World Cup Preview – Group F

Once again, we have a scenario of severe overdog versus three other teams scrapping away for the coveted second spot. Holders Italy come into this tournament with accusations of their team being full of veterans and lacking a creative spark. Slovakia make their first appearance at World Cup mainly due to one player shining in their squad. New Zealand reappear amongst footballing elite for the first time since 1982 (where they were destroyed) and hope to upset the big teams. But the most interesting and also harrowing back story belongs to Paraguay.

ITALY

The current World Champions weren’t fancied last time in Germany, and this time they have even less backers at the bookmakers. The main reason for this is Lippi’s reluctance to change his squad. He tried at the Confederations Cup The squad remains largely unchanged from the winning side in Berlin, with hardly any younger players breaking through into the team. On one hand, this means that this side are very well acquainted with each other. But, with an average age of 28.2, it’s clearly a problem. Strangely this is lower than both England and Brazil.

STRENGTHS

As mentioned squad unity couldn’t be any better. This side have played with each other for roughly 4 years, and know their manager’s tactics well. The Donadoni experiment didn’t work out too well, but Lippi knows how to get the best out his team.

Italy have a superb player in every department. Gigi Buffon is still one of the best goalkeepers in the world and the best pair of safehands between the sticks you could want. In defence, Giorgio Chiellini has managed to become of the best centre-backs in the world. The midfield general Andrea Pirlo has the ability to change games when given license to roam. Up front, Lippi has several options to lead the Azzuri. Alberto Gilardino, Gianpaolo Pazzini and Vincenzo Iaquinta are all superb strikers. Antonio Di Natale has also had a superb year in Serie A and should be given a chance as well.

WEAKNESSES

The lack of creativity in midfield never seemed to be a problem in recent years. But with several of Italy’s midfielder not getting enough playing time this season, especially renowned hardman Gennaro Gattuso, they could struggle to keep the ball. Daniel De Rossi could be the man to hold things together now Pirlo has been ruled out of the first two games. The midfield will have to be strong and powerful if Italy are to go far. With Totti now retired, it makes you wonder where an attacking midfielder will emerge from, Di Natale being the best candidate.

The form of Fabio Cannavaro is also worrying. The 2006 Balon D’or winner has been on a career downward spiral since the last World Cup and it will be interesting to see if the Italian captain can lead his side to glory again.

KEY PLAYER – Andrea Pirlo

I bought a Pirlo shirt for this World Cup. I am constantly astounded by the man; his passing technique is beyond belief at times, a free-kick master and all-round superb player. Nicknames L’Architetto (the architect in Italian), he can play as deep-lying playmaker or an attacking role just behind the frontmen. He will be sorely missed against Paraguay and New Zealand.

MANAGER -Marcello Lippi

One of the best managers in the world and of course has won the Jules Rimet trophy. Slight criticism at his loyal support of Juventus players, when their season wasn’t brilliant. Tactically brilliant but lack of Plan B could prove fatal.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 12/1

PREDICTION – I really think they could surprise some people. If Pirlo’s fighting fit by the time they should meet Spain in the 1/4finals, they could shock the world again

SLOVAKIA

Their first major tournament could be a rude awakening for them. But this side deserve their tag amongst the stable of ‘dark horses’. They qualified with a team of talented youth players  and experienced leaders. They are another team who’ve adopted the 4-2-3-1 system (seems to be an international favourite) and they play that formation exceptionally well. Qualifying saw them gain away wins off Northern Ireland, Czech Republic and Poland. Travelling to South Africa could see that trend continue.

STRENGTHS

If Slovakia are to get anywhere in South Africa, their hopes seem to rest on one man, Marek Hamsik. The Napoli man is hot property and shows flashes of brilliance regularly. Other quality players include Liverpool’s Martin Skrtel, who’s figthing to be fit for the tournament and former Chelsea and FC Twente player Miroslav Stoch. Skrtel’s well known for his aggressive tackling and he will have to be at his best if Slovakia. Stoch on the other hand has been superb for Schteve McClaren’s side who won the league.

