Paraguay-Italy Preview

Four years ago, Italy entered the World Cup amid low

expectations and a scandal before emerging with its fourth

championship. Expectations for the team heading into South Africa

may be even lower.

The most decorated European squad in the World Cup begins its

quest to retain the title when it faces Paraguay in Cape Town on

Monday.

Usually seen as a favorite to win any tournament, Italy was not

in that position in 2006 as a match-fixing scandal in its domestic

league had come to light. However, the controversy and criticism

appeared to unite the team as it went on to win the World Cup by

beating France on penalties.

“Whenever a World Cup comes around everyone wants to get in

their say,” said coach Marcello Lippi, who guided Italy in 2006.

“Last time, everyone joined in as we moved along, but this time

we’re not going to allow anyone to jump on the bandwagon.”

The lack of faith in Italy’s chances this time might stem from a

difficult qualifying road. Ranked fifth by FIFA, Italy went 7-0-3,

but stumbled in two games against Cyprus and another against

Montenegro. It needed a last-minute goal from Alberto Gilardino to

secure a 2-all tie with Ireland in the second-to-last qualifier to

clinch a trip to South Africa.

“We lost a bit of that aura, but we’re working hard to regain

it,” said defender Fabio Cannavaro, who will captain the team for a

second World Cup. “A compact defense has always been the basis of

Italy’s team.”

Strong play from goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and the

Cannavaro-led defense might be essential again, as Italy allowed

only two goals in 2006 – an own goal and a penalty kick.

While Cannavaro, 36, is considered to be on the downside of his

career, Lippi disagrees with the notion that his team is “old” with

an average age of 28 years, 9 months.

“Yes, we have old players, but with age comes charisma and the

experience of playing in big games. I think we have the right mix

of young and old players,” Lippi said. “We have nine players from

2006. I’ve never seen any team that wins the World Cup show up four

years later with 23 new players.”

Italy can take solace in that fact that it’s in perhaps the most

favorable group, which includes 34th-ranked Slovakia and No. 78 New

Zealand.

Paraguay, ranked 31st, is making a fourth consecutive appearance

at the World Cup. It was eliminated in the group phase in 2006.

La Albirroja showed its own defensive acumen in qualifying,

allowing 16 goals in 18 games as it finished tied with Chile for

second in the standings, one point behind Brazil.

Paraguay is led offensively by emerging star Lucas Barrios, who

scored three goals in three games for the national team after

leading Borussia Dortmund with 19, third most in the German

Bundesliga this season.

The only World Cup meeting between the teams was won by Italy in

1950.