World Cup’10 – Group F: World Champions Ready To Defend Their Crown..

With the biggest show on the planet around the corner,  TheHardTackle brings to you a special series that provides you with group-wise capsules of information on each nation. No more hiding away from discussions and debates, we promise to make you a World Cup scholar before the showcase event begins. The world is getting ready, are you?

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Group F
Italy, Slovakia, Paraguay, New Zealand

ITALY

FIFA Ranking: 5
Best Performance: Winners in 1934,’38, ’82, 2006
Coach: Marcello Lippi

Italy is the most successful European nation in World Cup and the second most successful overall. It all began with Vittorio Pozzo & his famous “metodo” system in the 1930s. Using Luis Monti as a centre-half who covered a lot of lateral ground, the Azzuris became the first nation to earn back to back trophies. Post-war were bad times. Due to the Superga Disaster , the national team lost a chunk of first teamers which led to first round exits in ’50, ’54, ’62 & ’66. 1958 was the lowest ebb, when Italy failed to qualify.

But success in Euro ’68 prompted a mini-resurgence and the Azzuris reached the final in 1970, only to be dismantled by Brazil. In 1978 another good bunch of footballers came around. With a spine made by a successful Juventus team, Italy came out 4th in 1978. In 1982, the much-awaited 3rd World Cup victory was achieved. A 3rd place finish followed in 1990. In 1994, they were beaten in the finals by Brazil.

After indifferent shows in ’98 & ’02, Italy achieved a remarkable fourth title in 2006. The question this time around is – can Italy defend their crown?

Qualifying campaign

Italy were handed a pretty easy group. Republic of Ireland & Bulgaria were the only threats. Lippi’s questionable call-ups in the qualifying matches meant that Italy were far from convincing. Two own goals from Kaladze ensured a crucial win over bottom placed Georgia and a quickfire Gilardino hat-trick ensured an embarrassment was avoided against Cyprus. Italy topped the group in the end, and did it without tasting defeat.

Strengths

The current squad’s strength is its experience. The goal is guarded by one of the all-time greats, Gigi Buffon. In-form Giorgio Chiellini will man the central defense along with Cannavaro. Bari’s youngster Leonardo Bonucci provides good backup as well. Gianluca Zambrotta & Domenico Criscito are reliable full-backs. Daniele de Rossi is usually the first name on the sheet. He will probably be partnered by Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio in a strong midfield. Pazzini & Di Natale were two of the most prolific strikers in Serie A last season. Marcello Lippi, a coach who has won-it-all, is a master tactician and the nation will be looking at him to deliver the goods.

Italy's national soccer coach Marcello Lippi looks on during a news conference in Rome
Marcelo Lippi – Italy’s biggest strength?

Weaknesses

Age is an obvious issue with this Italian side. Most of players are very slow – Cannavaro, Pirlo, Gattuso & Zambrotta. Criscito’s defending abilities are not yet world class. The team lacks a maverick, a person who can change games in a moment. The man who could do that, Antonio Cassano was not picked by Lippi. Pazzini & Di Natale don’t have enough International experience. Lack of pace, limited creativity can hurt the defending champs.

TheHardTackle’s Player to Watch Out:
Daniele de Rossi (midfielder): One of the best defensive midfielders in the world, de Rossi can re-create the work done by Gattuso in 2006. Watch out for his long rangers too. He has the capability to score some screamers.

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SLOVAKIA

Rank: 38
Best Performance: Runners up in 1934, 1962 (as Czechoslovakia)
Coach: Vladimir Weiss

Erstwhile Czechoslovakia used to be one of the most technically gifted teams in Europe. An early practitioner of the Danubian School of football, they reached the finals twice. After the separation, it was Czech Republic who took hold of the mantle first, reaching Euro finals in 1996. Slovakia finally made it to the world cup this year. The Slovaks came close to qualifying twice before, in ’98 & ’02, but lost to Spain on both occasions.

Qualifying campaign

They were in a tough group with Czech Republic, Slovenia and Poland. In a solid campaign which was hindered by just two losses to Slovenia, they qualified as group toppers, by winning the very last game.

Strengths

Marek Hamsik is one of the most exciting talents in Serie A. A wonderful burst of pace, delightful control & a knack of scoring goals makes him one of the players to look out for in this world cup. Chelsea starlet Miroslav Stoch is coming off a stellar loan season at Dutch champs FC Twente & can be a surprise package. Skrtel adds defensive steel. Stanislav Sestak popped up with crucial goals in qualifiers.

