Creaking Italy should advance from easy group
Needing an easy group to assist his creaking team defend the World Cup title in South Africa, Italy coach Marcello Lippi got it.
With many of his 2006 team expected to be back but showing signs of age, Lippi has been presented with three Group F opponents who shouldn't provide too many problems.
First up is a Paraguay team whose top player was the victim of a shooting. Then comes a New Zealand side which profited from Australia's defection to Asian qualifying. And finally, the Italians will face surprise qualifying group winner Slovakia, which is in its first international tournament since splitting from Czechoslovakia.
Four years after winning a penalty shootout to beat France in the final, the Italians are showing few signs that they are capable of becoming the first team since Brazil in 1958-62 to win back-to-back World Cups. At least Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso, Gianluca Zambrotta and others from that 2006 side have masses of experience, even if some of them are slower.
Lippi, who quit after the last World Cup but returned to replace Roberto Donadoni, is trying to emulate Vittorio Pozzo, who coached Italy to back-to-back World Cup titles in 1934 and '38.
Although Salvador Cabanas has been making an amazing recovery from being shot in the head on Jan. 25 in a Mexico City bar, he will not be with the team in South Africa. His absence severely weakens Paraguay's strike force, even though Roque Santa Cruz is back after injury and scoring goals for Manchester City in the Premier League.
Paraguay finished third, a point behind Brazil, in World Cup qualifying and has a good record in recent championships, reaching the second round at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups. The South Americans were knocked out in the group stage four years ago in Germany but should be strong enough to make it to the second round this time.
Slovakia finished well above neighbor Czech Republic in their European qualifying group but will do well to make it to the last 16.
For New Zealand, captain and central defender Ryan Nelsen plays regularly for Blackburn in the Premier League, while striker Shane Smeltz was the top scorer in the Australian league.