Italy is another country that was very happy with todays draw as they got Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia in their group. The Italians are famous for starting slowly in a tournament but that should not be an issue here. Italy wins this group easily and Slovakia edges Paraguay for 2nd.
Group A Teams
Manager: Marcelo Lippi
Key player: Andrea Pirlo
Best: Winners (1934, 1938, 1982, 2006)
World ranking: 4
Italy sealed the chance to defend their world title in South Africa in dramatic fashion, equalising in the last minute in Ireland to snatch a 2-2 draw and top spot in Group Eight. Mauro Camoranesi cancelled out Glenn Whelan’s opener for Ireland, but Sean St Ledger’s goal looked to be taking the group to the final round of matches until Alberto Gilardino’s decisive late goal. They did not have it all their own way during qualifying but they remain a stubborn and ruthless opponent, as their unbeaten campaign suggests.
The Azzurri look to be a weaker outfit than in 2006, suggesting a successful defence of their title is unlikely. Their best players are not getting any younger, but with this comes the experience to deal with a major tournament. Manager Marcelo Lippi has come in for criticism but knows how to win, even if the side will have to rely on grinding out the results as opposed to blowing the opposition away. Milan midfielder Andrea Pirlo will orchestrate things but does defender Fabio Cannavaro have the legs to keep pace with the world’s best and who will score the goals?
Manager: Gerardo Martino
Key player: Oscar Cardozo
Best: Round two (1986, 1998, 2002)
World ranking: 30
Paraguay secured their place at a fourth-straight World Cup finals with two games to spare after a 1-0 win over Argentina. Nelson Valdez’s goal earned his side victory over Diego Maradona’s struggling outfit in the South American qualifying group as Paraguay joined Brazil in qualifying for South Africa. Finishing just one point behind Brazil is no mean feat for Paraguay and demonstrates that this solid, counter-attacking side should not be underestimated.
After the disappointment of failing to emerge from the group phase at Germany 2006, Paraguay will be hoping to bounce back in South Africa. They may still be finding their feet as a side following the retirement of key players but in forward trio Nelson Haedo Valdez of Borussia Dortmund, Oscar Cardozo of Benfica and Manchester City’s Roque Santa Cruz they have the firepower to pose plenty of problems. Bowing out in the group stages is likely but they cannot be discounted as a dark horse to scrape through.
Manager: Ricki Herbert
Key player: Ryan Nelsen
Best: Round one (1982)
World ranking: 77
The Kiwis sealed a berth at only their second World Cup finals with a 1-0 aggregate play-off victory over Bahrain, winning the second game in Wellington in front of a New Zealand record football crowd of 35,100 thanks to Rory Fallon’s header just before half-time. New Zealand were overwhelming favourites to win the Oceania group, which they did with relative ease, but it is their play-off win that shows they have the stomach for a fight.
The All Whites are one of the lowest-ranked sides at the finals and on paper appear to be the whipping boys. Their squad is largely a mixture of journeymen and lower league players, including Plymouth striker Fallon. However, they will have little to lose and do possess individuals, such as Blackburn defender Ryan Nelsen and Celtic’s Chris Killen, who have played at a high level.
Manager: Vladimir Weiss
Key player: Marek Hamsik
Best: No previous appearances
World ranking: 34
Slovakia qualified for their first World Cup finals after beating Poland 1-0 thanks to a third-minute own goal by Seweryn Gancarczyk and some key saves from Jan Mucha. Winning European Group Three was an impressive feat. The away victory at group favourites the Czech Republic shows they have the grit and ability to pose problems for the top sides.
England comfortably dispatched Slovakia 4-0 in a friendly last March which may well be a telling result as regards the latter’s ambitions in South Africa. They are no soft-touch, though, and in midfielder and captain Marek Hamsik, who plays in Italy with Napoli, have a true star in the making. A lack of further quality is likely to limit their interest to just the group stages.