CAPE TOWN // It may have taken four years, but Daniele De Rossi finally gained redemption for his sending off four years ago by claiming an equaliser that salvaged a point for Italy last night. The holders looked to be the recipient of the first genuine shock of the tournament when Antolin Alcaraz put Paraguay ahead before half time. But De Rossi, who was suspended for four matches after being sent off in a group game in Germany 2006, rescued a draw by converting a corner on 62 minutes.
Despite being without Andrea Pirlo, the experienced but injured AC Milan playmaker, Marcello Lippi opted to leave Gennaro Gattuso and Mauro Camoranesi, the ageing warhorses, on the bench. Instead, Claudio Marchisio, 24, assumed the creative duties. Italy have the fourth-eldest squad of all 32 teams - behind Brazil, England and Australia - but the Azzurri line-up last night contained an intriguing blend of old hands and youthful exuberance.
As Italy's creative playmaker, Marchisio was tasked with orchestrating attacks behind a fluid front-three of Vincenzo Iaquinta on the left, Simone Pepe on the right and Alberto Gilardino in the lone striking berth. There were only three players carried over from Lippi's 2006 World Cup-winning starting XI, although Iaquinta, a substitute four years ago, brought additional experience and pedigree. Gerardo Martino, the Paraguay coach, preferred Nelson Valdez and Lucas Barrios, the Borussia Dortmund double-act, to star forward Roque Santa Cruz.
Italy were in the ascendancy early but lacked a cutting edge. The action was so dreary that the Green Point crowd responded with a rousing Mexican wave. Zambrotta's teasing cross in the 19th minute was the closest either side came to a goal. From there the teams exchanged corners, but with Paraguay well-organised, defensively resolute and doggedly hounding every Italian pass, Pepe and Iaquinta did not press Paraguay's deep-lying full-backs enough and, too often, Gilardino cut an isolated figure.
The South Americans dealt comfortably with the toothless Azzurri attacks and left fans craving Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli, the live-wire forwards, who were left off the squad. Antolin Alcaraz, the Paraguayan centre-half, was able to head away the balls the Italians pumped into the box. Yet the Club Brugge defender's most important touch came at the other end. With a set-piece looking increasingly like the only way the deadlock was going to be broken, Paraguay won their first free-kick in dangerous territory.
Aureliano Torres floated in a sublime in-swinger and Alcaraz, rising above Giorgio Chiellini, forced a powerful header into the bottom left corner of Gianliugi Buffon's goal. It was only the third goal Buffon had conceded in eight World Cup games. Italy suffered a further blow when the injured Buffon was replaced by Federico Marchetti who was winning on his seventh cap. And the Cagliari No 1 was almost called into action when a patient, well-constructed attack resulted in Enrique Vera firing high and wide of the left-hand upright.
Sensing his side's shortcomings, Lippi turned to the old guard. Camoranesi came on for Marchisio and Italy belatedly upped the tempo. The Azzurri equaliser came, predictably, came from a corner. Pepe's pinpoint centre eluded the half-hearted punch of the flying Justo Villar and landed perfectly for De Rossi, the AS Roma midfielder, to touch home from close range. The celebrations spoke volumes for the importance of the goal but Italy will have to play better than this if they to retain the trophy.
Man of the match: Antolin Alcaraz