The World Cup is no place for defending champions, with only Italy in 1938 and Brazil in 1962 repeating. The Azzurri are facing an early, ignominious departure from South Africa 2010 if they don't beat Slovakia on Thursday.
Sure, a draw could push the Italians into the second round from Group F, but only if Paraguay beats New Zealand is that assured. A victory keeps Italy alive without question.
"We're worried," midfielder Daniele De Rossi said. "I said it before and I'll say it again: If we don't make it past the first round it would be a failure."
Italy's forwards have had trouble scoring in their opening two games, 1-1 draws against Paraguay and 78th-ranked New Zealand.
"If we can't win we don't deserve to advance," De Rossi added. "We're Italy and we ought to be able to win one of these three games — otherwise it would only be fair to go home."
Perhaps helping the Azzurri stay will be midfielder Andrea Pirlo. The playmaker appears recovered from a left calf injury that kept him out of the first two matches. He was a key to Italy's title in 2006.
But Pirlo is an uncertain participant.
"I really want to weigh the options and choose the lineup with care, taking into consideration the players' conditions and involving them in the decision," coach Marcello Lippi said. "As long as we stay positive we have a chance."
Lippi and captain Fabio Cannavaro have announced they will leave the national team after the tournament.
Lippi said Wednesday that "none of us want it to be the last game. On a personal level, we all feel that way."
The Slovaks must win and have Paraguay either beat or draw with New Zealand. Slovakia gave up a second-half injury-time goal to New Zealand in a 1-1 result, and then lost 2-0 to Paraguay.
"We missed our big chance with New Zealand and now it's going to be very tough to qualify against Italy," said Slovakia midfielder Marek Hamsik. "We've got to do more. Against Paraguay we weren't able to put a shot on goal."