Italy begins title defense against Paraguay

The Italian squad wants to prove it isn’t too old to win the World Cup again when it starts its title defense against Paraguay, which is playing in honor of shooting victim Salvador Cabanas.

Italy will be a clear favorite in Monday’s Group F opener in Cape Town, but the Azzurri have appeared confused in recent friendlies and their South Americans rivals could be more motivated.

Paraguay President Fernando Lugo recently sent a letter to the team’s players asking them to play for former striker Cabanas, who survived a gunshot wound to the head and is still recovering.

"Remember our beloved, stupendous example of gritty Paraguay spirit – Salvador Cabanas," Lugo wrote. "He is a magnificent example of how the fighting spirit, a strong will and faith helps us respond in the face of adversity."

Cabanas was shot in the head in a Mexico City bar in January and the main suspect is still at large. Cabanas was released three weeks ago from a rehabilitation clinic in Buenos Aires and doctors treating him have been surprised by his recovery, raising speculation that he could eventually play again.

Italy, meanwhile, wants to start off this World Cup like it did the last one. In 2006, the Azzurri opened with an authoritative 2-0 win over Ghana that set the tone for their title run.

"The debut is always particularly important," defender Gianluca Zambrotta said. "We want to finish first in the group and a good start would be ideal."

Appearing in its fourth consecutive World Cup, Paraguay could be Italy’s toughest opponent in a group that also features New Zealand and Slovakia

Paraguay’s Argentine coach Gerardo Martino has constructed a solid defense, which allowed the team to qualify third in South America behind Brazil and Chile, and ahead of Argentina.

The impressive qualifying campaign included a 2-0 win over Brazil and a 1-0 victory over Argentina.

"They’re a typical South American side and we saw how tough Uruguay played France," midfielder Gennaro Gattuso said, referring to Friday’s scoreless draw in Group A. "They fought for every ball. We realize we’re going to have to fight for 90 minutes."

Italy is without its most talented midfielder, Andrea Pirlo, who has a left calf injury and will likely be replaced by Fiorentina’s Riccardo Montolivo.

In attack, Italy coach Marcello Lippi appears settled on Alberto Gilardino at center forward, but he’s shown some doubts on the wings, testing Vincenzo Iaquinta and Simone Pepe recently along with Antonio Di Natale, Mauro Camoranesi and Fabio Quagliarella.

Lippi also seems intent on using the relatively inexperienced Juventus midfielder Claudio Marchisio as a playmaker.

"We may not be perfect in the first game here, but hopefully we’ll build ourselves into a solid squad as we go along," Lippi said.

Italy lost 2-1 to Mexico in a friendly last week and the Mexicans have a similar playing style to Paraguay.

"We really only face South American teams once every four years. You can study all you want but you don’t really know a team that well until you see it in front of you," Gattuso said.

At 32, Gattuso is one of nine players over 30 on Italy’s squad, joining the likes of 36-year-old captain Fabio Cannavaro, 33-year-old Zambrotta and 32-year-old forward Antonio Di Natale.

"I don’t feel old," Gattuso said. "If I’m old then I don’t know what to think about my grandfather!"

In the absence of Cabanas, Paraguay’s top forward is Manchester City striker Roque Santa Cruz, who appears ready to play after missing all of his team’s key qualifying games with recurring knee problems.

It was Cabanas and Santa Cruz who scored in the win over Brazil in June 2008.

Santa Cruz should pair with Borussia Dortmund forward Lucas Barrios.

"Defensively Italy is very strong and if they score it’s tough to come back," Santa Cruz said. "We’ve got to play an intelligent game and when we have the ball calmly look for scoring chances. We can’t play with long balls, we need to go one on one."

Whatever their strategy, Cabanas will never be far from the Paraguay players’ minds.

"If we win, we will dedicate the victory to Salvador Cabanas," midfielder Enrique Vera said.