Italy's World Cup Group F: A Good Place to Start?
Following Friday nights World Cup draw, Marcello Lippi and Italy will now spend the next six months awaiting games against Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia. As the Azzurri prepare to defend the title he won so valiantly in Germany, Adamo Digby takes time to assess the group, its teams, the history and potential pitfalls ahead of the reigning World Champions.
Italy continue to prepare for the first African edition of the World Cup knowing who their first three opponents will be. The teams drawn against them in Group F are Paraguay, who qualified by finishing third in the South American Qualifying Group, New Zealand, who topped the Oceania Group, and Slovakia who topped a UEFA Group, containing Slovenia, Northern Ireland, and the Czech Republic.
First up for Lippi's squad then is Paraguay in Cape Town. This will be the "Guaranies" eighth finals appearance, but ranked 30th in the world, they have never got past the second round. They have faced Italy only twice before, losing 2-0 at the 1950 World Cup and a 3-1 friendly defeat in 1998 where Paolo Maldini scored a rare international goal.
They qualified thanks to a strong showing in the tough South America group, taking four points from Argentina and also beating Brazil with 10 men. Were it not for a last day defeat to Colombia they would have won that most difficult of groups. Their more well known players include Roque Santa Cruz and Sunderland's Paulo da Silva.
New Zealand's All-White's are widely regarded as one of the weakest teams in the Finals, and an appalling Confederations Cup showing did nothing to dampen that view. They are making only their second finals appearance, which Italians will love, as the other time they qualified was 1982. They conceded 12 goals that time, and seven without reply at the Confederations Cup earlier this year.
The two nations played a friendly prior to that tournament, and a weak Italian second string won 4-3. Blackburn's Ryan Nelsen, the captain is one of their only recognisable players in a squad drawn from a very small pool of players.
The last game in Group F is probably the toughest. Slovakia topped a tough looking UEFA group to reach this stage, and boast Napoli's Marek Hamsik among their ranks. Joining the live-wire midfielder is Cesena defender Martin Petras, as well as West Bromwich Albion defender Marek Cech and Liverpool's Martin Skrtel.
It is their first finals appearance since gaining independence in 1993. Their only meeting with Italy was a 1998 friendly that the Azzurri won 3-0 thanks to goals from Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti.
A kind draw for sure, but as Italy are notoriously slow starters most fans of gli Azzurri will be expecting qualification to be undecided until the last group game, as usual. With the group being paired with Group E in the round of 16, Italy will be up against a team from Netherlands, Denmark, Cameroon or Japan should they make it through.
With Italy avoiding a "Group of Death" scenario, fans, players and team management can be content with the draw, while remembering the old "there are no easy games at this level" cliche. As always gli Azzurri will be among the teams with a realistic chance to win.
So now we know who awaits Italy in June, the waiting begins. Not long left to dream of winning it again, to dance delerious around Circus Maximus singing "Po po po po po, Campioni del Mondo......."
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