Does F stand for fail? Or is it worth taking a closer look…? (departing from our normal stylistic structure)
From the outset, this was the group I least looked forward to previewing. And it’s shown, I’ve stalled around this group for a while – desperately trying to write about more interesting football areas. But the time has come, there’s no more procrastination – this is Group F.
Group F offers the smallest collective population of any group, so the pot to draw from is immediately reduced. (Not in the masterchef way, but like smaller – yeh?) Italy is historically a major force in the football world, even devoting their geography to the cause, but look ageing and lacking. They’re arguably the worst of the top 8 seeded sides. Despite my previous amazement at squads that are made up solely of domestic talents (England, Germany), this isn’t proving a rarity for the bigger nations with established home leagues – and I suppose this makes sense. Italy is the next in line with a squad filled with players from the Seria A. While Italian football certainly overachieved on the club scene, they did so mainly through the expertise of Mourinho. All 3 Italian sides in the competition, but Fiorentina and AC Milan failed at the first hurdle. Additionally, the majority of Inter’s outstanding side will line up for the Italian’s opponents. The Italians look to have lost their sheen with the absence of the likes of Maldini, Grosso, Totti, Inzaghi and too many others to list. The glory years of Italian football through the turn of the millennium looks to be stuttering to a halt. There are too many relatively unknown/foreign names in the Italian squad to be legitimate challengers on paper. But that’s on paper, and rest assure, the Italians will cause a few problems.
The Italian squad is full of experience. The gaffer, Marcello Lippi is perennially biased towards consistency and that is what he gets from his side. Don’t expect bucket loads of goals, and this could easily become a major concern for the Azzuri, but expect them to grind out scrappy wins over almost all that come before them. Tremendously poor friendly form (losing to a 2nd string Mexico) is typical of the Pastamen, who seem to know when to bring their A-game. Andrea Pirlo (AC Milan, midfielder) is the Italian answer to Beckham. He’s got the look and is similarly past his prime. He still provides some of the best service in the business and feature prominently in South Africa. Cannavaro and Gilardino will be crucial performers, but Daniele de Rosi (AS Roma, midfielder) will be the 2nd most important cog to their machine. He’s considered the future of Italian soccer and will be looking to confirm his status as a class midfielder 2-way midfielder. Last, but not least, the man between the sticks, Buffon, is still the true legend of Italian supporter’s hearts.
To be honest, Italy would have been one of my tips to dismally underperform in 2010, but in Group F they have the definition of a cake-walk. But after the group, they’ll face a torrid time. Assuming the favourites win, they’ll face a dangerous Denmark who won’t be the easiest of 2nd round opponents. At the quarters, the red hot Spanish will be waiting and if (and it’s a big, towering if) they progress beyond that, they’re still on the same side of the draw as Brazil. The picture above will be a distant memory come July.
The Kiwis are tipped as the worst side in the World Cup by many pundits, but have so far shown considerable fighting spirit for any class they lack. They were the better side against Australia, despite losing deep in stoppage time, and they beat the highly fancied Serbians in what could only be called a hostile environment. The rest of the world don’t know much about them, but a strong Wellington Phoenix side and underrated Ricki Herbert at the reigns should rectify the issue soon enough. In one sense, the side has been given the dream draw and an outside chance of qualification. In another, they may have preferred a tougher challenge, say Group D, where expectations were negligible and they could enjoy the moment. With the weak group and strong recent performances, the rugby-mad population who are used to winning every sport they play (grand total of 3) are expecting big things. The sheep-shaggers couldn’t care less about the highly paid superstars from other sides and the supporter’s no fuss/no prisoners attitude should rub off on the players.
In captain, Ryan Nelsen (Blackburn, Defender) they have a genuine leader and highly physical centre half. Shame Smeltz (Gold Coast United, Forward) has dominated the local A-League with a growing tally of goals and should be the focus of several European scouts. Smeltz, in PTS’ opinion, is an outstanding prospect. They play a fluid and attacking 3-4-3 that prides itself on their neat passing movements.
Many of the “big” football sites are writing them off, but anyone that’s seen them play will acknowledge that they’ll give everyone a shake. I think the order of their fixtures suits them too and a win in the opening game would give them a real chance of knockout stage football. Last time around it was a nation from this corner of the Earth that announced itself to the world, and the similarities with NZ are uncanny: qualified on penalties, not traditionally a football nation, but qualification has seen a euphoric atmosphere in the country, and a self belief that exudes from their football style. But they don’t have as many players employed across Europe and they don’t have such an inspiring and galvanising manager as Hiddink was for the Aussies.
It’s ridiculous that this is yet another team that is highly organised at the back, but lack any considerable attacking threat. Santa Cruz is world class, but has struggled of late and will likely play the lone striker role at the Cup. Paraguay are a picture of inconsistency. Outstanding at times (2-0 over Brazil and 5-1- over Ecuador in qualification attests to that) while dismal at others (losing 4-2 to Bolivia at home). They’re the logical choice for position number 2, but in almost any other group, they’d be favourites to miss out rather than progress. If they turn it on, then expect them to be tough opposition for the Netherlands in the 2nd round, but really, they’ll have a small impact.
Besides Santa Cruz, Barros and da Silva will be the other key figures, but they aren’t exactly world beaters. Indeed, Barros had a difficult path to selection in the squad. He renounced his Argentinian citizenship and then was given his chance after incumbent Cabanas was shot in the head…(What!!!) Just like the 3 times not called Italy in this group, the rest of the squad is remarkably green on World Cup experience (to say the least).
Look for some emotional tributes to Cabanas – especially after they score a goal, sorry if they score a goal…
I’ve been waiting for this for months. Not exactly. But Slovakia are a chance of qualifying, but only because of this group. They’re at great odds to snatch 2nd place from under Paraguay’s nose, and I fancy their chances. They’ve got a fair bit of talent: Martin Skrtel and Vladimir Weiss will have the best chance of triggering a flash in your brains, but most importantly, they have an incredibly strong, young nucleus to the side. Scouts across the EPL are in a giddy sweat about plenty of these guys. Amongst others, the best fancied is Marek Hamsik who for PTS is probably the hottest talent of the entire tournament. (Massive call) He’s 22 and captains the side. Good start. Plays at Napoli. Okay. Attacking midfiedler with an eye for goal. Well that’ll help him to grab out attention. Hamsik has scored some absolute screamers for the sky blues and is a fan favourite. His major issue is his propensity to celebrate goals with hair gel related celebration. Apparently Dan Ashworth and West Brom have approached him, but he’s already been priced out of the ball park with interest from Manchester United, no less. Watch his stock sky rocket in June and for him to be catching your attention on the EPL highlights show (Monday night 6:30 or 10, Fox Sports 1 HD) before too long.
It’s worth mentioning Peter Pekarik from Wolfsburg, who’s been riding the crest of the German footballing renaissance of late and at 23 is arguably the sides best defender. And I can hear all you Chelsea fans screaming already, I haven’t forgotten, there’s still Miroslav Stoch who’s been a prodigy for Dutch star FC Twente. He’s not that interesting, however, as he’s already been snaffled by the deep coffers of Abaramovich. He probably won’t even get a starting berth, as Stanislav Sestak was simply unstoppable in qualifying with a 6 pack of Lemon Ruskies (goals).
Italy should dominate the group and fall at the quarters to Spain. It’ll be a scrap for the next position and I doubt Paraguay will be particularly strong, but rather NZ and Slovakia to exercise their beginner’s luck. Slovakia have an exciting squad with plenty of future prospects and while they won’t trouble the Netherlands in the 2nd round, they will be strong in 2014 and 2018 (in Australia hopefully).