Weaknesses

Lack of experience, and lack World Cup-quality players throughout the team.

Football - Slovakia Training
Watch out for Hamsik!

TheHardTackle’s Player to Watch Out:
Marek Hamsik (midfielder)
A prime reason behind Napoli’s resurgence, Hamsik can score goals & create them. He is coming off a wonderful season at club level.

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PARAGUAY

FIFA Ranking: 30
Best performance: Second Round in 1986, 1998, 2002
Coach: Gerardo Martino

Paraguay has been one of the strongest South American teams in recent times. This is their fourth successive world cup. They breezed into the final tournament after topping the group for most of the campaign, losing the first spot to Brazil towards the end. Led by the charismatic Chilavert, who lit up the Korea-Japan Cup, & Carlos Gamarra, they reached the 2nd round in ’98 world cup, losing to France via golden goal. Oliver Neuville sank them with a late goal in the 2nd round in 2002.

Qualifying campaign

Paraguay was one of the best teams in the South American pool. They were rarely troubled. A fine qualifying campaign included a 3-0 win away to Chile and a 2-0 win over Brazil. A 1-0 win over Argentina ensured qualification.

Strengths

Their strike force is a strong point. Oscar Cardozo was the top scorer in the Portuguese League this season and partnering him will be the experienced Roque Santa Cruz. Borussia Dortmund’s Lucas Barrios has been a revelation this season as well. After being snubbed by Maradona, the Argentine striker with Paraguayan parents decided to join Paraguay. The tragic miss will be Salvador Cabanas, top scorer in qualifiers, who was shot in the head a few months ago. He recovered in time, but didn’t make the squad.

Football - Republic of Ireland v Paraguay International Friendly
Santa Cruz is Paraguay’s hope!

Weaknesses

Paraguay has often been prone to loss of form after a good start. Their defense isn’t the strongest in the world. Barrios & Cardozo have never played together; how they develop a partnership remains to be seen.

TheHardTackle’s Player To Watch Out:
Lucas Barrios (forward): Nicknamed “the Panther”, he was a major factor in Dortmund’s push for a UCL spot this season. A consummate poacher, he might be a handful for opponents.

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NEW ZEALAND

FIFA Ranking: 78
Best performance: Qualified for 1982 world cup.
Coach: Ricki Herbert

New Zealand is the only big fish left in the weakest qualifying zone called Oceania. They got a creditable point in the Confed Cup 2009 with a draw against Iraq. Known as “all whites” this is only their second world cup appearance.

Qualifying campaign

After topping the Oceania group, they faced off against Bahrain in the cross-continental play-off.  They kept cleansheets in both legs and towering goalkeeper Mark Paston deserves plaudits for a second-leg penalty save to preserve the 1-0 aggregate victory.

Strengths

The “unknown factor” might work for them. They are a pretty physical side & did trouble Italy in a friendly before the Confed Cup. Most of the players are based in the home country.

Weaknesses

Plenty, they are likely  to be the whipping boys of the group. They lack experience at the top level.

Football - Blackburn Rovers v Wigan Athletic Barclays Premier League
Ryan Nelsen – a Kiwi hero!

TheHardTackle’s Player to Watch Out:
Ryan Nelsen (defender)
The veteran centre-back plies his trade in the Premier League in Blackburn Rovers. He can come up with the odd goal at times, having scored four last season.

THE FIXTURES:

Group F
Match Date – Time Venue
11 14/06 20:30 Cape Town Italy Italy v Paraguay Paraguay
12 15/06 13:30 Rustenburg New Zealand New Zealand v Slovakia Slovakia
27 20/06 13:30 Mangaung / Bloemfontein Slovakia Slovakia v Paraguay Paraguay
28 20/06 16:00 Nelspruit Italy Italy v New Zealand New Zealand
41 24/06 16:00 Johannesburg – JEP Slovakia Slovakia v Italy Italy
42 24/06 16:00 Polokwane Paraguay Paraguay v New Zealand New Zealand

The most eagerly contested game of the group will be the opening one. However, the deciding game of the group will be when Slovakia takes on Paraguay in Bloemfontein.

Slovakia will find it tough needing something from their final group game against Italy, wheras Paraguay will know exactly how many to score against New Zealand.

TheHardTackle’s VERDICT:

1. Italy
2. Paraguay
3. Slovakia
4. New Zealand

Italy is a notoriously slow starter. They can drop points but they should top the group. The battle for second place would be intense between Slovakia & Paraguay. THT predicts Paraguay to just edge it because of their experience…

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