There’s always a lot of talk about the Group of Death, a phrase used past the point of cliche, up until it has become little more than irritant. This year it is widely accepted that the hardest group is formed when you put Brazil, Portugal together and just add Ivory Coast, with North Korea as a sideshow.
Brazil; favorites; appear to be in with a real challenge here. They will have to fight for their life in the group stage, and then likely face Chile in the second; a team who pulled one over on them in qualifying. On the other hand, the reigning champions appear to have got it easy.
Italy are in Group F; along with Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia. It’s an interesting group in some ways, but there will be no real challenge for Italy from any of these three opposition.
No doubt about it, the Azzuri should clean up here. The reigning champions may not be as strong on paper as they were four years ago, but a drop of just 6 points in qualifying speaks to how organised Marcelo Lippi has got them. The starting eleven is reasonably settled, and I think Lippi’s decision to leave the old favorites of Nesta and Totti at home is a good one. The only small question mark is perhaps Italy’s habit of starting the tournament slowly, but this will only prove a minor hindrance.
Paraguay will be the only other serious team in this group. I have a lot of expectation of the three smaller South American nations here. Chile (3-3-1-2) and Uruguay (3-5-2) both play innovative football, and have a strong front line (Forlan etc.). Paraguay aren’t as talented or well managed as the other two, but they have the best defence, and let in less than one goal a game in qualifying. The attack, led by Roque Santa Cruz, was less potent, but they pulled out home wins over Argentina and Brazil. This is a good team, and they could give Italy a scare.
The other two teams come in as outsiders due to a lack of experience at this level. This is New Zealand’s second world cup, but they claimed not a point back in 1982. I also know about the lack of true quality. Three of the squad (Leo Bertos, Rory Fallon and Dave Mulligan) came through the academy of my team, Barnsley, and I will testify to the fact that none of them are up to a World Cup. Rory Fallon scored the goal which brought the All Whites here, and he couldn’t deal with any of the defenders in this group. Even their abysmal performance in the Confederations Cup agrees, this is the team which will finish bottom.
This only leaves Slovakia in the middle. This is the Eastern European nation’s first world cup, and that’s a great land mark. I think this nation could move up towards the realm inhabited by Croatia, Bosnia et ala in the future. Marek Hamsik of Napoli is the key man, and certainly he will provide a challenge for the Italy defenders he knows so well. Unfortunately, he’s likely to be let down by the squad around him, which is in parts still developing.
So, I don’t see any real challenge on the top two, especially not Italy, and this should be a relatively straight forward group. The standing is:
New Zealand: 0
It’ll all be decided by how well Italy get into their stride on day one, when they face Paraguay. I expect a really tight game, ending in a 1-1 or a 0-0 draw. This point is key, because Italy grow into their game and beat Slovakia smoothly on match day three, giving Paraguay a one point advantage.
This group will be very tight. Italy and Paraguay are arguably the two best defensive sides in South Africa, and neither will concede to Slovakia or New Zealand. This will actually turn out to be a very boring group, with Italy strolling to 7 points, and Slovakia and Paraguay only manging to play a 0-0 draw.
Bonus prediction; New Zealand don’t score a goal. Instead, Hamsik, Santa Cruz and the Azzuri flatten them.
The winner (Italy) goes onto play runner up in Group E (Cameroon) in what will be possibly Africa’s best chance of success. Paraguay play the Netherlands, and that’ll be a very tough test for them against one of the few attacks who could reliably break their great defense down.