Sunday June 6th, 2010

Projected order of finish:

1. Italy -- The defending world champion -- which still seems a slightly odd thing to write about a team that impinged so little upon the consciousness -- was dreadful at the Confederations Cup last summer, and had Italy been drawn in a tougher group this time round, there would have been genuine potential for embarrassment. Still, the fact its old men won against expectation four years ago is not a sound reason for optimism with the same older men this time round.

The 4-3-3 of a year ago has been replaced by a 4-3-1-2, although whether the languid skills of Andrea Pirlo are really best exploited behind a front two rather than in front of the back four, remains open to debate. It's an issue compounded by the fact that Pirlo's status for the tournament questionable due to a calf injury sustained in the recent friendly against Mexico. However, Italy is still a squad packed with good players; it's just that most of them passed their peak four years ago. Still, Italy did enough to qualify unbeaten, and the spirit in the camp is clearly good; the sense, as always with Italy, is that the Azzurri will continue to do just enough, although realistically the quarterfinals are probably the limit of their ambitions.

2. Paraguay -- Paraguay also looks a side past its best, although in its case probably only by about 18 months. It started qualifying impressively, winning away to Chile and at home to Brazil, but stuttered to the finish line. Paraguay over the past two tournaments developed a reputation for defensive toughness. The two players at the heart of that, Carlos Gamarra and Celso Ayala, have now retired, but it still had the second-best defensive record in South American qualifying. Even after the shooting of Salvador Cabanas in a Mexico City bar, the front line, built around Nelson Haedo Valdez and Oscar Cardozo, is more exciting than in previous tournaments, but it perhaps lacks a really creative midfielder.

3. Slovakia -- Having provided the majority of the Czechoslovakia side that won the European Championship in 1976, Slovakia has struggled to make much impression since the split with the Czech Republic. Under Vladimir Weiss, though, it has put together a sustained run, based around neat, intricate attacking football. Its midfield is its strength (and conversely perhaps also its weakness) being capable of rapid passing moves, but perhaps lacking a defensive resolve.

4. New Zealand -- New Zealand may sit above North Koea in the Fifa rankings, but it looks the weakest side at the World Cup. Ryan Nelsen of Blackburn Rovers is a center-back of proven quality, but Nelsen aside this is a deeply ordinary team. Organization and effort are the key virtues -- and were enough to get New Zealand through a two-leg play-off against Bahrain by a 1-0 margin - but any point would be gleefully welcomed.

1. Gianlugi Buffon, Italy -- If you were to pick a 23-man squad from all the competing nations, there would only be one Italian in it, and that would be Buffon. At 32, he is as good as ever, even in an underperforming Juventus side. Great goalkeepers often don't shine at World Cups because they have too little to do, but that seems unlikely to be the case with Italy this time round, and if Marcello Lippi's side do make it through to the latter stages, it's had to imagine it will have done so without Buffon winning it a penalty shootout.

2. Marek Hamsik, Slovakia -- The Napoli midfielder is the archetype in a midfield of technically-gifted players who may prove a little lightweight. That said, he is Kaka-lightweight, which is to say, weirdly bigger than he appears at first sight. In Slovakia's 4-2-3-1, there is an onus on Hamsik not only to create but also to get forward and score goals, something he achieves at a rate of roughly one every three-and-a-half games for both club and country.

3. Oscar Cardozo, Paraguay -- With Cabanas ruled out, and Roque Santa Cruz struggling after a lack of playing time at Manchester City, much of the attacking responsibility will fall on the Benfica forward who is nicknamed the "Bamboo Tree" because of his height. At 6-foot-4, he offers a muscular option and the capacity to hold the ball up as well as a ferocious left-foot shot. He had a fine season at club level, lifting the league title with Benfica, for whom he averages roughly a goal every game and a half. He is far less prolific at national level, but seemingly is happy to play the provider to Nelson Valdez.

4. Ryan Nelsen, New Zealand -- Skim down the list of clubs for whom New Zealand's team play, and there is only one in the top flight of what might be termed a major league: the Blackburn Rovers center-back Nelsen. He is the focus not merely of its defending -- and you suspect he will have to do an awful lot -- but also a moral leader. New Zealand's captain moved to the U.S. in 1997 to play for Greensboro College, and also represented Stanford University before joining D.C. United, where he spent four years before his free transfer to Blackburn Rovers in 2005.

Slovakia is a technical and progressive side, and the issue is whether it can impose its style over the stodgier approaches of Paraguay and Italy (assuming all three teams will beat New Zealand). Slovakia faces New Zealand first, so it should gets points on the board while one of its rivals drops points, and the danger for Paraguay is that it could effectively be out by the time it meets New Zealand.

But its opening game against Italy, in Cape Town on June 14, could be fascinating, particularly given Italy's history of starting tournaments slowly. The issue there will be whether Paraguay's midfield, and especially Cristian Riveros, can negate Pirlo (if he plays), and if they can, whether Paraguay has enough creativity to be able to break Italy down. Italy at least has the knowledge that if things go wrong it can bounce back against New Zealand in its second game, but this is a group in which finishing first is likely to be key because nobody will want to face the Netherlands in the second round.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.