A little late with the breakdown today, which I apologize for. I was busy sitting in a minor league baseball dugout waiting for a recently demoted pitcher to finish a bullpen session. Sounds fun, I know.
But back to the really good stuff, that being the World Cup, and we’re mere days away. Here’s what you’ve missed so far, or perhaps already read if you’re lucky:
Captain: D Fabio Cannovaro. Competing in his fourth World Cup, Cannovaro is the the lion of Italy’s defense. However, this will be his final major tournament for the Azzurri having made 133 caps for the 2006 World Cup champions. The 36-year old central defender’s best days are clearly behind him, as he’s slowed with age. Having played for some of the world’s largest clubs (Inter Milan, Juventus and Real Madrid), Cannovaro will head to the United Arab Emirates after the World Cup to suit up for Al-Ahli Dubai. So this could be the last anyone sees of good old Fabio.
Where The Goals Will Come From: F Alberto Gilardino. Marcello Lippi left Luca Toni, and Francesco Totti at home, meaning the scoring burden will most likely fall to Gilardino. The Fiorentina striker fits the mold of the usual Italian striker (Christian Vieri and Filippo Inzaghi) in that he’s good in the air, knows how to finish, but won’t beat you for pace. Gilardino scored 18 times in all competitions for Fiorentina and led Italy with six goals during qualification. The 27-year old can be a bit temperamental at times, but so can most goal scorers. Napoli striker Fabio Quagilarella and Juventus frontman Vincenzo Iaquinta should feature prominently as well.
X-Factor: D Christian Maggio. Fresh off an outstanding season at Napoli, the 28-year old right wing back has seemingly moved his way into the Starting XI after Lippi chose not to bring the usually preferred right back, Fabio Grosso, to South Africa. The rest of Italy’s defense has been tournament tested with Cannavaro, Gianluca Zambrotta and Giorgio Chiellini. If Maggio can replicate his club form for country, the Italians should be in good shape. If the stage of the World Cup is too big for Maggio, however, then Lippi’s decision to omit the veteran Grosso might be a haunting one.
Young Stud: F Giampaolo Pazzini. The Italian side isn’t one usually renown for its youth, but this year’s Italy side has seven players 25-years old or younger. So it’s a new day for the reigning World Cup champions. Pazzini, a 25-year old forward, set a career-high with 21 goals in all competitions for Sampdoria this past season, and his 19 league goals were third best in Serie A. A suspected target of Juventus, Pazzini could be an interesting option for Lippi coming off the bench, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he bagged a timely goal or two.
Captain: MF Marek Hamsik. A budding star in Serie A, Hamsik oozes with offensive skills and the 22-year old has been turning heads the past three seasons with Napoli. The youngest captain at the 2010 World Cup, Hamsik notched 12 goals from midfield last term and is considered one of the best young talents in all of Europe. He’s definitely one to keep an eye on, and should be easy to spot with his over-gelled spiky hair.
Where The Goals Will Come From: MF Stanislav Sestak (pictured). Slovakia’s strikeforce of Robert Vittek and Filip Holosko aren’t scaring anyone. But the Slovaks can look elsewhere for goals, beginning with Sestak. The 27-year old Vfl Bochum right winger averages a goal every three games for the national team and led Slovakia with six goals in qualification. It was Sestak’s two strikes against the Czech Republic that sealed Slovakia’s ticket to South Africa, instantly making him a national hero. He usually plays off the strikers and makes mazing runs behind defenders.
X-Factor: D Martin Skrtel. The 25-year old Skrtel, came to Liverpool from Russian football with a reputation as a tackler extraordinaire and disruptive defender. And while he certainly looks the part, sometimes he’s prone to making mistakes. He made just 18 league appearances for Liverpool this season as he struggled with a foot injury. But the 6-foot-3 central defender is the key man in the back for Slovakia and will be counted on to put any fires in the box.
Young Stud: MF Miroslav Stoch. The Chelsea youth prospect, Stoch spent last season on loan at FC Twente and was a key component in leading Steve McLaren’s side to the Dutch title. The 20-year old winger scored 12 times for Twente and with games hard to come by at Chelsea is said to be eyeing a permanent move elsewhere. Like many players, Stoch could use the World Cup to increase the bidding war for his services. Slovakia also boasts 20-year old Manchester City winger Vladimir Weiss, who spent the past season on loan at Bolton. The son of the national team coach, Weiss will certainly feature prominently and with him manning one flank and Stoch the other, Slovakia could provide some tricky moments.
