Sports

Soccer friendly in Toronto ends in stalemate

Cristiano Lucarelli scored in his debut for the Azzurri.

By JOHN F. MOLINARO, CBC SPORTS ONLINE

TORONTO -- With the Blue Jays on the road and the Argos still in training camp, international soccer took centre stage at Toronto's Rogers Centre on Wednesday night.

Three-time World Cup champions Italy, playing the majority of the match a man down, salvaged a 1-1 draw with Serbia and Montenegro thanks to a goal in the 83rd minute from striker Cristiano Lucarelli in a thrilling exhibition contest before 22,138 spectators.

Italy, nicknamed the Azzurri – the blues – were in trouble early: Serbian striker Nikola Zigic scored in the 25th minute and the Italians were reduced to 10 men six minutes later when midfielder Manuele Blasi received a second yellow card.

"I was disappointed by the referring," said Italian manager Marcello Lippi. "He seemed uneven in his calls."

All the talk in the days leading up to the kick-off was of how players from the four biggest teams in Serie A – Italy's first division – would not make the trip to Toronto: Juventus returned Wednesday from a tour of Japan, AC Milan is still physically and emotionally exhausted from its Champions League loss to Liverpool, while Inter Milan and AS Roma meet in Saturday's Coppa Italia final.

As a result, several of Italy's top names were nowhere to be found in Toronto: no Alessandro Del Piero, no Francesco Totti, no Christian Vieri, no Gianluigi Buffon, no Fabio Cannavaro and no Alessandro Nesta. Blasi was the only player from the 'big four'.

The lack of stars, coupled with ticket prices ranging from $50 to $135, no doubt made the game less palatable to the half a million expatriates that make up Toronto's vibrant Italian community – and is also the reason why the Rogers Centre was not filled to capacity – but, alas, there was a method to the madness.

Both Italy, ranked 10th in the world, and Serbia and Montenegro, ranked 46th, lead their respective World Cup qualifying groups and barring a last-minute capitulation, they should be able to punch their tickets for next year's World Cup festivities in Germany.

With that in mind, Lippi and Serbia and Montenegro custodian Ilija Petkovic fielded teams made up of young and less-experienced players for the express purpose of appraising new talent for next year's World Cup.

Only two players on Lippi's 22-man roster – fullback Fabio Grosso and forward Vincenzo Iaquinta – were part of the Italian squad in Saturday's World Cup qualifier against Norway which ended goalless in Oslo.

Eight players made their debut for the Azzurri, including Lucarelli, the capocannoniere – leading scorer – in Italy this past season with 24 goals for Tuscan side Livorno. Likewise, Petkovic called up six players for national team duty for the first time, dropping eight first-team players who were in the starting lineup in Saturday's 0-0 draw with Belgium.

Still, even though he was happy with the character his team displayed in coming from behind, Lippi refused to single out individual players for recognition.

"I think, as a whole, we played very well. I can't say one player was outstanding and it's way too early to say that any of these players will be on the national team for next year's World Cup. We'll have to see how they progress over time, but for now, I can't say."

With the stadium roof closed, Rogers Centre was transformed into a sweaty cauldron, but the atmosphere was lively as fans pounded on drums, sang, lit flares and waved flags for the full 90 minutes.

On the perfectly manicured grass field installed for the game, Serbia terrorized the brittle Italian defence in the first half thanks to the dangerous forward duo of Zigic and Mirko Vucinic. The Serbs managed to dominate the pace of the game by challenging the Italians for the ball in midfield before launching timely counterattacks down the middle.

Cultured and efficient in their build-up play, the Serbs struck first when Dragan Mladenovic shrugged off his marker and fed a piercing, diagonal ball for Zigic who sidestepped Italy goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi and fired it into the back of the net.

Serbia continued to dominate after Blasi was sent off, while Italian attackers Luca Toni, Vincenzo Iaquinta and Mauro Esposito linked up nicely, but lacked that final touch and could not unlock the staunch Serbian defence.

Italy's best chance came just before the end of the half when a whipped free kick deep into the box found Iaquinta, but the industrious forward's header just whispered past the crossbar.

Down a goal and down a man, Lippi made adjustments at halftime, going with a three-man defence, and bringing on midfielders Giandomenico Mesto and Carmine Coppola and Lucarelli.

The move was an inspired one as the team was transformed.

Buoyed by the thunderous chants of "Italia, Italia" by the passionate Italian fans, Italy plundered forward with equal parts panache and cunning, crashing down on the shores of the Serbian 18-yard box with wave after wave of attacking play, only to be thwarted each time.

Lucarelli, the bull in the china shop that was Serbia's defence, had a hatful of chances, but was denied on more than one occasion by the brilliant work of goalkeeper Oliver Kovacevic.

And then, with seven minutes left in regulation, it happened – a goal that was the picture of perfection.

A ball played out to the left wing from the middle found Grosso, who embarrassed a Serbian defender by slipping the ball through his legs, drifted into the 18-yard box untouched and laid an exquisite square ball for a wide open Lucarelli who scored on an easy tap in.

After scoring, Lucarelli unsheathed his dagger from Serbia's limp body and ran to the sidelines where he was mobbed by his elated teammates.

"They saw how important it was to score that goal and have the mentality to win," said Lippi. "That was the most critical part of the game."

The final minutes were marred by three separate pitch invasions by Serbian fans before the game was finally played out without incident.

A tie game, but for entertainment value, the contest did not disappoint a single soccer enthusiast in attendance.

Italy plays Ecuador on June 11 at Giants Stadium in New Jersey before returning home.

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