The reigning Germany 2006 Champions will be making their 16th appearance when they head to South Africa this summer. The Azzurri have made it past the first round in every World Cup it has been in since 1974 and is defiantly the groups favorite, but with an aging squad and poor outings at the Euro 2008 and the Confederations Cup 2009, few experts actually see Italy as serious contenders for this year’s trophy. Boss Marcelo Lippi’s has a landmark 31 consecutive international matches without a defeat. The 61-year-old is not shy about using all of the players at his disposal to win matches, as shown during the qualifiers when he called up a total of 36 players to get the job done. Since Lippi took charge, he has attempted to add several young players to the squad in order to provide balance to a side that has been ravaged by age and a number of key players who have exited over the last few years. Despite his efforts, the squad is still made up from a core of players in their early to mid 30’s and is led by 31-year old world-class goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, a pillar of the Italian defense. He will be aided by wily veterans Gennaro Gattuso, as well as captain — defender Fabio Cannavaro. The 36-yer old 2006 FIFA World Player of the Year has 130 caps and brings his side the much-needed experience of winning on the world stage. The Azzurri came through qualifying with little problem finishing with seven wins and three draws, scoring 18 goals and conceding seven.
Another likely to make it out of the group stage is Paraguay. Making their eighth FIFA World Cup finals appearance and their fourth in a row after a brilliant qualifying campaign, La Albirroja will look to shed the disappointment of a first round exit in 2006. The side is under the direction of Argentinean boss Gerardo Martino. El Tata is a big fan of attacking football, and brings a new look to the squads’ traditional defensive style. While some questioned his experience as well as this new approach, fears were quelled as the squad negotiated its way through a tough group to South Africa 2010 in record-breaking fashion. The side lost their best player, striker Salvador Cabanas, after being shot in the head back in January in a Mexico City bar. Anytime you lose your best player to tragedy your side’s chances of winning becoming much tougher, but this squad has much more depth and plenty of internationally renowned players that can step it up in this tournament. Players like Manchester City striker Roque Santa Cruz will lead the offensive punch along with Oscar Cardozo and Nelson Haedo Valdez, all of whom scored 11 goals between them during the squads qualifying campaign. La Albirroja allowed just 16 goals in 18 World Cup qualification matches finishing a very respectable third in South American qualifying behind Brazil and Chile.
There won’t be a lot expected for Slovakia, qualifying for their first ever World Cup finals was accomplishment enough. They side emerges as part of the former Czechoslovakia, a nation who participated in eight finals overall, including a pair of finals appearances in 1934 and 1962, when they succumbed 3-1 to Brazil. They also advanced as far as the last eight in 1990, and now look to climb to the top of World Stage once again. Slovakian international Vladimir Weiss was appointed head coach in June 2008, and since has formed a tight, collective unit that knows what it takes to grind out results. The 45-year old led the Artmedia Bratislava into the UEFA Champions League group phase in 2005/06, so he knows what it takes to compete at a higher level of competition. While the side is hardly filled with household names, outside of Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel, the Slovaks do have plenty of solid players. While not the biggest star in Italy, Napoli hitman Marek Hamsik is a constant threat to score and can cause many headaches for many opposing defenses. There is also striker Stanislav Sestak who plays for German Bundesliga 2 VfL Bochum. The 27-year old finished top scorer for Slovakia with six strikes in qualifying. The Slovaks put on an impressive display and finished first in a tough qualifying group that included the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia and Northern Ireland.
If this competition involved rugby the Kiwis would reign supreme. Unfortunately, for them football is not their strong spot. This will only be the second appearance in the World Cup for the All Whites and their first in 28 years following a debut showing at Spain 1982. New Zealand also has played in three Confederation Cups, but the club has only scored three goals in the nine matches with a record of 0-1-8. In fact, New Zealand has never won either a Confederations Cup match or a World Cup final match. Boss Ricki Herbert who is one of New Zealand football’s most-famous figures and a member of the 1982 World Cup squad will try and change that. The 49-year old Herbert was one of the first Kiwis to play in England, which he did with the Wolverhampton Wanderers. He has turned the All Whites into a solid unit after assuming the reins of the national team in 2005. The side is led by Blackburn central defender, skipper and former D.C. United star Ryan Nelsen, who took charge of the Kiwis’ playoff series against Bahrain, leading the team to two shutouts and a 1-0 aggregate win over the Asians to reach the tournament this summer. At the other end of the pitch, the Kiwis have a number of key attacking options including Shane Smeltz, the Oceania Player of the Year and Australian A-League top-scorer, Middlesbrough striker Chris Killen, FC Tampa Bay Rowdie midfielder Jeremy Christie, and 18-year old West Bromwich Albion F.C striker Chris Wood. New Zealand took full advantage of Australia’s exodus from the Oceania region comfortably winning their group.
Italy can take heart of the fact that they are 3-0 against their group in recent meetings and have outscored them 10-4 as well. They should finish top of their group as expected, and are likely to face Denmark in round two–if they manage to overcome an unpredictable Cameroon side. If this happens, I expect Denmark to put the Italians out of their misery in round two and mark an end of an era for some of Italy’s greats. Paraguay should earn wins against New Zealand and Slovakia and will rely on their talented strikers to move on past the group stage But the Round of 16 will likely be where their road ends. Slovakia is a solid team and will be battling Paraguay for second place in this group, but it would be the surprise of the tournament if they advance. The Slovaks should get the win against New Zealand and have an outside shot at advancing if they are able to break through the defense of Paraguay. Finally, the Kiwis are the biggest long shot at grabbing the World Cup title. This makes them the ideal pick for somebody with a serious debt to pay and only a few months to pay it back. Seriously, these are by far and away the worst odds of any World Cup squad and judging from their weak qualifying division and their history in international football, I think the trend continues for New Zealand. The side has never won a World Cup match and it doesn’t appear that will change this summer.
Advancing: Italy, Paraguay