Kick-Off: Monday, June 14, 20:30 CET.
Green Point Stadium, Cape Town.
Let The Title Defence Begin
Four years ago Italy won the World Cup in sensational fashion. Rocked by the Calciopoli scandal that broke prior to the finals in the summer, the Azzurri pulled themselves together and under coach Marcello Lippi triumphed in the most prestigious football competition, defeating the likes of Germany and France on their way.
Lippi remains the coach going into South Africa 2010 and a number of players remain part of the squad, and like in 2006 this time around too there's little hope for the Azzurri for a successful conquest.
The 62-year-old has come under heavy criticism for leaving out Italy's more creative and inventive players like Antonio Cassano and Fabrizio Miccoli for apparently non-footballing reasons and for sustaining faith in players who have more often than not failed to shine in an Italy shirt.
Italy were far from convincing in the qualifiers and their build-up to the finale has been anything but perfect. A humiliating 2-1 defeat to Mexico was followed by a modest 1-1 draw with Switzerland. However, the defending champions do tend to reserve their best for the actual event itself: pitted against Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia in Group F, the Azzurri will be hopeful of comfortably sailing through the group stage.
Yet there will be some nerves when Italy take on Paraguay on Monday evening. Key midfielder Andrea Pirlo is out and, with a distinct lack of creativity in midfield and in attack, Lippi's side could struggle, especially if the South Americans play with some tempo.
Paraguay qualified for the 2010 World Cup finals on the penultimate day of the South American qualifying campaign. The Albirroja finished third in the CONMEBOL zone behind Brazil and Chile but ahead of Argentina and Uruguay. In fact, Gerardo Martino's side were the best team in the first half of the campaign.
The build-up to the finals for the Albirroja has been rather mixed. In January, Salvador Cabanas, one of their stars in the qualifying campaign, was tragically shot in the head in Mexico City. Thankfully he survived, but unfortunately for Paraguay, he couldn't recover in time to make the final 23-man squad for the World Cup finals.
However, the South Americans defeated Greece and held African hopefuls Ivory Coast to a draw in their last two friendlies.
Paraguay do have a strong attacking department and they could well create some damage against a sluggish Italy defense that features Fabio Cannavaro as one of the two center-backs. However, the South Americans are not so formidable at the back and this is where they would have to take care in the World Cup.
Some observers suggest that Paraguay are this year's dark horses in the finals, and indeed placed in a group that comprises of an uninspiring Italy and minnows New Zealand and Slovakia, Martino's side will be expected to garner a top two spot for themselves and qualify for the last 16 stage.
June 5: Switzerland 1-1 Italy (Friendly)
June 3: Italy 1-2 Mexico (Friendly)
March 3: Italy 0-0 Cameroon (Friendly)
November 18: Italy 1-0 Sweden (Friendly)
November 14: Italy 0-0 Netherlands (Friendly)
June 2: Greece 0-2 Paraguay (Friendly)
May 30: Paraguay 2-2 Ivory Coast (Friendly)
May 25: Republic of Ireland 2-1 Paraguay (Friendly)
May 15: Paraguay 1-0 North Korea (Friendly)
March 31: Paraguay 1-1 South Africa (Friendly)
Coach Marcello Lippi will be without Andrea Pirlo, who is suffering from a calf injury. Daniele De Rossi too had complained of a calf problem but he will be fit for Monday's match. Riccardo Montolivo will replace Pirlo in the Italy midfield.
Mauro Camoranesi and Claudio Marchisio are coming off minor knocks but the former is expected to be on the bench, the latter will start against Paraguay.
There's also been a suggestion that Juventus center-back Giorgio Chiellini will play at left-back, although this does appear to be purely media speculation at this point of time, meaning that the Azzurri will lineup in a 4-3-3 formation.
Probable Lineup (4-3-3): Buffon, Zambrotta, Cannavaro, Chiellini, Criscito; De Rossi, Montolivo, Marchisio; Iaquinta, Gilardino, Di Natale
Coach Gerardo Martino could be without star Benfica striker Oscar Cardozo, who has been unable to train because of an ankle injury. However, there is a perfect replacement for him in the Argentina-born Lucas Barrios.
Probable Lineup (4-4-2): Villar, Bonet, Veron, Da Silva, Morel; Vera, Santana, Riveros, A. Torres; Santa Cruz, Barrios
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Giorgio Chiellini (Italy)
The Juventus center-back is arguably the best defender the Azzurri have at the World Cup and his performance at the back with hugely determine how far Italy will progress in South Africa. The defending champions don't have much creativity in their midfield or attack, which means that once Lippi's side get a goal, they will have to sit back on it, and for this Chiellini will have to be on top form.
Chiellini will partner Fabio Cannavaro in central defense and with the former Real Madrid defender looking old and fragile, the 25-year-old will have to cover up for him.
Lucas Barrios (Paraguay)
The 25-year-old recently gained Paraguayan citizenship and instead of featuring for Argentina in the World Cup finals will play for their South American neighbors. Born in Argentina, Barrios wasn't given the chance by coach Diego Armando Maradona, so he adopted Paraguay.
Since then, though, the Borussia Dortmund striker has been in prolific form, having scored three goals in three matches for la Albirroja. With Oscar Cardozo looking increasingly likely to miss out on the match, Lucas Barrios is set to start against Italy.
Paraguay are not a bad side and do have the potential to craft an upset on Monday evening. However, Italy have the experience and in Marcello Lippi have a coach who knows how to out-think opponents.
The Castrol World Cup match predictor suggests that Italy have 43% chance of winning the match while Paraguay have just 24% chance. However, there is 33% chance that the match could end in a draw. This game doesn't promise to be too exciting, especially from Italy's side, but the Azzurri should win narrowly.
Italy 2-1 Paraguay
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