WEAKNESSES

Not a lot of the first team are given enough chances at their respective clubs. A good example of this is Manchester City Vladimir Weiss Jr who always gets a free pass into the side because of Pop. He’s been on loan at Bolton and failed to impressive.

This may sound fairly obvious but if Hamsik doesn’t turn up, then neither will Slovakia. He’s the link-up man and is the catalyst in their play

Could Marek frustrate the Italian old guard?

KEY PLAYER – Marek Hamsik

Marek Hamsik is a world class player. That’s according to manager Vladimir Weiss. He’s been targeted by Man City and Chelsea, the latter surely interested now they’ve released Michael Ballack. Constantly threatening and creating, he’s one of my players to watch this tournament

MANAGER – Vladimir Weiss Snr

Possibly the most popular coach at the World Cup after bringing this small nation to it. He’s also the youngest coach, meaning he has little experience. Should be commended for bringing the best out of a set of substitutes.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 200/1

PREDICTION – Group stage exit unfortunately. Too many players aren’t match fit.

PARAGUAY

To say the Paraguayans have had a nightmare 2010 is a bit of an understatement. Star player Salvador Cabanas was shot in the head (the bullet still lodged in his skull) in a Mexican bar in January. He’ll miss the tournament but the other players will hopefully strive on in honour of their team-mate.  Cabanas was almost a Wayne Rooney type player in their team, so manager Gerardo Martino has been at work frantically trying to find a new system.

STRENGTHS

Up front may be missing Cabanas, but the back up option aren’t too shabby. Bench-warmer Roque Santa Cruz is a accomplished finisher but will be put on the right wing in the 4-3-3 formation. In the centre will be Borussia Dortmund’s Valdez who might be familiar to England fans after he was impressive in 2006 against them.

The defence was key to them progressing out of the South American qualifying group. The centre backs, Paulo Da Silva and Caceres were very strong and didn’t ship many goals. They even got a draw away against Argentina and were narrowly beaten by Brazil.

WEAKNESSES

The midfield doesn’t look great, with no real player standing out. First choice goalkeeper Justo Villar certainly has had practice at Valladolid this season, but does he have enough quality to stop the Italians. I don’t think so.

Fitness concerns run rife through the media especially over key wing-man Oscar Cardozo.

KEY PLAYER – Oscar Cardozo

An absolute goal machine for Benfica. A prize asset for them although his goal scoring record for country isn’t as stunning. If he performs well, expect interest from all over the Premier League. He is a major doubt however.

MANAGER – Gerardo Martino

Great tactician and a believer in attacking football. He also gets the best out of young players.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 50/1

PREDICTION – Should make it out of the groups, but will run into the well-oiled machine known as the Netherlands.

NEW ZEALAND

For a small nation devoted to rugby, making this year’s World Cup was a tremendous achievement. Aided by Australia’s defection to the Asian zone, New Zealand’s route to the World Cup included facing the footballing heavyweights of Fiji and New Caledonia. The friendlies recently have been the best indication of what  ‘The All Whites’ can offer this summer, and with a 1-0 win over Serbia, they have a reason to be optimistic of an upset. On the flipside, their Confederations Cup exploits last year were terrible after being smashed 5-0 by Spain. Tournament football can be  a cruel mistress at times.

STRENGTHS

  • Organised well in defence, considering their talent pool isn’t great (mostly A-League players).
  • Captain Ryan Nelsen is a tough brute of a centre-back.
  • Have little expectations placed upon you could take you far.

WEAKNESSES

  • Erm, no real potency up front. Only scored one goal in the playoff against Bahrain. Their best striker is Rory Fallon who plays for recently relegated Championship side Plymouth
  • Or midfield creativity

KEY PLAYER – Ryan Nelsen

Blackburn’s instinctive centre-back led his nation this far. Will have to be at the top of his game against far superior sides. His experience in the Premier League is vital to a team full of lower league players.

MANAGER – Ricki Herbert

Ricki Herbert unveils disappointing puppet show

We’re ready. I can’t wait for the opening game. The battle cry from Herbert ahead of the kick-off. Typical Antipodean, all talk little substance.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 2000/1

PREDICTION – Small fish in a big pond. Predators will take the All Whites apart.

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