Captain: GK Justo Villar. Villar is looking for a little vindication in his third World Cup. He made the team as a backup to Paraguayan legend Jose Luis Chilavert in 2002 and was the starter heading into the 2006 World Cup. However, Villar suffered a shoulder injury seven minutes into the Cup opener versus England and missed the rest of the tournament. The 32-year old Real Valladolid keeper has 71 international caps and provides a calming veteran presence at the back for the South Americans.
Where The Goals Will Come From: F Lucas Barrios (pictured). Already blessed with the attacking talents of Oscar Cardozo, Roque Santa Cruz and Nelson Valdez, Paraguay added another bullet to the chamber when Barrios renounced his Argentine citizenship for a chance to play at this year’s World Cup and was granted Paraguayan nationality in March. The Borussia Dortmund striker is coming off a banner season, finishing third in the Bundesliga with 19 goals. He was absolutely prolific at South American giants Colo-Colo, scoring 49 in 53 (2008-09). Barrios has featured three times for Paraguay since getting the all clear from FIFA and has responded by scoring in all three matches.
X-Factor: F Roque Santa Cruz. We’ve already touched on the dearth of attacking options Paraguay can trot out (even without star forward Salvador Cabanas, who was shot in the head in a Mexican bar in January), but Santa Cruz offers the Paraguayan attack the ideal big target forward. He’s coming off an abysmal season at Manchester City where he featured in just 14 league games with three goals. Santa Cruz, who previously played at Blackburn and Bayern Munich, has really only had one season out of 10 with any major offensive contribution (that being 2007-08 where he scored 19 goals for Blackburn). He’s scored just seven Premier League goals in the last two years combined and looks destined to be sold on the cheap by Man City this summer. If he shows up, Paraguay could be a major surprise.
Young Stud: F Edgar Benitez. Yet another weapon for Paraguay, “El Pajaro” is a tricky winger, who has appeared 50 times for Mexican side Pachuca (home to the U.S.’s Jose Torres and Herculez Gomez), and scored 11 times. The 22-year old has only made six appearances for the Paraguayan senior side (one goal), but could be deployed as a late sub to good effect.
Captain: D Ryan Nelsen (pictured) . Nelsen captained D.C. United to the 2004 MLS Cup and had earned a reputation as one of the league’s best defenders. Blackburn took a chance on the Stanford University product and were rewarded mightily. Nelsen has made 143 appearances in the middle of Blackburn’s defense since joining the team in 2005 and has been a steady, hard-tackling force at Ewood Park. Nelsen should find himself busy as the Kiwis will most likely come under constant attack, and it appears the All Whites might go with a youthful look in the back, so the 32-year old Nelsen’s experience will be vital.
Where The Goals Will Come From: Goals, what are those? The Kiwis will be far from prolific at the 2010 World Cup. They scored 15 times in eight qualification games, which sounds OK, but when you consider it came against the likes of New Caledonia, Fiji, Vanuatu and Bahrain, I’m not too impressed. Shane Smeltz led the All Whites with eight goals in qualification and I guess he could score as could Middlesbrough striker Chris Killen, but let’s just say I won’t be putting any New Zealand forwards on my fantasy team.
X-Factor: D Tommy Smith. English-born, the 20-year old Ipswich Town defender represented England at the youth level including the 2007 U-17 World Cup. But Smith,6-foot-2, declared his intention to play for New Zealand after the Kiwis qualified for the World Cup. The left-footed defender has since featured in all four of New Zealand’s friendly warm-ups and looks likely to start in the middle of the All Whites defense. The World Cup has swallowed up defenders with much larger pedigrees and experience than Smith. He’ll be thrown into the fire, and it might get ugly.
Young Stud: F Chris Wood. The 6-foot-3 18-year old whiz-kid turned a prolific youth academy and reserve scoring record into a surprise first-team call-up with West Brom in 2009, becoming just the fifth (and the youngest ever) New Zealander to play in the Premiership. Since, he has made 20 appearances for West Brom scoring just one goal, but it was a wonderful 30-yard strike to the top left corner against Huddersfield Town in the FA Cup, which yes, I actually watched live. Gross I know.
Italy wins the group and Paraguay advance second.