FIFA World Cup™ holders Italy will be expecting nothing less than plain sailing in South Africa next month in a Group F where they are the clear favourites.
A pairing with New Zealand, Paraguay and debutants Slovakia makes comfortable viewing for a team that has been anything but brilliant since lifting the world crown for a fourth time in Germany four years ago. Slovakia will be making their first ever appearance and New Zealand only their second, their first being back in 1982 when they lost all three matches.
The toughest prospect will undoubtedly be Paraguay, who battled through tough South American qualifiers to reach the FIFA World Cup for the fourth time in a row and eighth time in total, but have never been beyond the second round. But while Italy will be the undoubted favourites to win the group, all of their opponents will fancy their chances of reaching the next round. For all three there were much tougher prospects out there and the likelihood is that there will be quite a battle for the runners-up spot in the group.
As for Italy, they come into this with a 100 per cent record against their three opponents. However, that constitutes only four matches in total and little should be read into it. Their only previous meeting with Slovakia was back in 1998 and a 3-0 win in a home friendly in Catania but Slovakia have come on in leaps and bounds since then.
There are few surprises in the provisional 28-man squad named by Italy coach Marcello Lippi, save for the omission of Fabio Grosso, as he included nine players from their triumph in Germany, with Villarreal striker Giuseppe Rossi the only new name. The Azzurri are scheduled to arrive in South Africa on 9 June ahead of their Group F opener with Paraguay in Cape Town on 14 June.
Paraguay have been beaten twice by Italy but one of those was back in 1950 at the FIFA World Cup in Brazil and the other one also in 1998, a 3-1 friendly victory in Parma. However, this Paraguay team is another heading in the right direction and led the South American qualifying group from beginning almost to the end when Brazil finally overtook them.
As for New Zealand, Italy have already had their fingers almost burned once by the Antipodeans having had to come back from a goal down three times in a pre-FIFA Confederations Cup friendly in Pretoria last June, before two Vincenzo Iaquinta goals in the last 22 minutes earned the world champions a narrow 4-3 win.
Midfielder Aaron Clapham (Canterbury United) was the main surprise when New Zealand named their 23-man squad as coach Ricki Herbert said there were some tough choices made ahead of the All Whites' first appearance in the FIFA World Cup finals since 1982. "I'm not one to usually have sleepless nights but this has been a very difficult job settling on the final pieces of the jigsaw," said Herbert, who played in the 1982 FIFA World Cup for New Zealand.
The core of the team includes seven other Europe-based professionals in captain Ryan Nelsen (Blackburn Rovers), Rory Fallon of Plymouth, Chris Killen (Middlesbrough), Michael McGlinchey (Motherwell), Winston Reid (FC Midtjylland), Tommy Smith (Ipswich Town) and Chris Wood (West Bromwich Albion). The squad will travel to Melbourne for a match against Australia next Monday before going to Europe for warm-up matches against Serbia and Slovenia.
It may look easy on paper, but as Italy coach Marcello Lippi warned: "The more you think a group will be easy the more difficult it becomes."