The defending world champions make their 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ debut against Paraguay in a match that ought to have a major bearing on who tops Group F. And not for the first time in their history, the men in blue will be heading into their opening match with several questions to answer.
Those doubts are largely founded on Marcello Lippi’s decision to keep faith with nine of the players who tasted glory in Germany, a policy of continuity that has not met with the unanimous support of Squadra Azzurra fans. “It’s only a month and there’s no problem,” said the silver-haired coach, responding to criticism that his side is too old. “And in any case, the best broths are cooked in the oldest pans.”
The experienced Italians should face a stiff test from Los Guaraníes, who finished third in the CONMEBOL qualifying zone, just behind Chile on goal difference. Traditionally hard to break down, the South Americans have acquired a deserved reputation as one of the best-drilled sides on the continent.
The two previous meetings between the sides both went Italy’s way, La Nazionale securing a 2-0 win at Brazil 1950 and a 3-1 victory in a 1998 friendly. La Albirroja have been impressive in the build-up to the world finals, however, losing only to Republic of Ireland and beating Korea DPR and Greece and earning a creditable draw with Côte d’Ivoire.
Representing the country of his mother’s birth, the Argentina-born Borussia Dortmund forward, only obtained Paraguayan nationality a few months ago. Coach Gerardo Martino had little hesitation in calling him up to the squad to fill the void caused by the tragic shooting of star striker Salvador Cabanas. Barrios certainly looks the part, scoring 19 goals for the Bundesliga club in 33 games last season, his first in the German top flight.
One of the men attempting to shackle him on Monday will be the Italian stalwart, who is appearing in his fourth and last FIFA World Cup. Cannavaro has not enjoyed the best of seasons with Juventus, although few players have his ability to hit peak form at major tournaments. The 2006 FIFA World Player of the Year may be in the twilight of his career, but there is little question he still presents a formidable obstacle for opposing forwards.
1-1: Italy failed to win either of their warm-up games for South Africa 2010, losing 2-1 to Mexico and drawing 1-1 with Switzerland, not that too much should ever be read into Azzurri form on the eve of the competitions that matter. In fact, that stalemate with the Swiss is an encouraging omen for the Italians, who recorded exactly the same score against their northern neighbours in their final matches before Spain 1982 and Germany 2006, competitions that they went on to win.
What they said
“We don’t have a star like Cristiano Ronaldo, Leo Messi or Wayne Rooney, and we can’t play like Brazil, Spain or the Portuguese. But when it comes to defending there’s no one that can match us,” Fabio Cannavaro, Italy defender.
“This is going to be a midfield battle, without question, and it’s sure to be competitive. We’ll be working hard on playing the ball around and having some possession, though. That’s the way to hurt Italy,” Enrique Vera, Paraguay midfielder.
Voice of the fans
“Come Monday the whole world will stop underestimating us and they’ll see that we’re serious candidates for the title. People don’t put Paraguay in the same category as Spain, Brazil, England, Netherlands and Argentina because we don’t have the star names, but we have more than enough quality and I know we can show that,” FIFA.com user bnjalbirrojo.
Who will come out on top in Group F?