Defending champions Italy relied on a penalty conversion to save themselves from a famous upset as they were held to a remarkable 1-1 draw by rank outsiders New Zealand in a FIFA World Cup Group F match in Nelspruit (South Africa), on Sunday
New Zealand, tournament's third lowest ranked side at 78th in FIFA charts as against fifth of the Italians, took a shock lead in the seventh minute through Shane Smeltz and came close to scoring the winner after Vincenzo Iaquinta had equalised for the Azzurris via a spot kick in the 29th minute in a fast-paced free-flowing match.
New Zealand, who had scored their first World Cup point in the 1-1 draw against Slovakia in their opening match, can still qualify for the round of 16 if they beat group toppers Paraguay -- on four points -- in their last pool match on June 24.
Four-time champions Italy, on same two points as New Zealand, will also make it to the round of 16 if they beat Slovakia in their last group match on the same day.
With three upsets already in the tournament, the Group F match at Mbombela Stadium initially shaped up to one such shock result with the 'All Whites' took a surprise lead in the seventh minute to the stunned silence of the Azzurri fans.
Shane Smeltz, the top scorer for New Zealand in the qualifiers, poked the ball into the net with his right foot after it was deflected from Italy captain Fabio Connavaro following a high free kick from the wide left by Simon Elliott.
It was sort of coming true of Italy coach Marcello Lippi's fears of set pieces from physically fitter New Zealand players but quickly his boys took control of the match and any thoughts of one of the most famous World Cup upsets evaporated.
Ten minutes after the New Zealand goal, Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini got his side's first scoring opportunity but his left-footer following a corner was well off the mark. In the 22nd minute, AC Milan defender Gianluca Zambrotta's right footer from outside the New Zealand box flew just a few inches above the bar.
Italy were denied the equaliser in the 27th minute when midfielder Riccardo Montolivo's inswinging low right footer from just outside the box hit the upright after beating the New Zealand keeper Mark Paston.
The defending champions, who fielded Federico Marchetti in place of injured number one keeper Gianluigi Buffon, though had not to wait for long as they found the equaliser in the 29th minute via a spot kick after impressive Daniele De Rossi fell down in the area with his shirt being tugged by Tommy Smith.
Guatemalan referee Carlos Batres immediately pointed to the dreaded spot and Juventus striker Vincenzo Iaquinta stepped up to coolly send the ball to the right side of the net with New Zealand keeper Paston going the wrong way.
The Italians, who wore black armbands in memory of former World Cupper defender Roberto Rosato who died today, continued from where they left in the second part of the opening session having overwhelming ball possession but failed to find too many openings.
They got their only real scoring chance of the second session in the 70th minute when Montolivo's fierce right-footer from 30 yards was brilliantly saved by New Zealand keeper Paston diving low down to his right.
New Zealand got their chance to seal the match and a possible round of 16 berth in the 83rd minute but second half substitute Chris Wood's left footer after sneaking into Italian box beat the keeper Federico Marchetti but still missed the right upright by a few inches. PTI