Preview: 2010 World Cup Group F
Defending world champions Italy not only have four World Cup titles to their name, they also have as many World Cup appearances as the other three Group F teams combined – 16.
Italy, thanks to its status as defending champion, has previous experience of playing in South Africa, having competed in the 2009 Fifa Confederations Cup.
With a draw that includes Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand in their group, one would have thought that Italian coach Marcello Lippi would have been happy, but no! He complained that his side performs better against the bigger nations!
Italy's strength lies in its defence and that's a good starting point, because if an opponent cannot score, then you're always in with a good chance of winning. In goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, the Italians boast a player many believe to be the best in the game at his position and one of the best of all time.
Surprisingly, however, during the course of 2009 there were some un-Italian like results when they conceded three goals to Brazil in a 3-0 loss at the Confederation Cup, another three to New Zealand in a 4-3 win and two against Cyprus in a 3-2 victory.
Don't be fooled by those results, however. Italy won nine, drew four, and lost only two matches in 2009. Although they seldom exploded on the offensive end of the field, their traditionally strong defence and ball-controlling midfield brought them many victories.
A factor that should help the Italians in their preparations for South Africa is that almost all of their players are based in Italy. That's a luxury that many of the other leading nations cannot claim to have.
Paraguay started World Cup 2010 qualifying strongly and led the South American standings for some time. They needed that strong start because they struggled in 2009, returning an overall record of four wins, six defeats and two draws. Nonetheless, they finished third on the log, only two points behind top of the table Brazil, and behind Chile on goal difference only.
Those 12 matches did at least reveal that Paraguay has a sound defence as they never conceded more than two goals. Then again, they never scored more than two goals in a game.
The last time Paraguay played in the World Cup in 2002, South Africans fans might remember how they edged out Bafana Bafana for a place in the second round by scoring three goals in the second half of a 3-1 win over Slovenia. That saw the South Americans advance with the same goal difference as South Africa, but having scored more goals: 5-5 to SA's 4-4.
Paraguay will look to striker Roque Santa Cruz for inspiration. He missed most of his country's qualifying matches, but remains an important cog in their machine. In South Africa, the Paraguayan supporters will expect a lot from him. Another man to keep an eye on will be Salvador Cabañas. The 2007 South American Player of the Year, he has averaged a goal every second game throughout his club career.
Making the 2010 Fifa World Cup finals is a very big deal for Slovakia. It is the first time they have qualified for football's biggest event as Slovakia. Previously, as Czechoslovakia, they had reached the finals on eight occasions.
A hard-working team - as opposed to a collection of talented stars - the Slovakians have shown improvement in each of their World Cup qualifying campaigns since gaining independence. They were fourth in their group in qualifying for France 1998, third in qualifying for South Korea/Japan 2002, and second behind Portugal in their group for Germany 2006. This time around, they made it to number one.
The Slovakians had a very average 2009, winning five times, losing four matches, and drawing two. Don't be fooled by those results, however. The Slovaks topped their qualifying group ahead of Slovenia and the Czech Republic. In 10 matches, they lost only twice, both times to their neighbours Slovenia.
They have decent experience in defence, although most of their defenders are under 30 years of age, and this should stand them in good stead. They had a shaky start to 2009, including a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of England at Wembley, but after that conceded two goals in only three of their remaining nine matches. They allowed one goal in three matches, and kept four clean sheets.
Captain Marek Hamšík anchors their midfield and is a good goal scorer too, but the man Slovakia will hope is in form in South Africa will be striker Stanislav Šesták, who scored six times in qualifying matches.
New Zealand will be in South Africa in 2010 after being crowned Oceania champions and then beating Bahrain in a playoff for a place in the finals. It has been 28 years since they were last part of football's most important event.
Their results in 2009 were not impressive: two wins, three draws, and five losses, but one of those draws was 0-0 in Bahrain, and one of the wins was 1-0 over Bahrain in New Zealand, and that is what counts. It is what got them to South Africa 2010.
Not much is expected of the All Whites. That's not surprising as New Zealand is a hot bed of rugby and the highest ever ranking achieved by the national football team is 47th in the world. As recently as September 2007, the Kiwis ranked a shockingly low 156th.
The first player most think of when they think of the All Whites is defender Ryan Nelsen. That is because the Blackburn Rovers' man is the only New Zealander plying his trade in the high-profile English Premier League.
Striker Shane Smeltz is one to watch, however. Crowned the Oceania Player of the Year, he was also the top goal scorer in the Australian A-League for Gold Coast United. He averages better than a goal every second game for New Zealand.
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