Posted by: mdegeorge | May 29, 2010

World Cup Diagnosis Group F: Italian waltz to the knockout rounds

The 2010 World Cup is just 24 days away and the anticipation is reaching a fever pitch. To commemorate one of the greatest happenings in all of sport, I’ll be breaking down the tournament group by group over the next three weeks. There are four teams per group, so the Doctor will be in for the four big questions concerning the group.

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The teams (FIFA World Rankings in parenthesis):

Italy (5): 7-0-3 in UEFA qualification Group 8

Paraguay (30): 10-5-3 in CONMEBOL qualification (third place)

Slovakia (38): 7-2-1 in UEFA qualification Group 3

New Zealand (78): 5-1-0 in OFC qualification second round; won playoff with Bahrain, 1-0

Will Italy have any problems in one of the tournament’s weakest groups?

No one knows the ups and downs of group selection better than the Italians. They were cast into the toughest group in the last World Cup (from which they emerged as champions) and a comically difficult group in Euro 2008 that consisted of four of the world’s top 12 teams. But they’ve been granted a reprieve this time, drawing the weakest group according to FIFA’s world rankings. The difference in the rakings of the first and second teams in Group F, 25 spots, is almost twice as great as in any other group.

Marcello Lippi may be back for the World Champions, but it’s still a side in a generational flux. Only nine players who lifted the title in 2006 remain, and there are only 11 holdovers from Roberto Donadoni’s disastrously brief run at Euro 2008. Only in Italy does there exist such a nebulous category of international retirement that has long hampered their attempts to develop young talent. Some players who already declared their retirement like Alessandro Nesta and Francesco Totti were still viewed as realistic inclusions in the squad a month ago. Other veterans like Luca Toni and Alessandro Del Piero are out of the picture despite never declaring their playing days for the Azzurri over. Then there’s every Italian’s favorite game show, “Will he or won’t he? With Antonio Cassano”. And there are the fringe players who make surprise appearances never to be seen again (think Christian Panucci at Euro 08), like Andrea Cossu, who made his international debut at age 29 three months ago.

This is an old team suffering the consequences of a domestic league unwilling or unable to develop youthful talent. (As an aside for those well acquainted with Italian football, go through some old rosters and guess the age of players in major tournaments. It may be shocking to discover that, for instance, Nicola Legrottaglie is already 33, Antonio DiNatale is 32, and “young talents” like Fabio Quagliarella and Gaetano D’Agostino are already 27.) The backline will be led by two thirty-somethings in Fabio Cannavaro and Gianluca Zambrotta, and a third, Fabio Grosso, was the best fit for the other wing before being unceremoniously axed by Lippi. The crux of the midfield will be composed of the aging Gennaro Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo, while Mario Camoranesi, on the down side of 33, will be called on for “energy” on the wings.

How much will Salvador Cabanas be missed by Paraguay?The 29-year-old striker was a revelation for the Albirroja during qualification, leading the team with six goals and providing the primary attacking impetus for a surprising side that led CONMEBOL qualifying for large stretches of the campaign (they finished third, one point adrift of Brazil and level with Argentina). But Cabanas won’t be taking part in the Finals after he was shot in the head in a Mexican nightclub in January, sustaining significant damage and putting his playing career in serious jeopardy.

This is the country’s fourth straight Finals appearance, having progressed to the Round of 16 in all but the 2006 Finals. They feature 10 holdovers from that squad, but are fairly young throughout. Justo Villar and his 71 caps will be between the posts supported by a strong defense that boasts four players with more than 60 caps, led by 35-year-old Denis Caniza. Their defense was stellar in qualification, conceding less than a goal per game (16 goals in 18 matches).

While experience reigns at the back, the attack is loaded with unproven commodities. Only two midfielders and no forwards older than 30 were selected to the preliminary 30-man roster. Without Cabanas, the goalscoring burden shifts squarely onto Roque Santa Cruz, the most established name in the side. He’s the nation’s second all-time leading goalscorer, just four goals behind Jose Saturnino Cardoza. Attacking midfielder Cristian Riveros, fresh off his new deal with Sunderland, and Nelson Haedo Valdez are the most likely candidates to aid Santa Cruz in filling the goal void.

