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Why did Italy go from World Champions to 'rock bottom'?

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Ben Sutherland Ben Sutherland | 17:06 UK time, Thursday, 24 June 2010

cannavaro226.jpgIt's the surprise of the tournament so far - and in the best game too. Italy's 3-2 defeat to Slovakia sent the world champions out - only the fourth time the holders have been eliminated in the first round.

Although they had only been able to scrape together draws with Paraguay and New Zealand, the elimination of the Azzurri was still a huge shock, much more so than their fellow 2006 finalists France finishing bottom of their group.

Midfielder Gennaro Gattuso, who will now retire from international football, declared that Italian football had "touched rock bottom" following a match that had everything good about football: drama, intent, debatable decisions - and, finally, goals.

As Italian striker Guiseppe Rossi - dropped from the squad before the finals - put it on Twitter:

In pure shock...can't believe what happened! Italy showed how good they are only in the last 20 minutes of the game. Football is very strange!

Strange indeed - but not totally inexplicable.

In fact, there are a number of reasons that immediately suggest themselves as the sources of Italy's troubles.

Coach Marcello Lippi said that he took "full responsibility", adding:

If the squad went out with fear in their legs and hearts it means the coach didn't prepare the match well tactically or psychologically.

And certainly, he never seemed to identify the formation he really wanted to play. Juventus midfielder Claudio Marchisio had strong words for Lippi following the New Zealand draw, saying there was too much "experimenting."

But Italy could have been luckier with two decisions - a shot that Martin Skrtel cleared off the line, which the Italians appealed was over, and a late Quagliarella goal that was ruled out for offside.

Meanwhile they have been contending with the lack of refreshment in an ageing squad. There is an argument - and one that World Cup Have Your Say will discuss in more detail very soon - that a huge number of players at the top European clubs are simply exhausted after playing so many games in a single season.

With the average age in Italy's squad being so high, perhaps this caught them more than most.

There was also the lack of the genial figure to follow in the footsteps of Roberto Baggio, Alessandro del Piero and Francesco Totti.

While Totti's heir apparent, Daniele De Rossi, did set up a goal during the game, unfortunately for him it was one for Slovakia.

What do you think led to the demise of the 2006 champions? Tactics, errors, tiredness, refereeing decisions - or something else?

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