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Old June 13, 2010, 11:45 PM
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al-Sagar al-Sagar is offline
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Default Italy vs Paraguay Preview

Champions kick-off defence against Paraguay

The 2006 World Cup winners open their title defence against the team predicted to cause them the most problems in Group F. Italy have Marcello Lippi back at the helm and, after an unbeaten qualification campaign, the Azzurri should certainly be considered among the contenders in South Africa, though the phrase "successive wins" is not one that has been uttered too often in relation to their chances. Inter Milan's Champions League success may have boosted Italy's UEFA co-efficient but with substitute Marco Materazzi - who was not even selected in Lippi's final 23 - the only Italian player involved in the final, little can be really taken from the Italian side's continental success.

Materazzi is one of several players who played in the 2006 final to have been cut by Lippi this time around, while Andrea Pirlo, Italy's best player in the 2006 final, will miss the start of the tournament with a calf injury, meaning the Azzurri will be increasingly reliant on Daniele De Rossi to pull the strings from midfield. Italy always seem to be a side boasting experience and, with an average squad age of 28.75, they are the fifth oldest in South Africa.

Paraguay will be aiming to emulate the success of the likes of Cameroon and Senegal in producing a shock win over the reigning champions in their opening game. Gerardo Martino's side enjoyed an impressive qualification campaign, beating fellow South American qualifiers Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay along the way - and they have also looked good in the build-up to the World Cup, with a 2-1 loss against Republic of Irleland the only blot on their copybook among wins against North Korea and Greece and a draw with Ivory Coast.

Top scorer in qualifying, Salvador Cabanas, was shockingly shot in the head earlier this year and Paraguay's players were hit hard, though the incident has certainly served to improve the togetherness of the side, and will be a source of inspiration for La Albirroja heading into the finals. Having exited at the group stage in 2006 Paraguay advanced to the second round, and will need the likes of Roque Santa Cruz and industrious right midfielder Carlos Bonet to be on top form against Italy if they are to get off to a good start and replicate previous progressions.

Italy player in focus: Daniele De Rossi: Dynamism personified, De Rossi will be the Azzurri's key man in Pirlo's absence, and with Gennaro Gattuso an option to play behind him, the Roma midfielder should have plenty of room to roam and influence the game. He comes into the tournament on the back of a fantastic season with his club side, and it seems the bigger the occasion, the better he plays. Four years on from his disgraceful sending off against USA at the 2006 finals, De Rossi has matured into a real leader and he will be determined to show the numerous positive aspects of his game this time around. There is a doubt over his fitness for Monday but, given his importance, he seems likely to make the starting XI.

Paraguay player in focus: Lucas Barrios.
One of the in-form players heading into the finals, Barrios has the potential to make a big impact in South Africa and, wherever he goes, goals are almost certain to follow. Born in Argentina, he decided to represent Paraguay just before the World Cup and promptly accepted a call-up to the side. Three goals in his first three games have seen him explode onto the international scene. A predator with exceptional finishing prowess, Italy should be wary of his presence.

Key battle: Paulo Da Silva v Fabio Quagliarella: Da Silva helped keep out the intimidating attacking talents of Brazil and Argentina during qualifying, but after a frustrating season at Sunderland in which he started just 12 games, his lack of game time could prove costly at the World Cup. Waiting to pounce on any mistakes could be Napoli striker Fabio Quagliarella, whose goal against Switzerland in the final warm-up game should have done enough to convince Lippi that he is worth a place in the starting line-up.

Trivia: Paraguay goalkeeper Justo Villar's eighth-minute substitution against England in 2006 was the quickest substitution of a shot-stopper in World Cup history.

Stats: In 2006, Italy's 12 goals were scored by ten different players - a record jointly held with France (1982).

Odds: Italy (2.10), the draw (3.10), Paraguay (4.00) with Bet365. A 1-0 win for Italy looks promising at 5.50.

Prediction: As long as the Azzurri's notoriously tight defence remains that way to stifle the threat of Barrios and Santa Cruz, they will have every chance of succeeding where Argentina and France failed before them - by winning their opening match as defending champions.
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