IRENE, South Africa - If struggling Italy can't manage to beat Slovakia on Thursday, the Azzurri could match France's unenviable feat from the 2002 World Cup and exit the group stage as defending champion.

"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 finding the target in their opening two games, both 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."

Italy can comfort itself with the memory that it also drew its opening two matches in 1982, when it went on to win its third title. In fact, the Azzurri drew all three of their opening games in '82.

"Don't be surprised if this team starts to reel off some good results," coach Marcello Lippi said. "You count the horses at the end of the race."

Paraguay leads Group F with four points, Italy and New Zealand have two apiece and Slovakia is last with one.

If Italy wins the match at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, it will advance automatically, while a draw would require the Azzurri to hope that the other group game also finishes in a draw and Italy scores more goals than New Zealand does against Paraguay.

If both group matches end in draws with the same score, a coin toss will decide whether Italy or New Zealand advances.

Slovakia's best chance is to win and hope that Paraguay wins or draws.

Slovakia is playing in its first major tournament since the former Czechoslovakia divided in 1993. Coach Vladimir Weiss's side allowed a stoppage time equalizer in its opening 1-1 draw with New Zealand and 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's attacking midfielder Marek Hamsik, who plays for Napoli in Italy's Serie A. "We've got to do more. Against Paraguay we weren't able to put a shot on goal."

Slovakia defender Martin Petras also plays in Italy, with Cesena in Serie B.

"We have nothing to lose," Petras said. "They failed in the first match, they failed in the second, it's difficult to see them failing in the third. Italy never fails like that. But let's see, let's hope for a miracle."

Lippi is comforting himself with the fact that Slovakia will have to go for a win, meaning Italy might not have to a face a team packing its defence for the first time at this tournament.

"They only have one option available," the coach said. "I don't think they'll close up like New Zealand."

Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon will miss his second consecutive match with a herniated disk, again leaving the starting job to backup Federico Marchetti. Midfielder Andrea Pirlo, meanwhile, could return from a left calf injury that has kept him out since a pre-tournament friendly with Mexico on June 3.

Still, the biggest problems for Italy have been attack.

The Azzurri have scored only five goals in their past seven matches and only one forward has scored in open play: Fabio Quagliarella in a 1-1 draw with Switzerland in a pre-World Cup friendly.

Quagliarella is also the only Italy forward who hasn't played at the World Cup yet, and likely his only chance against Slovakia will be off the bench.

Lippi could bench Alberto Gilardino after the Fiorentina forward failed to create a single chance in either of the opening two games, with Giampaolo Pazzini or Antonio Di Natale the likely replacement.

Ineffective midfielder Claudio Marchisio could also be removed from the lineup, in favour of either Pirlo or Gennaro Gattuso.

"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," Lippi said. "As long as we stay positive we have a chance."


Associated Press writer Karl Ritter contributed to this report.

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