At first sight, defending champion Italy will have it easy in the group stage of the World Cup facing New Zealand, Slovakia and Paraguay.
Not so, insists World Cup winning coach Marcelo Lippi.
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“An opponent becomes difficult if you consider it easy,” he said, reflecting on a long history of Italian struggles against underdog opponents during the group stages of the World Cup.
His biggest challenge ahead of the opening kickoff against Paraguay in Cape Town will be to maintain vigilance against teams it has barely played before.
“Paraguay led qualifying (in South America) for two years. Slovakia is a team that has improved lately and they feature an important player based in Italy,” he said, referring to Napoli’s Marek Hamsik.
“New Zealand is definitely not a lucky draw,” he said of a team ranked 77th in the world, one of the weakest qualifiers.
Fortunately, Lippi heads a team of veterans who should have memories long enough to know that Italy can struggle against underdogs.
And everyone will love to beat the defending champion.
“Italy is obviously a huge one but great to get,” said New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert, whose team lost 4-3 to the Italians in their only meeting in June.
Adding to the optimism is Italy’s awful performance at the Confederations Cup in South Africa in June when it failed to advance past the group stage.
New Zealand may be easy to dismiss. Not Paraguay, which is coming off a strong South American qualifying tournament.
“We have some of the best players in the world,” said Paraguay coach Gerardo Martino, whose country has played Italy twice, losing both times. “A great result against Italy is probably the most important thing for us if we are to succeed.”
And even Slovakia, the only new team in the World Cup, has no fears, despite a 3-0 loss in their only meeting 11 years ago.
“We have a chance against the Italians. They’ll be a hard nut to crack but it’ll be our last group match and we’ll see what happens,” Slovak central back Jan Durica said.