What is about Group F that makes it oddly attractive?
Does the reigning World Cup champion Italy have a love/hate dichotomy working to full affect?
Does the loss of Salvador Cabanas mean that Paraguay has the emotional story of the tournament working for them and a perfect symbol to rally around?
Where does Slovakia fit into the picture? Have they been riding a wave of luck to make it this far or is this a team well under the radar?
And what about the bookies favorite for “doormat of the World Cup” New Zealand? Has their pre-tournament friendlies changed their outlook?
What’s a little talk amongst friends, then? Knowing your stuff can make you look a little bit brighter amongst your peers and this handy-dandy list of people and information will make you the go-to guru of your local World Cup group.
Here’s some things you’ll need to know before June 11th.
The holders are practically unchanged from the last World Cup. That, unfortunately, is not necessarily a good thing in this case. While they may have an experience edge over almost all the teams in this edition of the tournament, at some point, they are going to have to assess whether or not the old guard can carry them the full distance. Anywhere between 7-9 of the starters will be 30+ years old, not exactly a recipe for success. A.C. Milan and Juventus, where 9 of the members of the group come from, had fairly disappointing seasons and at times looked off the pace.
In the defense of the group, breaking down the defense is often a much more difficult task than it sounds. In a 4-2-3-1 set up, similar to that of Champions League winners Inter Milan, getting a goal is sometimes enough to carry the day. Against New Zealand and Slovakia it might work, but Paraguay and some of the real big hitters possibly waiting on the other side of the Knockout Round will test just how solid that defense is. This is also the third team which presents all of its squad from the club teams in the nation (though Cannavaro’s move to the UAE means “technically” they all aren’t from Italian clubs now).
Players to Know
The Skipper: Fabio Cannavaro
The new Al-Ahli defender was the skipper on the last World Cup and has still enough in the gas tank to propel the Azzurri towards prominence. The only question now is whether or not he can stomach the pace of playing against teams seven times in a month. Having had a fairly disappointing season at Juventus, he will not need much time gelling at the back with Giorgio Chiellini as they were the backstops in front of goal this past term. What is troubling is that the duo were part of a side that ended up with a -1 goal differential and the sixth worse defensive record (56 goals allowed) in Serie A, a troubling sign considering how many were included in the squad defensively.
The Man: Gianluigi Buffon
Still one of the elite goalkeepers in the world, his skills have begun to slightly decline, but international competition seems to bring out the best in the shot stopper. What is worrying is that he is the Juventus keeper, his central defenders are still in front of him and while there is a changing of the fullbacks, this is still a team predicated on defense with not nearly the security that 2006 granted them. With Andrea Pirlo likely to be a non-factor early in the tournament, the backstop must be a wall unlike at any time in his international career if Italy want to present themselves a legitimate threat in this tournament.
Others to Watch: Gennaro Gattuso, Daniele de Rossi, Alberto Gilardino
Should the defense wilt under the pressure of expectations, Gattuso is always available to rattle a few bones in the midfield as a cover man for the central defenders. While a tad card happy, a team with a lead striker trying to dribble past the bearded midfielder might find himself drifting wide very quickly if he finds himself in danger. de Rossi will be the attacking half of the deep midfielders while Pirlo is out. He might be better suited in a free role based in the midfield rather than playing off the front man when Pirlo returns, but regardless of position, he will be the outlet man once Italy is in possession. Gilardino will be the front man early, a role he is accustomed to with Fiorentina. A solid 18 goal season with the Italian side in a similar position will bode well for the Italians that he can create when he has little assistance up front.
La Albirroja have attacking talent coming out of their ears and are easily a favorite to challenge just how good that Italian defense really is. The unfortunate shooting of Salvador Cabanas has robbed the red and whites of their most prolific scorer during qualifying, though he is fortunate to be alive and also possibly able to resume play after the World Cup. Of course, the other three sides will not shed many tears because there is enough firepower on this team to make anyone short of the elite squads jealous (and maybe even one or two of them, too).
With a solid defense and options galore in the front, Paraguay is not at all intimidated by the Italians or anyone else in the group and will see second place in the group as a disappointment. Whether or not they can make that a reality will depend on just how aggressive this side comes out to play.
Players to Know
The Skipper: Denis Caniza
At 35, Caniza falls into the category of a multi-tooled, play him somewhere in the back player when he gets on the team sheet. This being his fourth World Cup, Caniza brings in experience to a backline that for the most part is fairly solid, if as attack minded as the midfield and forwards are. When he is not on the field, goalkeeper Justo Villar will hold the armband in his stead, looking to make up for 2006 when he was injured inside 10 minutes of the first game and was done for that tournament.
The Man: Oscar Cardoza
The Benfica man had an absolute field day no matter where he went this past year. Racking up 38 goals in all competitions, Cardoza notched only two goals in qualifying and will be one of many forwards on the Paraguay squad. If he can replicate anything close to the world-beater scoring pace he was on in Portugal, it might be hard to find a team to stop him.
Others to Watch: Roque Santa Cruz, Lucas Barrios, Paulo da Silva
Santa Cruz has had some up and down (mainly down) seasons of late in England but is adept at the physicality of the European game and will not be put off by Slovakia or Italy. Health is always the major concern for the Manchester City man and his play is often dictated by whether or not he feels 100%. Barrios was recently cleared to join Paraguay, switching from Argentina. In the three pre-tournament friendlies, he notched a goal per contest and looks like he might force his way into the starting XI. da Silva, much like Santa Cruz, plays in the Premier League and though he was rotated in and out at Sunderland, he has a taste for the physical play and will be ready to show off what he’s learned since moving to Europe.
