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Slovaks become Kiwis' biggest fans

By Neil Maidment

BLOEMFONTEIN (Reuters) - New Zealand swiftly went from zeros to heroes in Slovakia on Sunday after their shock Group F 1-1 draw with Italy opened the door for an unlikely Slovak spot in the World Cup last 16.

Last week New Zealand broke Slovakian hearts with a 93rd minute equalizer that denied coach Vladimir Weiss's men a World Cup debut victory -- a result that looked all the more damaging on Sunday after Slovakia's poor 2-0 defeat to Paraguay.

Finding themselves with just one point from two games and with world champions Italy to play on Thursday, the Slovakia squad left the Free State stadium on Sunday with doom and gloom etched into their faces.

"Paraguay didn't play as well as they can and still we lost. We lost easy balls, made two mistakes and got punished," Weiss fumed after the match.

While waiting in the departures lounge at Bloemfontein airport to return to their Pretoria base that mood no doubt quickly lifted as the Kiwis held an out-of-sorts Italy.

Group F now shapes up with Paraguay on four points followed by Italy and New Zealand on two and Slovakia on one after two matches.

Victory for Slovakia over the Azzurri and a defeat for New Zealand against Paraguay the same day would definitely see them progress to the last 16. New Zealand could quickly return to zero status if they beat Paraguay and scupper Slovak chances.

"We will give our everything in our last match against Italy. We will fight to the very end," Weiss defiantly added before the New Zealand v Italy game had even begun.

ITALY FAVOURITES

Marcelo Lippi's Italy will remain favorites for the clash in Johannesburg despite stuttering draws with Paraguay and New Zealand but the fresh impetus produced by Slovakia's reprieve will make things more difficult.

Slovakia will first have to find some form and passion before contemplating dumping Italy out of the tournament after producing a drab display against a competent Paraguay side.

Well-taken goals from Enrique Vera and Cristian Riveros in the 27th and 86th minutes were enough to seal a deserved victory for Gerardo Martino's men.

"My favorite has always been Paraguay and this was confirmed today," Weiss told reporters afterwards.

Slovakia's lone forward Robert Vittek cut a frustrated figure during the game after his team mates hardly got near him in support, while Marek Hamsik and Stanislav Sestak also failed to shine.

Having made three changes to his starting lineup for the match, Weiss may well decide to tinker again before facing Italy.

(Editing by Michael Holden)