Group F brings us the defending champions in Italy, along with Paraguay, Slovakia, and the mighty New Zealand. I don't mean to mock the islanders as believe it or not, this is actually their second appearance in the World Cup. But all eyes well be on the holders, and I can assure you those eyes will be very, very sore by the time these games conclude.
Italy are so boring to watch. They are old, they are slow, and they defend first. There is no team I dislike more than the Italians, and their fans don't exactly set the bar for class acts. Don't tell me that Inter also defended first and they won the Champions League bla bla bla. They did defend, but they also had Wesley Sneijder and Cambiasso in the middle to send Eto'o and Diego Milito into space. Dynamic players to say the least. Trust me, nobody on this Italian squad is going anywhere close to space. There is no flare in the midfield with the aging Andrea Pirlo who will hopefully not take the starting role away from Daniele De Rossi. The absence of Jersey boy Guiseppe Rossi up top means route 1 football with the likes of Gilardino, Iaquinta, and Di Natale. I can go on and on but it would be unfair if I didn't mention that this formula works for them. An average age of almost 29 on this team means extensive experience and plenty of World Cup champions from the last tournament. They may do it ugly but they win and progress. Don't expect to see goal-fests in any game involving the Azzurri.
I hope to find more goals from Paraguay, a mainstay in this tournament since 1998. They qualified impressively out of CONMEBOL and bring a well balanced attack. Roque "ultimate man crush" Santa Cruz has been called up as striker to add some power up front. With the tragic shooting of their star striker Salvador Cabanas back in January, the team may bring heavy hearts with them to South Africa. But expect the opposite as Cabanas is recovering well and his countrymen will play spirited football in his absence.
Paraguay's main foe will be Slovakia - who topped their group in European qualifying. They too are submitting their v-cards as they embark on their first World Cup as an independent country since the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993. There are some injury concerns as Vladimir Weiss has called up 3 players still looking for full fitness. Martin Skrtel, the talented Liverpool center back, broke a metatarsal in his foot back in February. Two strikers in Filip Holosko and Robert Vittek are also recovering from a broken leg and knee injury respectively. All three have played sporadically for their clubs this season, but are hoping to be ready to play in a week's time. Their gem is in the midfield. Marek Hamsik of Napoli is an up and coming 22 year old wonder boy and will navigate the pace of his team throughout the tournament.
And last but certainly not least, New Zealand. They beat Fiji, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, and Bahrain to get here... But this column could care less about New Zealand football. It will however thank the All Whites for birthing Peter Jackson on October 31, 1961. Without him, the greatest trilogy in literary history would never have made it to the big screen, with the 2 part Hobbit on it's way (yes that's right. I love Lord of the Rings. And so did Led Zeppelin so keep your comments to yourself).
HOW IT WILL PAN OUT: Back in 2006, Italy gave up 1 goal (an own goal) during the group stages. They allowed no goals throughout the knockout rounds and only 1 goal in the final against France, which they won on PKs. See a trend? They'll suffocate the other teams in this group. Slovakia fought hard to top their group in qualifying but injury concerns and their lack of depth will ultimately be their undoing. Paraguay to take second.
GAME OF THE GROUP: Anything that does not include Italy or New Zealand. That leaves June 20th when Slovakia and Paraguay clash.