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World Cup Preview - Group F

Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia make up Group F, and the current World Champions will be looking to progress comfortably from the Group.

Coach Marcello Lippi will, however, be slightly worried by the way the warm-ups have gone - Italy lost to Mexico and scraped a draw with Switzerland, two teams they would expect to beat when the tournament gets underway proper.

A problem for Lippi is that the spine of his team are coming to the end of their careers. This will be their last World Cup - Buffon, Captain Cannavaro, Gattuso, Pirlo, Camoranesi and Laquinta are all well into their thirties, and while every team needs the odd experienced head, Italy are heavily reliant on aging legs.

Their one other star player, Roma's Daniele De Rossi, will need to have a terrific tournament if he is to stamp his influence o it the way he's done for his club this year, and Italy's progression will depend much on his performance. He's been much vaunted for a move to the Premier League after the World Cup, and he'll know that a good tournament will improve his chances. Perhaps one to watch too will be Udinese's Simone Pepe. The wide man has had an impressive Serie A campaign, and this World Cup could be the making of a player who is just starting to fulfil his promise.

Europe's other representatives in this Group are Slovakia. This will be their first World Cup, and they will be pleased with their draw. They have New Zealand first up, and a win will instantly put pressure on the other teams in the Group. A major problem for them, though, could be the fitness of Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel, who injured his ankle in their 3-0 victory over Costa Rica. It's looking like he will be fit, but injuries picked up in these warm up games will always be a concern, especially for a nation that will need their best players available on the pitch.

Slovakia will take heart from such a positive result against Costa Rica, a side who could so nearly have been lining up alongside them in South Africa. It will send warnings to the others, especially Paraguay, that they are coming to form just at the right time. They have a settled squad, which is probably no surprise for such a small and young nation, and in Lille striker Robert Vittek, have an experienced European campaigner leading their line. Watch out for Marek Hamsik too, the 22 year old Napoli midfielder who already has 32 caps, 8 goals and a big future in the game.

Slovakia will see Paraguay as their main obstacle to progression. They comfortably came through the South American  qualifying group, level with Chile and a point behind Brazil. They possess a fearsome foursome of strikers in Benfica's Oscar Cardozo, Manchester City's Roque Santa Cruz and Borussia Dortmund duo Nelson Valdez and Luca Barrios, so they definitely have firepower.

Sunderland fans will be interested to see how their duo of Paolo da Silva and Cristian Riveros get on. Paraguay has a balanced looking squad, and go into the tournament in reasonable form - their only warm up defeat being at the hands of an angry and disappointed Republic of Ireland side. A more relevant result perhaps will have been the 2-0 victory over Greece, a side who will have similar aspirations to come second in their Group.

Finally in this Group, New Zealand. And they will be looking to do more than make up the numbers. Their huge friendly win against Serbia has got the All White's fans drooling. They are the lowest ranked team in the Finals, and will be looking to register their first World Cup point during their stay in South Africa. They will be relying heavily on Shane Smeltz, this year's A league's top goal scorer, and Middlesbrough's Chris Killen, for the goals, and will be ably led by skipper Ryan Nielson. It will be a major surprise if they do manage a victory, though, although nicking a point may not be beyond them.

The Serbia victory has been the exception to the rule in their warm up games, but Australia only managed to beat them recently with virtually the last kick of the match. Their 3-1 loss to Slovenia', however,  is a more relevant pointer to their form, and one that Slovakia especially will have taken note of.

New Zealand may get that elusive point, and for them that represent a successful campaign, but Paraguay and Slovakia will be fighting it out for second place behind Italy, who won't be handing over their title easily'.

Robert Critchley works in the City in OTC Derivatives. He is an avid Manchester United fan, and commentates at QPR for the Soccer Sight Project.

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