Group F Preview: Italy Begins its Quest for a Repeat with Little Competition
Viewed by many as the weakest group in this year’s tournament, Group F includes only one team ranked in the top 29 of the FIFA World Rankings. That team would be Italy, who as we all know, comes to South Africa trying to defend their 2006 title. They have received significantly less pub than they did in 2006, and are being overlooked by many, but despite their age they should be able to breeze through this group. Of all the weak nations battling behind Italy, Paraguay is the one that appears most poised to advance out of the group. Despite a World Ranking of 30, Paraguay racked up an astonishing 10 wins in the highly competitive South American qualifying stage, and boast a deadly trio of strikers to accompany star goalkeeper Justo Villar, who could make a real name for himself in this tournament.
Slovakia is not the sexiest team in the tournament, but they were able to advance from a tough European qualifying group that included higher-ranked teams like the Czech Republic and Poland. They don’t have many stars to hang their hats on, but most of their players are experienced players in the German Bundesliga, which is world renowned for it’s toughness. New Zealand is considered by most to be the weakest team in the field. In fact, the question with them seems to be less “Will they win a game?” and more “Will they score a goal?” They looked dominant breezing through the weak Oceania qualifying group, but they simply lack the top-flight talent needed to be relevant in a tournament like the World Cup. They’ll scrap their way to at least one close match, but a three-loss showing is probably in the cards.
In 2006, the Italians were considered one of the oldest teams in the tournament. This year they bring back an eerily similar roster… but one that is four years older. Still, even with father time looming over most of the Italian roster, they still have top flight talent in the form of Fabio Cannavaro, Andrea Pirlo, and world-famous goalie Gianluigi Buffon. Their skill, experience, and propensity for successfully “diving” are three of their biggest strengths, but the thing that they have going for them the most is their weak group. They should be able to enter the Round of 16 relatively rested, and should get a winnable matchup against Cameroon or Denmark. They obviously have the tools to advance further, but it’s hard to see their old legs keeping up with the young guns of Spain in the Quarters, where their run is predicted to end.
It’s hard to find one in a group this weak, but it’s hard to ignore the success Paraguay had during South American qualifying. The attacking unit, including Nelson Valdez and Roque Santa Cruz, is underwhelming on paper, but quietly effective out on the field. Every year there seems to be at least one random South American team that surprises some people (with Ecuador playing England to a 1-0 game in the Round of 16 in 2006), so if anybody had to be a sleeper from this year’s group, my money would be on Paraguay. With that being said, they’d better hope they beat Italy and win the group, because it’d be hard to see them beating the Netherlands in the Round of 16.
Player to Watch
In a group devoid of field players who are legitimate world superstars, our eyes will probably be fixated on Gianluigi Buffon, Italy’s goalkeeper, and anchor of one of the world’s strongest defenses. Buffon has captivated the world since he entered Serie A at the age of 17, but really made a name for himself in America with his brilliant play en route to the 2006 title. He still has a very talented defensive line in front of him, but age is a serious problem, as is speed. In the second round, Cameroon could potentially run wild through their defense, and the game would fall squarely on Buffon’s highly capable shoulders to help advance the Italians. Rarely does a goalkeeper’s performance play such an instrumental role in a country’s fortune, but Buffon’s ceiling is so high that him playing at an elite level may be the only thing that can propel the Italians to another title.
This group will probably be one of the most boring to watch with regard to quality and pace, so you’re gonna need a few bets to help get you through it. Here are a few suggestions if you plan on spicing up the action when you watch Group F:
Italy 11/5 to be eliminated in the Quarterfinals
New Zealend Under 1.5 goals scored in the tournament
Paraguay 3/2 to be eliminated in the Round of 16
Andrea Pirlo 12/1 to lead Italy in scoring