At long last, we're three-quarters of the way done with the Group Previews. Here in Group F, it appears to be a rather cut and dry group of teams. One international power, two up-and-comers and one minnow. A really good sleeper match should happen between those two up-and-comers. But the the strangest storyline of the group: will that minnow go scoreless for a second straight major FIFA competition?
Group Previews - [A] / [B] / [C] / [D] / [E]
Italy [ITA] – Rankings (5 FIFA / 11 SPI)
Qualification – UEFA – Won Group Eight
Recent Matches – T 0-0 vs. Cameroon, L 1-2 vs. Mexico, T 1-1 vs. Switzerland
Say what you want about the defending World Cup champs and their recent form, but they have the easiest draw in the whole tournament. There’s no reason, based on rankings anyway, why the defending champs shouldn’t walk away with nine points here. The only way the Azzuri don’t top the Group F standings is if the sleepwalk through the group phase like they did in their warm-up friendlies.
New Zealand [NZL] – Rankings (78 FIFA / 91 SPI)
Qualification – Won OFC/AFC Playoff vs. Bahrain, 1-0 agg.
Recent Matches – L 1-2 vs. Australia, W 1-0 vs. Serbia, L 1-3 vs. Slovenia, L 0-2 vs. Chile
This is a team that I’d love to see succeed the in the World Cup. The Oceanic (OFC) Champions rarely get much more than a look over largely in part to the region they qualify from and this is only the second World Cup for the All-Whites. They have a total of one-point in major FIFA competitions, a scoreless draw vs. Iraq in the 2009 Confederations Cup, also in South Africa.
Paraguay [PAR] – Rankings (31 FIFA / 20 SPI)
Qualification – CONEMBOL – Third Place
Recent Matches – L 1-2 vs. Ireland, T 2-2 vs. Ivory Coast, W 2-0 vs. Greece
I really wish I had gotten to see more of the CONEMBOL qualifying, basically to see more of Paraquay and Chile. Paraguay has established themselves as a force in South America behind Brazil and Argentina in recent years. But how many CONEMBOL teams in the World Cup can say they beat Brazil and Argentina in the same qualifying campaign? Just one, La Albirroja.
Slovakia [SVK] – Rankings (34 FIFA / 49 SPI)
Qualification – UEFA – Won Group Three
Recent Matches – L 0-1 vs. Norway, T 1-1 vs. Cameroon, W 3-0 vs. Costa Rica
Any team that can get four points in a qualifying group against the Czech Republic should be considered dangerous. This is Slovakia’s first World Cup appearance as an independent country after decades combined as Czechoslovakia, but don’t mistake that for inexperience. The Slovakians have a deep soccer history and are looking to make a mark in their first World Cup.
IMPORTANT MATCH DAY – June 20th – SVK vs. PAR; ITA vs. NZL
Let’s face it, that second game isn’t that important. What is important is the result of that first game. A win sends that team through to the next round. A draw would likely mean a goal differential tie-breaker based on how many you beat the Kiwis by and how bad the Azzuri beat you.
ITA 2-1 PAR ITA 2-0-1, 7 pts, +5 GD
NZL 0-2 SVK PAR 2-1-0, 6 pts, +3 GD
SVK 1-2 PAR SVK 1-1-1, 4 pts, +1 GD
ITA 4-0 NZL NZL, 0-3-0, 0 pts, -9 GD
SVK 1-1 ITA
PAR 3-0 NZL
Italy [F1] and Paraguay [F2] advance to play Denmark [E2] and Netherlands [E1] respectively.
It’s really hard to give Slovakia just a gimmie point to Italy on the last day (plus the win to New Zealand) as their only real points in the group, but I think Paraguay is the better side. I think Italy will be resting players having already clinched a berth to the knockout round and that could give Slovakia a chance at a win but I see them being out of it by then. And I really want the Kiwis to score a goal. I really do. But they didn’t do it in the Confederations Cup and aside from Spain, they played two average teams and couldn’t do put on into the old onion bag. But I hope they do, and there won’t be anyone cheering more for it than me when it happens.