Four-time world champions Italy will be happy to shoulder the burden of being favourites to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ from Group B of the European zone. Section opponents Denmark, Czech Republic and Bulgaria have all appeared in the world finals at least once before, while minnows Armenia and Malta will most likely have to settle for a supporting role.

The favourites
Italy: Italy’s defence of the world title they won at Germany 2006 proved to be a painful one, La Nazionale bowing out in the first round at South Africa 2010. That unexpected setback triggered the appointment of Cesare Prandelli, who has set about restoring their fortunes by making wholesale changes to the squad, drafting in a breed of young players hungry for success. The revamp appears to have paid off. “We are Italy and while I have every respect for the other teams in the group, our objective is obviously to take first place,” said a confident Prandelli.

The outsiders
Denmark: The Danes remain a solid unit with a core of players performing in Europe’s major championships, although coach Morten Olsen’s biggest problem is a lack of strength in depth. Now that the era of Pavel Nedved, Karel Poborsky and Co is but a fading memory, Czech Republic find themselves in a transitional phase, with an ambitious new generation striving to take them back to the finals for only the second time since USA 1994. Bulgaria coach Luboslav Penev has a much bigger task on his hands as he attempts to fashion a competitive unit in testing circumstances.

Players to watch
Gianluigi Buffon is the sole survivor of Italy’s old guard, while defender Andrea Ranocchia, midfielders Claudio Marchisio and Riccardo Montolivo, and strikers Giuseppe Rossi and Giampaolo Pazzini head the country’s new wave. The Danes will be banking on Ajax’s attacking midfielder Christian Eriksen and tall front man Nicklas Bendtner, with Petr Cech providing a solid pair of hands for the Czechs, who are hoping forwards Vaclav Kadlec and Tomas Necid can spearhead their revival. As for Bulgaria, Penev will build his team around Martin Petrov and Stilian Petrov in the continuing absence of Dimitar Berbatov, who has made himself unavailable for selection.

The crunch match
The encounters between Italy, Czech Republic and Denmark will provide the key to the group, while the trips of all three sides to Bulgaria will also have much riding on them. The Bulgarians may lack the resources to make a concerted push for qualification themselves, but they could well dash the hopes of their rivals.

A look back
Italy 2-1 Czechoslovakia, 10 June 1934, FIFA World Cup Italy Final 
The Final of the 1934 FIFA World Cup Italy was contested by the host nation and Czechoslovakia on 10 June 1934. La Squadra Azzurra won after extra time, with goals from Raimundo Orsi and Angelo Schiavio cancelling out Antonin Puc’s opener for the Czechs 19 minutes from the end of normal time.

The stat
3 - Italy have a favourable record against their three main group rivals: seven wins, one draw and three defeats against Denmark; eight wins, five draws and two defeats against Bulgaria; and nine wins, nine draws and eight defeats against Czech Republic, those statistics including matches against Czechoslovakia.

Did you know?
Italy are aiming to reach the FIFA World Cup for the 18th time. Brazil are the only side to have appeared in all 19 finals competitions held to date, a run they will extend to 20 when they play hosts in 2014.

Have your say?
Do Denmark and Czech Republic have the firepower to upset the Italians?