The reprezentácia has been the oft overlooked member of the old Czechoslovakia as the Czech Republic has been to a World Cup post split, even if their appearance was rather unceremonious. In their first World Cup, Slovakia will be like many of the other small Easter European sides, one dedicated to solid defense and organization while dishing out plenty of hard tackled to remind teams of who they are playing.
Unlike their other former eastern bloc members, however, there are flashes of exciting talent laced about the squad. Combined with a solid defense and a willingness to go forward at full bore, Slovakia will not be bounced out of this tournament. Rather, it will take stellar play to remove them scratching and clawing from South Africa.
Players to Know
The Skipper: Marek Hamsik
The young Slovak captain was one of the brightest spots in Serie A last term, shining for a Napoli side that struggled early but rallied for sixth place. Roaming throughout the central part of the midfield, Hamsik can drop back to distribute but will often find himself playing behind the forwards, utilizing his pace and guile frustrate teams that will have found themselves stretched down the wings. Defensive duties may be a critical component of his play, considering that other midfielders will want to attack as much as he does.
The Man: Martin Skrtel
Health will be the biggest concern for the Liverpool defender. If his foot has healed well enough, he should be back to his regular menacing self, making playing over-the-top practically impossible for sides. His aerial prowess is also worthwhile from set pieces and corners, having scored five times for the national team. Able to cover in a pinch, the defender will have the task of making sure the defense remains as solid as it did during qualifying, in a group that saw them bat away the Czech Republic, no less.
Others to Watch: Jan Mucha, Vladimir Weiss, Robert Vittek/Stanislav Sestak
Mucha, who will be soon arriving at Everton, was the backstop for Legia Warszawa during their ‘08 Polish Cup and Supercup victories. His solid play in the qualifiers has him pegged to start in this tournament. Weiss is the son of coach…Vladimir Weiss. Often associated with much ado dribbling, whether or not he can utilize the dribbling for the team is a questioned that needs to be answered in short order. Vittek and Sestak will either be paired together or forced to duke it out for a loan striker position with Hamsik just off that front man. While Vittek did not have the best of seasons, Sestak has been consistent in the German leagues over the past couple of years. Good play from the forwards will be key as early goals make this team harder and harder to break down.
So now that the All Whites are here, what do they do? Certainly they are not expected to get out of this group or even snatch a point, so pressure is nonexistent. Whether or not they can parlay that into quality play or simply be run over is another matter all together. While they have been less than sterling leading into the tournament, the win over Serbia was sure to raise a few eyebrows.
Unlike many teams, the Kiwis throw out a 3-4-3 that backs into a 5-3-2 for defensive purposes. It’s not as if they won’t go forward but whether or not they have the quality to stand up to three squads that like their chances of getting out of the group stage. For the Kiwis, this all about having fun and if they play a bit of spoiler here and there, all the more power to them.
Players to Know
The Skipper: Ryan Nelson
The burly Blackburn man is the most well known member of the squad and is the rock of the defense. Used to dealing with elite level forwards all the time, matching wits with them will not be an issue. It’s keeping the rest of the team up to snuff that is the greatest challenge for the central defender, one he will be relishing as much as his challenges against some of the best players in the world.
The Man: Shane Smeltz
The Gold Coast United front man was the most effective in qualifying for the Kiwis, snagging eight tallies against admittedly less than stellar competition. If he can contribute to the cause with a goal or two in qualifying, especially in the first contest, their may be air of confidence exuding from the side that might worry the rest of the group who have to play it straight. He was the man to score the winner against Serbia and wouldn’t mind adding another scalp to his summer plans.
Others to Watch: Tim Brown, James Bannatyne/Mark Paston, Chris Killen
Brown had his shoulder fractured against Australia in the physical friendly less than a month ago but is with the squad and might find himself in the starting XI if healthy enough. The Wellington Phoenix man is able to scour the midfield from front to back and will give the side some cover for what might be a overly tested backline. Bannatyne or Paston will have to fill in at the keeper spot with first choice man Glenn Moss is still on suspension (for swearing) and still has two games to sit. Whomever takes over the role will be expected to face continual bombardment if the Kiwis cannot hold onto possession for any length of time. Killen has bounced around lately, following Gordon Strachan to Middlesbrough after an unsuccessful stint at Celtic. Killen has big match experience and scored a double against Italy and against Australia. The combo of Smeltz and Killen may prove vital to the Kiwi chances in the group.
Italy v. Paraguay
Cape Town Stadium, Cape Town
2:30 PM EST
New Zealand v. Slovakia
Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace, Phokeng
7:30 AM EST
Slovakia v. Paraguay
Free State Stadium (Vodacom Park), Bloemfontein
7:30 AM EST
Italy v. New Zealand
Mbombela Stadium, Nelspruit
10:00 AM EST
Slovakia v. Italy
Ellis Park (Coca-Cola Park), Johannesburg
10:00 AM EST
Paraguay v. New Zealand
Peter Mokaba Stadium, Polokwane
10:00 AM EST
Tags: 2010 World Cup, New Zealand, Soccer