Probably never have the defending champions arrived at a World Cup so much
under the radar as 2006 winners Italy but they could hardly have handpicked
their Group F opponents any more to their liking and it would be dangerous, as
always, to write them off.
The four times winners ultimately qualified in style, unbeaten and six points
clear of a talented Ireland side, and Iím not quite sure why seemingly nobody
fancies Marcello Lippiís men to go all the way once again.
Little has changed since Italy lifted the famous trophy in Berlin four years ago
and, while they never do things all that impressively, their route to the
quarterfinals, at the very least, looks all but guaranteed.
Italy are notoriously slow starters at major finals but with Paraguay in their
opening match followed by New Zealand six days later they can probably afford a
couple of sluggish displays and still claim maximum points and, once the
defending champions reach the knockout stages, they will be a team that nobody
wants to face.
With the core of the side from Germany still intact the new blood features
predominantly in attack and Iím particularly excited by Udinese front man
Antonio Di Natale. He looks set to be partnered by Fiorentina striker Alberto
Gilardino and that duo, along with the likes of Vincenzo Iaquinta, look more of
a threat than other recent Italian forward lines.
Italyís strength lies in their solidity at the back and with Gianluigi Buffon,
still the best goalkeeper around, infrequently tested thanks to the quality of
the likes of Fabio Cannavaro in front of him they are rarely, if ever,
AC Milan playmaker Andrea Pirlo is strutting better than he has ever strutted
before in the middle and it is a shame that he doesnít get the chance to link up
with Francesco Totti once again. The Roma man is in the form of his life and may
yet be tempted out international retirement as Lippi looks to mastermind a
successful defence of the trophy.
Italy are 1/2 with Ladbrokes to top Group F and that looks fair enough to me.
Managed by Argentine Gerardo Martino, Paraguay finished third in South American
qualifying to reach their fourth consecutive World Cup finals and are rated
clear favourites, 1/2 with Ladbrokes, to join Italy in the second round.
13 of Paraguayís 18 matches en route to South Africa featured two goals or less
and this experienced side look well equipped to deal with the demands of a major
finals once more. Paraguay rarely give much away but five defeats suggest they
are vulnerable against the better sides and surely their limitations will be
Manchester City forward Roque Santa Cruz is certain to attract the attention of
opposing defences but the likes of Salvador Cabanas and Borussia Dortmundís
Nelson Haedo Valdez also carry a threat and a good opening performance against
Italy could well set the tone.
It looks a straight fight between Paraguay and Slovakia for the second spot
available behind the Group F favourites and it could be the formerís more
battled-hardened key men that prove the difference.
Captain Justo Villar doesnít concede many in goal and he should be well
protected by a first choice back four that have all notched in excess of 50
Vladimir Weissís side topped a quality qualifying group in Europe that included
fellow finalists Slovenia as well as Czech Republic and Poland and they are
another of the less fashionable nations that should not be underestimated.
Competing in their first major finals of any note, Slovakia have absolutely
nothing to lose and there was no fluke about their progression to South Africa.
Slovakia have plenty of talented individuals and, much like Serbia, also know
how to win matches when things arenít going their way.
Slovakiaís clash with Paraguay, New Zealand are expected to be the Group F
whipping boys, will clearly be crucial but their opening match against the Kiwis
is ideal. There are bound to be nerves but the majority of their starting line
up feature regularly in the top leagues across Europe and in captain Marek
Hamsik they possess a genuine world class talent.
The Napoli midfielder has been regularly watched by a number of high profile
Premier League and Bundesliga sides and he operates well in tandem with the more
defensively minded veteran Miroslav Karhan.
Striker Robert Vittek, the Lille forward, has an eye for goal and Slovakia also
possess players of the calibre of Martin Skrtel, the Liverpool defender, at the
back to ensure Paraguay, and Italy for that matter, will have plenty to think
Iíve been impressed whenever Iíve seen Slovakia over the past 18 months and the
price discrepancy between Weissís side advancing and the South Americans seems
wrong to me. That means the 7/4 with VC Bet is well worth baking to small
Rank outsiders in the outright, New Zealand can be backed at 80/1 with 888 sport
to win Group F but even that looks on the skinny side and avoiding defeat in
every game would be deemed a success for Ricki Herbertís team.
New Zealand qualified for South Africa thanks to a Rory Fallon winner against
Bahrain but a better indication of their quality came in the summerís
Confederations Cup when they failed to score a single goal in three matches, New
Zealand were beaten 5-0 by Spain, and they look massively up against it.
Comprised mainly of home based players, New Zealand manage to lose a qualifier
at home to no less than Fiji and Iíll be amazed if they can cope with what will
face them in South Africa. They have no chance and returning home after the
group stage looks all but guaranteed.
Still, this is what the World Cup is all about and itís great to see them
competing for the first time since 1982.