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Old June 14, 2010, 10:01 PM
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al-Sagar al-Sagar is offline
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Minnows out to make waves

New Zealand head into their second World Cup campaign as massive underdogs. Competing in their first tournament since 1982, the All Whites are available at 2,000-1 to lift the trophy in South Africa, the longest odds of any of the 32 nations.

Although their appearance at the finals may seem an impressive achievement, when you consider they navigated a qualifying zone containing minnows such as New Caledonia, Vainatu and Fiji, it looks a far less creditable accomplishment. Despite the gulf in class that will exist between them and the majority of teams at the finals, New Zealand will believe Tuesday's opener against Slovakia represents their best chance of picking up three points. Ricki Herbert's squad have demonstrated an ability to cope with the big occasion when they defeated Bahrain in a nail-biting World Cup play off, so confidence could be high among the players that they can gain a positive result.

Slovakia will be competing in their first finals as an independent nation after topping a qualifying group that included respected campaigners Poland and arch-rivals Czech Republic. Their squad has a good blend of youth and experience, with defenders such as Martin Skrtel and Marek Cech offering a solid foundation for attacking talents such as Vladimir Weiss and Miroslav Stoch, while, in Marek Hamsik, they may have a star in the making.

New Zealand player in focus: Shane Smeltz.
Playing against superior opposition, goal-scoring chances will be at a premium for New Zealand. It is essential, therefore, that chances are taken when they arrive. Shane Smeltz is likely to be the man those chances will fall to and, if he fails to take them, the All Whites' stay in South Africa will be short. Smeltz does have goalscoring pedigree, having been the leading scorer in Australia's A-League for the last two seasons. If he can take his club form into the World Cup, Ricki Herbert's side might just spring a surprise.

Slovakia player in focus: Marek Hamsik.
The 22-year-old, who is rumoured to be attracting the attention of Europe's top clubs, will have the perfect platform on which to display his talent in South Africa. With New Zealand likely to adopt a defensive approach to the game, the onus will be on Slovakia to break down their defence. In his role as chief creator in the Slovakia side, Hamsik has the potential to put New Zealand to the sword on Tuesday. Ably assisted by wide men Stoch and Weiss, Hamsik could well be the star of the show in Rustenburg.

Key battle: Ryan Nelsen v Stanislav Sestak.
Vfl Bochum forward Sestak scored an impressive 28 Bundesliga goals last season, and he will be keen to mark his first World Cup appearance with at least one goal. Ryan Nelsen's Premier League experience is going to be central to New Zealand's hopes of avoiding humiliation in the tournament and, if he can get the better of Sestak, his team might be able to sneak a point, or possibly more.

Trivia: Nine of the players in the Czechoslovakia team that defeated West Germany in the 1976 European Championship final were Slovakian.

Stats: Slovakia's highest-ranked opponents during qualification were Slovenia, who are ranked 25th in the world. Before facing Bahrain, who are ranked 69th, New Zealand's highest-ranked opponents were Fiji, ranked 132th in the world.

Odds: New Zealand (9.00), the draw (4.33), Slovakia (1.40) with Bet365. Nerves may get the better of Slovakia in their first World Cup match, so 1-0 New Zealand at 19.00 could be good value.

Prediction: New Zealand will battle bravely but Slovakia should have too much quality for the Kiwis. With Hamsik and Sestak in their team, 2-0 to Slovakia seems a likely outcome.
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