World Cup Handicapping: Group F Predictions
by Trevor Whenham - 3/11/2010
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Italy and Spain are the top two teams on continental Europe. Conspiracy theorists won't be able to help noticing that those two teams have the easiest draws in the whole tournament. You can argue whether Italy's grouping is this group is easier than Spain's in Group H, but the fact remains that both should be able to move on without a whole lot of stress.
Italy faces Paraguay, Slovakia, and New Zealand. If they lose one of those games it will cause a national crisis, and quite possibly yet another governmental collapse. Luckily, it shouldn't be too much of an issue for them. If any team deserves a soft start to the tournament then I guess it's the defending champs, though.
If you believe that experience matters then that's yet anther reason to believe in the Italians. They have qualified for 16 World Cups - all but two - and have won four of them. The other three teams in the group share 16 combined berths. Here's a preview and some World Cup predictions for Group F (all odds are from Bodog):
The oddsmakers obviously share my optimism for the Italians chances of winning the group - they have been installed as very heavy 1/2 favorites. Italy's fans and coaching staff could easily be called neurotic, so they can always find something to complain about no matter how good things are going. In this case, the concern is that the group is too easy, and that it might cause the team to be lethargic once the games start to really matter.
It could be a concern - the team faced a much tougher grouping when they won it all last time - but it seems more like a case of seeing ghosts where there aren't any. The Italians will be following the same approach that has worked so well for them through the years - defense, defense, and more defense.
Their backfield is stellar, and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon is the best in the world. That didn't work well for them all the time last year - like when they lost 3-0 to Brazil during a disastrous Confederations Cup. For the most part, though, they were able to set the tempo of the game and do what they needed to do. I'm not at all convinced that this team is built to defend their title - they are too old, for one thing - but I will be as surprised as the rest of the world if they don't win this group easily. Once they make the playoffs rounds anything can happen. We've learned more than once that this team just gets better the deeper they go.
Paraguay, at 11/4, is the biggest challenge to Italy according to the odds. Their game against Italy will not be the most exciting one in the tournament - both teams focus on defense first, and neither scores a lot of goals. Paraguay isn't as strong as they seem in my eyes.
They get credit for qualifying ahead of Argentina in South America. The problem, though, is that they started very strong but faded as the campaign progressed. In 2009 they played a total of 12 games between qualifying and friendlies. They only won four while losing six.
This isn't a team in good form, and I'm not sure they have the talent to dig themselves out of the funk they are in. They have some talent, like 2007 South American Player of the Year Salvador Cabanas, but they just don't have enough depth. This is their eighth World Cup, so they know what to expect, and they have advanced three times including two straight in 1998 and 2002, but I don't like their chances of doing it again. My problem is that I'm not sure I like either of the other teams any better.
Paraguay's odds to win the group have absolutely no value, and neither does the 13/2 price on Slovakia. This is their first time in the tournament since being a part of Czechoslovakia. The best way to describe this team is that they try really hard, and that's not as dismissive as it sounds.
Unlike a lot of squads you never have to question what kind of effort you are going to get from this team. The problem is that they don't have the talent or depth to overwhelm any serious team even when they are at full effort. Despite a lack of star power they still managed to win their qualifying group, so they can't be counted out.
Stanislav Sestak is a decent striker, and he'll be relied upon to give the team a good boost. They likely won't be much of a challenge for Italy, but I like their chances of advancing as the group's second team - and then getting crushed by a group winner in the second round.
I'll write more than one sentence about New Zealand and their chances, but I don't need to - they are 66/1 to win the group. They won just two of their 10 games in 2009, and are only in the field because Oceania is very easy to get out of since Australia switched over to the AFC. 1982 was the only other World Cup they were qualified for, and it didn't go well for them - they lost all three games by a combined score of 12-2. I could go on, but nothing is going to convince you that this team has the ability to win a group game, never mind win their group.
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