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Holders may feel underdogs' bite

At first glance, world champions Italy look to be clear favourites to take top spot in Group F, though the race for second place promises to be wide open with Paraguay and Slovakia the probable contenders. Paraguay have the benefit of previous experience at football’s top table while the Slovakians were impressive in qualifying. As for New Zealand, Ricki Herbert's men have nothing to lose and will be doing their very best to upset the apple cart.

The favourites
Italy: The reigning champions and four-time FIFA World Cup™ winners are heading into their 17th finals campaign. Although their squad has changed since their 2006 triumph in Berlin, I Nazionale still depend on stalwarts such as keeper Gianluigi Buffon and veteran centre-back Fabio Cannavaro, as well as Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso in midfield and Alberto Gilardino in attack. The Italians will be hoping that they can live up to their billing in South Africa and win consecutive world crowns for the second time in their history.

Paraguay: The Albirroja put in their best-ever qualifying performance to secure a fourth consecutive finals berth, collecting ten wins, three draws and five defeats on the road to South Africa. Paraguay, who are currently 30th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankings, failed to survive the group stage in 2006, finishing third in behind England and Sweden. The mainstays of Gerardo Martino's side are forwards Salvador Cabanas, Nelson Valdez and Roque Santa Cruz and goalkeeper Justo Villar. They have already crossed paths with Italy once before at the FIFA World Cup finals, slipping to a 2-0 first-round defeat back in 1950.

The outsiders
Slovakia: Currently ranked 34th in the world, Slovakia finished as surprise winners of a tricky European qualifying group containing Slovenia, Czech Republic, Poland and Northern Ireland. Although they are competing in their first finals as an independent nation, they contested eight previous finals campaigns under the banner of the former Czechoslovakia, runners-up in 1934 and 1962. Vladimir Weiss, who has been at the helm since June 2008, has fashioned a tight unit and relies on seasoned stars such as attacking midfielder Marek Mintal and centre-forward Robert Vittek. The vast majority of the squad ply their trade on foreign soil, particularly in the Bundesliga.

New Zealand: The All Whites may have breezed through the Oceania qualifying competition but they will be regarded as the minnows of this tournament. To book their first finals appearance since 1982, they showed commendable mettle in a two-legged play-off against Bahrain, drawing 0-0 away and edging the return 1-0. A disciplined unit with a direct, physical game, New Zealand can go the distance against any side, as Italy found out when scraping a 4-3 friendly victory over the Kiwis earlier this year.

The players to watch
Gianluigi Buffon (ITA), Fabio Cannavaro (ITA), Gennaro Gattuso (ITA), Andrea Pirlo (ITA), Robert Vitteck (SVK), Justo Villar (PAR), Salvador Cabanas (PAR), Ryan Nelsen (NZL)

The crunch match
Italy-Paraguay: The two group favourites will be staking an early claim for top spot when they go head-to-head in their opening match. Nevertheless, Slovakia will have the chance to put pressure on the losers if they can hit the ground running against New Zealand.

A look back
Italy-Czechoslovakia, 10 June 1934: In Rome, Italy captured their first FIFA World Cup by battling to a 2-1 extra-time victory over a tenacious Czechoslovakia team. Although the eastern Europeans had opened the scoring late on through prolific winger Antonin Puc, two Azzurri stars of that era, Raimundo Orsi and Angelo Schiavio, struck back to seal victory for I Nazionale.

Did you know?
Affiliated to FIFA since 1994, Slovakia played their first official match on 20 April 1994, winning 4-1 against Croatia. The first Slovak Republic (1939-45) also achieved victory in their debut match, beating Germany 2-0 on 27 August 1939.

The stat
44 – Italy have won 44 matches at the FIFA World Cup finals, recording 19 draws and just 14 defeats in addition. They have scored 122 goals and conceded 69.

The question
Do Paraguay and Slovakia have what it takes to trouble Italy? And can New Zealand claim a first FIFA World Cup point?

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