Does anyone not expect Italy to finish the top of this group? Seriously. Take a good, hard look at yourself, if you do. They are the reigning World Champions in a group filled with footballing peasants. Does it mean that the Italians could take their opposition for granted and scrape through with 3 draws? Of course not. But to have any of the other 3 finishing ahead of the Italians, pre-tournament, is pure fantasy.

Let’s face facts. The other teams in this group cannot be eventual winners. Not this year anyway. Apologies to all our New Zealand, Slovakian and Paraguayan fans, but if you think they can, then you’re more freaky than a blood stained Lady Gaga dress.

(Warning! Warning! Author bias ahead) What they should do just allow the Italians to win by 3, and that way, if the Azzurri get to the Quarters (and let’s face it, it’s the Wild West from the quarters, anything can happen) then a least you can say you got defeated by the eventual champions.

ITALY

FIFA Ranking: 5
World Cup Record: 44 – 19 – 14
World Cups: 4 (1934, 1938, 1982, 2006)

The Azzurri are the outright favorites of the group. Deservedly so. Some have called this a Group of Fluff, and while that may be true, it doesn’t necessarily play into the Italians hands. They play the beautiful game with a certain arrogance. Traditionally they are slow to get off the mark in the big tournaments. When playing against teams that they feel might not be of the same caliber, they seem to play without gusto and intensity.

Having said that, they do enough to win the matches that they need to and there is no more critical supporter base than the Italians. When the team fails everyone in the country (as well as the ex-pats) have an opinion on what went wrong and how the coach has disgraced the country.

They are the defending World Champions. They finished at the top of their group and are always deep. There is always a fresh faced youngster ready to explode onto the world stage, like winner of “Golden Boot” and recipient of “Golden Ball” in 1990, Salvatore “Toto” Schillaci. Scoring 6 goals in the biggest tournament of his life meerly a year after being poached by Juventus from a Seria B side. The Sicillian held the heart and aspirations of the nation in his boots. Can Iaquinta continue that legacy this time?

Italy also has a knack for producing some brilliant keepers. Zoff (is the oldest World Cup winner to date being 40 and 133 days old in 1982) and Buffon (helped Italy win the World Cup in 2006 by only conceding twice which, co-incidentally is also record, shared with France) are 2 of the more prevalent, but Zenga holds a record for 517 consecutive mins without conceding.

They are a country proud of their football history. They might start slow, but they fight, round by round. They can win, they have won… the only relevant question is can they win this year? That is not a certainty, but it isn’t an impossibility.

Who will shine for the Italians?:

This is a team made out of players that comes almost entirely out of the Seria A (one of the Top 3 leagues in the world). Pirlo will be missed in the midfield but should be back for the final group match. Chiellini and Iaquinta both “Juventini” should be firing on all pistons, DiNatale and Quagliarella (mostly just cause we love the name) are also ones to watch. Up and coming Marchieso and Bonucci might relish the challenge of WC football if given the opportunity.

Road to Victory:

Lippi. He helped the team combine to win in 2006 and if he repeats this he will be the first coach to win consecutive World Cups since Vittorio Pozzo did for Italy in 1934 and 1938.

Road to Ruin:

Just might think they deserve the World Cup and possibly will forget the work it takes, till it is too late. Like Mussolini in WWII (Oops! Editor intervention)

Prediction:

1st in Group

NEW ZEALAND

FIFA Ranking: 78
World Cup Record: 0 – 0 – 3
World Cups: 0

The All Whites slipped into the spot made vacant by the Socceroos’ decision to fight for qualification via Asia. The problem is, they were able to qualify for their second Finals berth via the Oceanic road. It’s the soft option. Playing against the footballing powerhouses of Vanuatu and Fiji, may only prepare you to beat the likes of Vanuatu and Fiji, and hate to say it Kiwi fans, but Vanuatu not’s walking through that WC door.

Then again, they did push the Aussies close to a draw only a few weeks ago. Is this a sign that the All Whites are better than advertised or Australia’s worse? We shall know soon enough.

In a country that spends 90% of its focus Union (with a few shout outs to Cricket, League and Netball) there is little time to focus on Football. The profile of the most beautiful game will get a well deserved lift in one of the most beautiful countries in the world, should the All Whites catch fire (metaphorically). It’s disconcerting that global domination of football still has some work to do, but without it, where’s the room for growth?

Who will shine for New Zealand?:

Smeltz and Killen are always contenders and always need to be watched. Brown is recovering from surgery but should be fit for at least the Italian game, if not earlier. The young striker Wood could be an injection of youth, if he gets a run!

Road to Victory:

Sorry NZ fans but its highly doubtful we will see the All Whites progress. That’s just the way it is.

Road to Ruin:

Their team is called ‘The All Whites’ and they’re playing in South Africa (Apartheid, Hello?). It’s such a monumental faux pas, it’s almost inconceivable. Then you remember, they’re Kiwis.

These are the same cats that flee NZ to the sunny shores of Australia, then hurl abuse at the Wallabies, in bars across the country, with the same level of dignity, as a menopausal women flinging her daughters G string at a Tom Jones concert.

If this tournament turns out as well for the Kiwis, as it has, for any white public figure to use the ‘N word’ in public, in America, in the last 10 years, it will be a miracle.

Prediction:

4th in Group.

SLOVAKIA

FIFA Ranking: 34
World Cup Record: 11 – 5 – 14
World Cups: 0

The Slovaks have had their hardships in the lead up to this World Cup. While injury concerns have bothered Skrtel, Holosko and Vittek, they all should be back albeit after extensive layoffs. Is it an ideal preparation? Well, no, but everybody’s gonna be a little banged up this time of year.

Who will shine for Slovakia?:

Its tough to say if anyone will stand out, but keep an eye on Hamsik who has had a pretty good year in Italy, and Weiss and Sestak.

Road to Victory:

Vladimir Weiss is the name shared by the coach and a midfielder. This happens to be because they are father and son. The coaches Dad (the midfielders Granddad) was also a top level footballer (who represented Czechoslovakia – before the split), also called Vladimir Weiss.

Haven’t these folk heard of Junior or the III or something or are they deliberately having a crack at some obscure Guinness book of records record, for most number of professional footballers who share the exact same name.

Unsurprisingly, the team is apparently really happy because of the family atmosphere they’ve tried to build. Will any of this lead them to winning the WC? If only it was that easy.

Road to Ruin:

Here is a team that will be close to getting into the round of 16, but they will need to stick together. If they don’t, the holes in their defense will be too inviting for the other teams

Prediction:

3rd in Group

PARAGUAY

FIFA Ranking: 31
World Cup Record: 6 – 7 – 9
World Cups: 0

Paraguay’s chances have took a tumble when their talisman Cabanas was shot in the head in a bar in Mexico. Apparently he may never fully recover. If there’s a more depressing wrinkle in the build up to South Africa, we haven’t come across it. Let’s move on.

Who will shine for Paraguay?:

Its tough when your best premiere striker gets shot in the head for chatting incorrectly with a chick, or chatting at all with the incorrect chick, but look for Cardoza who has scored a bucket load of goals in Benfica this year. Lets say Cardoza.

Road to Victory:

Its hard to see Paraguay winning the WC but they could get out of the Group stage and anything potentially can happen from there. Maybe they should all pray really, really hard (they are 90% Roman Catholic, after all).

Road to Ruin:

Perturbingly, South Africa isn’t much safer than Mexico, so it’s possible more players shot. Note to Paraguay, watch what you say in seedy pubs.

Prediction:

2nd in Group

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