A cosmopolitan cast is preparing to light up the fourth matchday at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. Following an all-European affair between the Netherlands and Denmark, Italy take on Paraguay in a Europe-South America showdown before Asian hopefuls Japan meet four-time African champions Cameroon.
The holders face a litmus test of their title credentials against a Guaraníes outfit who enter the tournament on the back of their best ever preliminary campaign, having racked up ten victories on the road to South Africa. Another European contender hoping to keep up the momentum is the Netherlands. Unbeaten on the qualification trail, the Elftal have hit top gear since Bert van Marwijk replaced Marco van Basten in the driving seat. The former Feyenoord coach has injected a greater dose of pragmatism into the squad, helping them turn performances into points.
"It’s also important to learn to win without playing well," says Oranje centre-back Andre Ooijer. Meanwhile Denmark, the surprise winners of their qualifying group, seem to have taken a step back in their build-up matches, with the probable absence of Nicklas Bendtner unlikely to help the Danish Dynamite make an explosive start.
In the second Group E skirmish Cameroon will attempt to notch their first ever victory over a Japan side who have defeated them twice, including once in the FIFA Confederations Cup. Both of these nations have struggled to hit their stride in warm-up games against fellow FIFA World Cup qualifiers. While Japan came away empty-handed against Korea Republic, England and Côte d'Ivoire, the Indomitable Lions were held to a draw by Slovakia before shipping three goals in successive games against Portugal and Serbia.
The Netherlands-Denmark, Group E, Johannesburg (Soccer City), 13.30
Japan-Cameroon, Group E, Mangaung/Bloemfontein, 16.00
Italy-Paraguay, Group F, Cape Town, 20.30
The big game
The defending champions start the tournament as underdogs after a lacklustre run-in to the finals. Nevertheless, with nine veterans from Germany 2006 and a clutch of talented young pretenders to bolster their ranks, La Nazionale look as solid as ever with a backbone consisting of FIFA World Cup winners Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Andrea Pirlo and Alberto Gilardino. The team's laboured build-up is unlikely to trouble Marcello Lippi, who knows that the Azzurri tend to find their feet as the competition progresses.
The Tuscan-born tactician will nevertheless be wary of Paraguay, who are contesting their fourth consecutive finals with a squad which has come of age. Albirroja coach for the last three seasons, 47-year-old Argentinian Gerardo Martino has instilled some Italian-style consistency into his team, which relies on a watertight defence and lightning counter-attacks. It is no coincidence that the Paraguayans dominated in beating both Brazil and Argentina on their way to the finals.
Feyenoord v Ajax
During Denmark’s encounter against the Netherlands, Danish forwards Jon Dahl Tomasson and Dennis Rommedahl will be reunited with their respective team-mates at Feyenoord and Ajax, Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Gregory van der Wiel. The two Dutch wing-backs form part of an obdurate rearguard which conceded just two goals in eight matches during qualification. The tussle between Tomasson and Van Bronckhorst, two wily old foxes who have respectively notched up 107 and 97 caps, looks set to be particularly interesting.
What they said
"If you want to survive in football, the best strategy is to attack. Our coach is always drumming it into us, he wants to see us play offensive football," Keisuke Honda, Japan playmaker
In the nick of time. Born in Argentina to a Paraguayan mother, 25-year-old Borussia Dortmund forward Lucas Barrios obtained Guaraní nationality just three months ago. The third-highest scorer in last season's Bundesliga, his inclusion in the squad is a blessing for Martino, who has been without star striker Salvador Cabanas since January. The rest of the team have dedicated their finals campaign to Cabanas, Paraguay's leading scorer in qualification, who is still recuperating from a gunshot wound.
Lion kings. Roger Milla, Cameroon’s all-time leading marksman at the FIFA World Cup with five strikes in ten matches, is also the oldest goalscorer in a FIFA World Cup, having netted against Russia at USA 1994 at the ripe old age of 42 years and 39 days. Both of these records could yet be challenged by Samuel Eto'o, who became the youngest player to represent Cameroon at a FIFA World Cup when he debuted at France 1998 aged 17 years and three months.