Group F: Italy hoping slow, steady wins race
By QMI Agency
World Cup History: 17th appearance, 44 wins, 19 draws, 14 losses, 122 GF, 69 GA.
Best Finish: Won 1934, 1938, 1982, 2006.
The Oddsmakers Say: 14/1.
Players to watch: G Gianluigi Buffon; D Giorgio Chiellini; F Antonio Di Natale
The skinny: There are more question marks than answers with the defending World Cup champions. Marcello Lippi has faced a great deal of criticism for his selections, opting to go with his old favourites. Old and slow are the key words for the Italians. They will have to overcome both those obstacles to repeat. It's been a long time since anyone has questioned the Italians ability to defend but with Fabio Cannavaro and Gianluca Zambrotta on the backline, age is the issue. That's why central defender Giorgio Chiellini carries a massive burden. Italy needs to find some creativity in the midfield as well. Andrea Pirlo is the General but he's no spring midfielder either. Daniele De Rossi is an uncompromising midfielder. Who will score for Italy? Good question since Lippi has refused to bring along some of the most creative strikers in the land.
The outlook: Italy prefers to look at the age thing as a sign of experience. If that experience works, then Italy will be a contender. But remember the Confederation Cup held in South Africa last year. The Italians were horrible. Ditto for Euro 2008. Lippi needs players like Antonio Di Natale, Giuseppe Rossi and Claudio Marchisio to come up big or Italy is going to struggle. They are fortunate they have drawn a relatively lightweight group.
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World Cup history: Ninth appearance, 6 wins, 7 draws, 9 losses, 27 GF, 39 GA.
Best finish: Second round.
The oddsmakers say: 66/1.
Players to watch: F Roque Santa Cruz; F Oscar Cardozo; F Lucas Barrios
The skinny: If Paraguay can hold the form they showed during their qualifying run for the World Cup, they should make it to the second round. This is a nation that's known for its tough defensive play. They have a large group of defenders, all of whom can play. But Paraguay has stepped away from the traditional. Coach Gerardo Martino likes attacking football but finding the players to play that way is another story. That's why the focus is on their forward line. It has been difficult for them to score goals. It didn't get any easier when Salvador Cabanas their most gifted goalscorer, was almost killed when he was shot in the head in a bar in Mexico. His misfortune was Borussia Dortmund's Lucas Barrios good luck. Barrios is in form and was called to the squad. He could have played for Argentina but was ignored by Diego Maradona. Barrios instead opted for Paraguay. He will join Manchester City striker Roque Santa Cruz will lead the offensive punch along with Oscar Cardozo and Nelson Haedo Valdez.
The outlook: The Albirroja will not be an easy team to play against. Should they manage to steal a lead, they become even more dangerous. That will allow them to go to their defensive strength while launching counterattacks. Their key game will be against Slovakia when it comes to moving into the second round. Don't count them out against Italy either. Paraguay will move on but it ends in the second round.
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World Cup history: First appearance as Slovakia.
Best finish: Second as Czechoslovakia in 1934, 1962.
The oddsmakers say: 250/1.
Players to watch: D Martin Skrtel; M Marek Hamsik; F Miroslav Stoch
The skinny: Every member of the Slovak national team plays their professional soccer in leagues outside their country. That will make them competitive, but not all the players play regular roles with their professional sides. International experience has been hard for Slovakia to come by. Martin Skrtel is the key to this team. The big central defender for Liverpool needs to play well for the Slovaks to have a chance. The bad news is Skrtel did not have a good year at Liverpool. Goal scoring is an issue with this team. They hope is miniscule Miroslav Stoch can put things together from the wing and notch a few. If he doesn't, Slovakia is going to have to make a few goals go a long way.
The outlook: Slovakia is going to need something against Paraguay to have any hope of a second-round game, that's only if they can beat New Zealand. All is not hopeless in this group. Italy is in this group and the Italians are notorious for slow starts at these tournaments. It wouldn't be unusual to see the Azzurri give up a point or two.
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World Cup history: Second appearance.
Best finish: First round, 1982.
The oddsmakers say: 2000/1.
Players to watch: D Ryan Nelsen; M Leo Bertos; F Chris Killen
The skinny: You know one thing for sure, the Kiwi fans are going to have a good time at the World Cup whether the have anything to celebrate or not. New Zealand will have no pressure on it to do much of anything. It's a team that is physically imposing but lacks overall technical ability. Its roster includes 12 overseas players, including Blackburn defender Ryan Nelsen. He is one of five England-based players along with Ipswich defender Tommy Smith and forwards Chris Killen of Middlesbrough, Chris Wood and Rory Fallon of West Bromwich Albion. Nelsen will solidify the defence but it will be overwhelmed. Fallon and Killen will have to provide the goalscoring, but there won't be much of that either.
The outlook: Party hardy folks because it's going to be a quick stay in South Africa. The Kiwis are tall and imposing though. They might give some of the shorter and less physical teams some trouble in the air. It's the only shot they have to make things interesting.