Group F

Holders Italy are the team to beat as they take on Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia.

    Cannavaro lifts the World Cup with Italy after beating France in the 2006 final [GALLO/GETTY]

    Denying the World Cup holders a place in the second round will be a tough job for Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia as Italy go for Brazil's record of five tournament wins. They are also bidding to be the first side to win back-to-back World Cups twice.

    Italy

    The World Cup holders bring their trophy to South Africa with a frightening list of records and a merciless footballing style.

    Renowned for their ability to defend a 1-0 lead, the Italians won the 2006 World Cup with an exciting departure from their usual pragmatic style but still know how to sit behind the ball and destroy other teams' ambitions.

    Coach Marcello Lippi took the team to 31 unbeaten matches in a row over two stints in charge, and his team can count on the top-level nous of keeper Gianluigi Buffon, 2006 captain Fabio Cannavaro and Daniele de Rossi.

    Paraguay

    The Albirojja reached the World Cup with a 1-0 win over Argentina last September to cap their best-ever qualifying campaign – an event that sparked a national holiday in Asuncion.

    Group F fixtures

    Monday June 14

     
    Italy v Paraguay 

    Tuesday June 15

     
    New Zealand v Slovakia 

    Sunday June 20

     
    Slovakia v Paraguay 
     Italy v New Zealand 

    Thursday June 24

     
    Slovakia v Italy 
     Paraguay v New Zealand

    Top-scorer Salvador Cabanas will miss the finals as he recovers from a gunshot wound to the head, and his teammates will no doubt be playing with him in mind as they look to go beyond the last 16 for the first time.

    Star striker Roque Santa Cruz has two mediocre seasons behind him for Blackburn Rovers and Manchester City but Argentine coach Gerardo Martino has praised his players' collective discipline and says he is confident he can "go down in history" for his achievements with the team.

    New Zealand

    The All Whites ensured that there would be no Arab team from outside Africa at the World Cup when they eliminated tiny Bahrain in an Oceania-Asia playoff to reach their second World Cup.

    Ricki Herbert's team were helped in qualifying for their first tournament since 1982 by Australia's move to Asia, meaning they took over as top dogs in the weak Oceania zone.

    Captain Ryan Nelsen is a successful defender with Blackburn Rovers in the English Premier League.

    But 78th-ranked New Zealand may have to be satisfied just to be coming to the party, despite a 1-0 warmup win over Serbia.

    Slovakia

    Vladimir Weiss' team clinched qualification in style for their first World Cup since independence from the former Czechoslovakia, topping their group ahead of fellow qualifiers Slovenia and the regional might of the Czech Republic and Poland.

    The Slovak lineup will be unfamiliar to most but is streaked with talent, including new Dutch champion and on-loan Chelsea starlet Miroslav Stoch, Liverpool centre half Martin Skrtel, Napoli's Marek Hamsek and the coach's son and namesake, 20-year-old Vladimir Weiss.

    With young Vlad's grandfather – a former Czechoslovakia international – also named Vladimir Weiss, the Slovaks will be hoping their form on the pitch stays as consistent as their gene pool.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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