Italy and the Netherlands will attract much of the attention on the penultimate day of group-stage action, with the reigning champions hoping to find their stride at last and the highly fancied Oranje aiming to keep their 100 per cent run going.
Bert van Marwijk's charges are already assured a place in the last 16 from Group E so the pressure will be off when they take on eliminated Cameroon, a situation that ought to allow his players to express themselves. Elsewhere in the section, Japan face Denmark in what is likely to be a tussle for second spot, and with goal difference on their side, the Japanese know a draw would be enough to take them through.
Things are more complicated in Group F, where Paraguay, Italy and Slovakia can all still finish top. While Los Guaraníes will seize pole position if they overcome New Zealand, Italy are certain of second place at least if they also take maximum points. The runners-up spot may nonetheless come down to goal difference, and, strange as it sounds, that could end with New Zealand sending the holders home.
Paraguay-New Zealand, Group F, Polokwane, 16.00
Slovakia-Italy, Group F, Johannesburg (Ellis Park), 16.00
Cameroon-Netherlands, Group E, Cape Town, 20.30
Denmark-Japan, Group E, Rustenburg, 20.30
The big game
Italy have often played with fire in the past and not least at Spain 1982, when they squeezed through their section with three draws before going on to lift the Trophy thanks to Paolo Rossi's sudden scoring streak. Their 2010 counterparts may appreciate that omen after kicking off with a pair of draws, but that is where the comparisons end. Marcello Lippi's side lack the defensive authority of years gone by, with captain Fabio Cannavaro looking vulnerable, while the absence of Andrea Pirlo in midfield means they have struggled to get the ball forward at sufficient speed to feed their strikers. Opponents Slovakia have also failed to impress after their promising qualifying campaign, and it may not take much to get La Nazionale winning again, but their stuttering form has already proved costly. Indeed, even if they win on Thursday, Italy could well have to settle for second spot and a probable Round of 16 date with the Netherlands.
Nicklas Bendtner (DEN) v Marcus Tulio Tanaka (JPN)
Not fully fit when he arrived in South Africa, Arsenal striker Bendtner has gone from strength to strength ever since. On target against Cameroon last time out, he is now steeling himself for a run-in with Japan's powerful defender Tanaka. The latter is renowned for his aerial strength but even he may have his work cut out against the 1.94m marksman. The duo will be battling to help send their teams through to the last 16, although it is Bendtner's Denmark who are the more familiar presence in the knockout phase, having progressed in all three of their previous FIFA World Cups™ compared with Japan's sole last-16 appearance in 2002.
What they said
"We've got six points without having played well. We can and must produce better football, but the most important thing was to qualify for the last 16 as smoothly as possible," Rafael van der Vaart, Netherlands playmaker.
Bad boy: Oranje stalwart Mark van Bommel is above all a winner. The uncompromising holding midfielder fell out with previous coach Marco van Basten, but since his father-in-law, Bert van Marwijk, took over he has enjoyed a return to the starting line-up. "Yes, I do the dirty work, but so what?" he said when pressed on his physical approach. "A football team can't be made up of 11 dancers. Yes, I play to the limit and I try not to stray over it."
From Zanzibar to Nelspruit: Due to take over from Italy coach Marcello Lippi at the end of South Africa 2010, Cesare Prandelli watched La Nazionale’s 1-1 draw with New Zealand while in Zanzibar, Tanzania. The former Fiorentina tactician travelled to the archipelago with his daughter to open a school named after his wife, Manuela, who died three years ago.
Heads up: Japan demonstrated the strides they have made by clinching their first ever FIFA World Cup success on foreign soil when they defeated Cameroon 1-0. It was even more impressive given that Takeshi Okada's troops are at a constant disadvantage when it comes to aerial duels, boasting only eight players taller than 1.80m. They were similarly handicapped four years ago and won just 34 per cent of balls in the air at Germany 2006, the lowest total of all 32 teams in contention.