You won't hear any complaints coming out of the defending champs' camp, as the Italians have been paired with unfancied New Zealand, Paraguay and Slovakia. While the Azzurri should advance, the battle is on for the second sport in the round of 16. Here's my take on Group F.
Italy will look to recapture the magic of their 2006 title run quite literally, with a roster heavy on World Cup veterans. Among the returning talent is goalkeeper Gigi Buffon, who allowed only an own goal and a penalty kick four years ago. Captain Fabio Cannavaro is no spring chicken at age 36, and a 2-1 friendly loss to Mexico last week re-inforced the sentiment that this side has jumped the shark. But with no major threats looming in the group, Italy will hope to conserve some energy for the knockout rounds, where they'll need it against stiffer competition.
For the first time since the early '90s break-up of Czechoslovakia, Slovakia has advanced to the World Cup. Offensive-minded midfielder Marek Hamsik, coming off a 12-goal campaign with Serie A Napoli, is the biggest scoring threat. Rugged Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel marshalls the back line. In a country best known for hockey, the Slovaks will bring a similar rugged mentality to the World Cup.
Somewhat quietly, Paraguay has reached the World Cup for the fourth consecutive time. The South American outfit actually won more games in qualifying than Argentina or Brazil. With Roque Santa Cruz a shell of his former self and gun violence knocking Salvador Cabanas out of the tournament, the Albirroja will rely on Benfica big man Oscar Cardozo to put the ball in the net. Their match against Slovakia will be the group's key fixture.
Under the category of "just happy to be here," New Zealand are the longest of long shots. The nation did advance to the final of the biggest sporting event ever held in South Africa. Unfortunately that was the Rugby World Cup. If the All Whites employ the go for broke style they showed in a 4-3 loss to Italy in last year's Confederations Cup, their matches should at least be entertaining. The offensive catalyst is striker Shane Smeltz.
Prediction: Aging Italy takes first, but not without a challenge from Paraguay and Slovakia. Slovakia have been the better side of late, so I'll slot them into the second slot.