw Lippi deflect the blame away from his players.
He was clearly at a loss to explain why his team performed so miserably for so long against Slovakia in what was a game his team knew they needed to win to be absolutely sure of qualification.
You can understand why he was so perplexed because Italy's record in crunch group games is exceptional. They had not failed to qualify from the group stage at the World Cup since 1974 and so history would suggest that Italy produced when it mattered.
The reasons why they did not do so in South Africa are varied.
It has been suggested that they have an ageing squad.
It is not as old as either Brazil or England but at times against Slovakia the years appeared to have caught up with Cannavaro, who could easily have been dismissed for two poor tackles in quick succession in the opening half.
Italy conceded twice in the 2006 tournament, one of them an own goal, but errors played a part in all three goals they conceded on Thursday.
Daniele De Rossi's awful pass led to the first, a moment's hesitation from Giorgio Chiellini contributed to the second and the entire defence was caught out by Kamil Kopunek's run as he collected a throw-in for the third.
Italy constructed their previous World Cup campaign on clean sheets but they failed to keep one here and conceded five goals in three games.
They could argue that they were unfortunate in that the only two shots on target against them in their first two games resulted in goals.
Nonetheless, Italy had not conceded more than two goals in a World Cup fixture since their 4-1 defeat to Brazil in the 1970 final, but they were found wanting by a team who were outclassed by Paraguay in their previous fixture.
The injury sustained by goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon against Paraguay did not help. He is a reassuring presence and his influence on the team was clear even on Thursday as he stood in front of the Italy dugout imploring his colleagues to push forward.
He was stood next to Gennaro Gattuso, who made his first appearance of the tournament against Slovakia but was withdrawn at the break. The 32-year-old warmed up with all the vigour I expect of him but, after an injury affected season for AC Milan, he lacked the snarl and bite of old and has also quit the international scene.
This Italy team has also been short of goals - with Lippi's attacking selections during the three games strongly suggesting that no one striker had done enough to cement a place.
They had scored five in their previous eight games before Thursday, with just one goal coming in open play from a striker, Quagliarella's effort in a 1-1 draw with Switzerland in a warm-up fixture.
But what Italy have really missed during this campaign is midfield creativity. Andrea Pirlo was a deep-sitting playmaker in 2006 and instrumental in his team's victory but a calf injury meant that his only role in South Africa was as a second-half substitute against Slovakia.
During the first half the television images cut to Pirlo watching from the dugout, the obvious message being that he was the man Italy so desperately needed.
His absence was clearly keenly felt - a point that Lippi himself made - and, with a view to the long-term, Italy needs a new star to emerge in the middle of the park.
In one sense, Italy's World Cup failure is not all that surprising. They were awful in last year's Confederations Cup but Lippi, like Enzo Bearzot in 1986, perhaps continued to rely too heavily on players who were so successful for him four years earlier. They were 10 from the 2006 squad in South Africa.
But when the chips are down Italy normally show enough composure, skill and professionalism to produce a result.
The fact that Slovakia's players ended Thursday's match sliding across the turf in joyous celebration in front of their own supporters showed that this Italy team is now in need of reinvention.
For as Gattuso said afterwards, Italy have hit rock bottom.