Can Slovakia progress in their first World Cup appearance?

To say Slovakia’s inclusion in this year’s field is a surprise is an understatement. They were cast in a thin qualification group, but few expected both them and Slovenia to emerge from a group featuring relative powers like Poland and the Czech Republic. After all, they had never qualified for any major tournament since their split from the Czechs in the early 90s. But a strong program of young players, including seven younger than 23 who are included on the provisional 29-man roster, helped them buck the trend.

At the back, Marek Cech and Martin Skrtel provide stability and decent attacking ability on set pieces. They have questions in goal, with projected number one Jan Mucha having just 14 caps (though his performance in Poland did earn him a contract from Everton). Robert Vittek needs just four goals to become the nation’s all-time leading scorer and will likely be partnered in attack with Stanislav Sestak (no relation to Representative Joe that we know of), their leading scorer in qualification with six goals.

Two of the players to watch will be the nation’s most promising midfielders in a long while. Marek Hamsik is only 22 but has already earned 30 caps and netted eight goals. He’ll have to show his usual poise and attacking guile if the Slovakians are going to advance, and he is a prime candidate to have a breakout tournament (think Luca Modric in Euro 08). The other interesting figure is young Vladimir Weiss, who has seven caps at age 20. He has the talent to be included in the final 23, and a loan move from the bench of Manchester City to a regular role at Bolton assures he has the match fitness. That will make the decision to take him to South Africa a little easier for head coach Vladimir Weiss, who also happens to be his father.

Can New Zealand defy the expectations and earn a positive result?

The Kiwi’s very qualification took many by surprise. The Oceanic Football Confederation has been licking its wounds since Australia defected to the more competitive pastures of the Asian Football Confederation in 2006. The Socceroos left a weakened field—no team other New Zealand is ranked in the top 130 by FIFA—that had to draft the tiny nation of Tuvalu into qualification just to have an 11th team. The Kiwis lost once in qualification, to the daunting side from Fiji, but managed to nip Bahrain in their two-leg playoff thanks to a goal by Rory Fallon and the heroics of goalkeeper Mark Paston, who kept back-to-back clean sheets highlighted by a penalty save off the foot of Sayed Mohamed Adnan. The win marked just the fourth time an Oceanic nation qualified for the World Cup, and second time since the OFC started its own qualification in 1986.

There won’t be many people expecting the island nation to progress from the group stages in their second Finals appearance and just their fifth major tournament. They exited from the group stages in their previous appearance in 1982, losing three games with a minus-10 goal difference. They haven’t fared much better in three Confederations’ Cup berths, drawing only once in nine matches by scoring two goals and conceding 24.

The squad doesn’t give the indication that anything will be different this time. There are very few proven players on the squad, though team captain and English Premier League mainstay Ryan Nelsen and all-time caps leader Ivan Vicelich provide a veteran presence in defense ahead of qualification Paston (they’re also tied as the team’s third-leading scorers). Shane Smeltz, whose eight goals led them in qualification, and Christopher Killen must lead the way offensively for a team that has only 10 players with an international goal on their CV. Perhaps the most telling sign of the All Whites’ chances comes in the story of 29-year-old midfielder Andy Barron, an amateur player and banker by trade who’ll make the plane for what will probably be a short stay in South Africa.

Final Diagnosis

Italy romps through the group, faltering only once in a draw on the last day with Slovakia after their passage has already been booked. The Paraguay-Slovakia match on match day 2 will be the decider of the group, and Slovakia should have the confidence of three points from their opening game against New Zealand. Paraguay could be increasingly desperate in that game, and may well be eliminated from contention at the end of the day if the match doesn’t go their way. Slovakia will just need a draw, knowing that Italy will settle for a boring draw on the final day of group play with their passage already sealed and questions about their squad to answer. The two European squads (I know, shocker on my part!) advance, with Paraguay unable to find the requisite goals and New Zealand overmatched from start to finish. Neither squad may do much past the group stage, with the Azzurri maybe reaching the quarterfinals.

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