Group F is a somewhat interesting group, as the favorites to win it, Italy, aren’t exactly setting the world alight and don’t look as strong as previous years. It leaves the door open for perhaps a couple of shock results, especially with a decent South American team in Paraguay set to cause the rest of the group some problems.
Italy: The World Cup holders had a smooth qualification passage, finishing top of their group without losing a game. The drew both games with the Republic of Ireland, who have been in good form over recent years. However, it’s an aging squad and one that might suffer in the heat of a summer in South Africa. While their qualification looked impressive enough, they haven’t been so great in big competitions such as Euro 2008 and last year’s Confederations Cup, which was held in South Africa. While Italy winning their group wouldn’t be too much of a surprise, they might struggle against fitter, younger teams in the group and they’ll have to rely on the traditional solid Italian defense and hope that the wonder-manager Marcello Lippi can pull some strategic tricks out of the bag. They’re a team lacking in real flair, more relying on grinders to grind teams down and capitalize on mistakes.
New Zealand: New Zealand’s first World Cup in 28 years and there is little to no expectations for this team. They are a team full of virtual unknowns, which might benefit them. They came through qualifying with relative ease, winning a play-off with Bahrain to reach the World Cup proper, having lost just the once to Fiji. Now, to be fair, the teams they had to beat on the way – Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Bahrain – are nowhere near the caliber of Italy, Paraguay or Slovakia, but they did what they had to do. New Zealand have won only one of their pre-tournament fixtures, beating Serbia 1-0, sandwiched between loses to Mexico, Australia and Slovenia. It doesn’t bode well, although as they were friendlies, you might not want to read too much in to them. New Zealand will struggle to get a win on the board and after watching them in the Confederations Cup last year, I can understand why. They lack a cutting edge up front and might just try and suffocate teams and try and snatch a draw.
Paraguay: The team that finished third in South American qualifying come into the World Cup as strong as ever. They’ve made it through to the second round in the past and have a great chance of doing so again. They’ve defeated Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Uruguay in qualifying and will look to build on that. While they don’t have the superstars of Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina, they have a hard working, relatively young team who don’t score too many goals, but don’t look like conceding many. The conditions will suit in comparison to the other teams in the group and their pre-tournament matches have resulted in a couple of wins and a couple of defeats and a draw. Perhaps the most impressive result was actually the 2-2 with the Ivory Coast and it shows they can hang with the African teams in the difficult conditions.
Slovakia: A first World Cup for Slovakia and they come here after winning their group in qualifying. It was a relatively easy group for them, but they still managed to come through losing twice to Slovenia, drawing with the Czech Republic once and winning the rest of their games. While not too impressive, they did what was required of them and got the draw they deserved. They might spring a surprise, but their lackluster squad might struggle to cope against the big guns of Italy and the well-disciplined outfit of Paraguay. Their first match against New Zealand will set the scene for them, as if they do well, they might just give Paraguay and Italy something to think about. But I wouldn’t count on it.
I think Group F is a two horse race and it might be time for the Italians to bring in some new faces, as they are aging and it might have caught up with them. Don’t expect New Zealand to do much and don’t expect it from Slovakia either. Neither should put up too much of a fight, but the first game of the group between Paraguay and Italy is probably the most important game for both teams. The winner there should be going on to win the group. So, in saying that, I think Paraguay might just pull off a surprise result. Italy haven’t look impressive at all in their friendlies coming into the tournament, losing Mexico and drawing with the Swiss and Cameroon.
Paraguay to win Group F: 3/1 @ Stan James and
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