Reigning champions Italy take the first step towards defending their FIFA World Cup™ crown on Monday with lingering concerns about their form and a tough opponent in Paraguay.

Marcello Lippi's ageing team kick-off a Group F they should top, with Slovakia and minnows New Zealand their other hurdles. But their preparations have been far from ideal with a defeat to Mexico and a draw with the Swiss, which has seen them come under pressure from the Italian media, who expect better.

The ice-cool Lippi, who delivered a fourth world championship to the country in 2006, is unconcerned about their form, or worries that the squad is too old. "We've got old players but age doesn't mean broken down, it means experience, charisma," he said.

"We're used to matches at a high level, we have the right mix with our young players. Italy has never been amongst the favourites, I don't remember a World Cup where we've been favourites."

There are two ways of looking at Italy. The first is that which Lippi is focussing on - that they are the holders, have bags of experience throughout the team and a history and a culture of winning.

We've got old players but age doesn't mean broken down, it means experience, charisma.

Italy coach Marcello Lippi

The other, though, is that they are in crisis with no stars, a squad made up mostly of players unknown outside Italy and a team that is usually less than convincing on the pitch. Of that group from 2006, few remain but amongst them are players certain to be starting on Monday, such as Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, and Daniele De Rossi.

But playmaker Andrea Pirlo is injured and expected to miss the opening two matches, meaning Fiorentina midfielder Riccardo Montolivo could get his chance. Veteran full-back Gianluca Zambrotta insists that barbs only help bind the team together.

"We're used to the criticism, there are 1,000 critics but we've always performed under criticism, it's not a problem," said the AC Milan star. "It brings us closer together and builds our spirit. It was the same in 2006, we were unfancied and people didn't even think we'd make the quarter-finals."

Italy can't escape the fact though that they face a tough outing against Paraguay, who are in great shape having beaten Brazil and Argentina in qualifying. They can no longer be considered minnows having reached their fourth straight finals, with much of the credit given to Argentinian coach Gerardo Martino who has managed to negotiate a delicate transition phase for his team.

He has taken a new generation of players under his wing, notably Nelson Haedo Valdez of Borussia Dortmund, Roque Santa Cruz of Manchester City and Oscar Cardozo of Benfica in attack. Their tight and effective defensive unit is marshalled by goalkeeper Justo Villar, who plays with Valladolid in Spain.

Martino is confident his front line can deliver the goals to beat Italy. "Now there is so much variety in the attack of Paraguay, who have never had this amount," he told reporters.

"In the past it has been attacking, but not like now - alongside Haedo (Valdez) and Santa Cruz there is Oscar Cardozo and Lucas Barrios. This is a team that is more complete than Paraguay teams of the past. Hopefully we can make it the best World Cup for Paraguay."