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FIFA World Cup Group F: New Zealand vs Italy, Slovakia,Paraguay - Preview

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Dave Griffith
Dave Griffith

When a country like New Zealand qualifies for the football World Cup as far as the rest of the world is concerned we are pretty much a 'stocking filler' to pad out the groups for the first round before the serious competition starts between the heavyweight contenders in the last 16.

But all the while we have been plotting world domination from our secret base in the South Pacific. Under the smokescreen of a carefully orchestrated obsession with rugby and a low key qualifying campaign we have been preparing to pounce and steal footballs greatest prize. With our 78th place world ranking we have cunningly lulled the world into a false sense of security that there is nothing serious coming their way from this part of the world. Our Aussie cousins have been making confident noises and attracting a bit of attention but that only serves to send us further under the radar.
Years of planning was nearly blown out of the water last week when the New Zealand almost defeated Australia in a 'friendly' and went on to beat Serbia later in the week. Thankfully a match between the 20th ranked (Aussies) and the 78th ranked (NZ) teams in the world got the attention it deserved from the worlds media. As far as the Serb result goes despite local headlines proclaiming NZ 'Stunning the Football World' it hardly rated a mention anywhere else on the planet. There was only the odd reference to the crowd trouble.
So like the Martians in War of the World we have watched, waited and made our plans from afar. With our small player base of 200,000 and lowly world ranking we are perfectly poised to strike.
New Zealand has previously got by mostly with dogged defending in numbers. At the other end of the park we have relied on the traditional English plan of speculative long balls that they hope will find our lone tall striker. Unable to create many chances against quality opposition in general play New Zealand has often only been able to find the back of the net from the dead ball situations of free kicks and corners.
Under Ricky Herbert though the All Whites have managed to cultivate more of a European passing game. It is still difficult for them to work their way through a top 20 side with the ball at their feet but at least they are trying. With Captain Ryan Nelsen (our only world class player) superbly marshalling the defence we have an excellent platform from which to attack. Leo Bertos has genuine pace and there are three quality strikers waiting up the front that can put away chances as well as most other sides. Playing for retaining possession, a solid defence and the best strike force we have ever had all add up to having the potential on their day to upset anyone.
It is obvious that New Zealand will not be disgraced at this tournament but they will be vulnerable to the odd lapse of concentration that quality sides will capitalise on. The other threat will come from moments of individual genius that can break down the most stoic of defences. Anyone who remembers Zico's goal against New Zealand in 1982 will know what I mean here. Sometimes opposition players are just too good and there is not much we can do about that. Unpredictable individual brilliance is part of what makes football so exciting to watch.
One of the key ingredients that New Zealand has an advantage in is team spirit. They have self belief and belief in each other. Team spirit and unity is a powerful force that can often overcome individual brilliance and enable a team to find a higher level of performance than on paper they appear to be entitled to.
A team of individual stars who are used to having everything revolve around them in their club sides do not always fit comfortably into a national side that requires a team to work hard for each other and not for personal glory.
New Zealand's three opponents in Group F will all be looking at them as three points in the bag. The longer we can keep them scoreless the more the pressure will mount. Pressure can make even the best players do dumb things. 
Here is the assessment of our chances against the first three victims we have lined up.
 New Zealand vs. Slovakia   15th June – Rustenberg
A world ranking of 34 a player base of only 622,000 and a population of 5.5 million. For many kiwi fans Slovakia is the most likely candidate to go down to New Zealand. Much has been made of this being their first trip to the World Cup Finals and they might be a bit overawed.
It seems to get glossed over though that Slovakia up until 17 years ago made up one half of the sporting powerhouse Czechoslovakia. With a history of eight Football World Cup finals appearances which included being runners up twice, a European championship and Olympic  gold medal there is enough football pedigree there for them to feel at home at this level.
All this aside though New Zealand must be hoping for some points out of this game. On paper both sides have similar strength in similar places. A world class defender, some useful midfielders and a good striker. Slovakia though are fighters. They showed in their precarious qualifying campaign that they can produce results under extreme pressure.
If New Zealand can withstand the inevitable early onslaught and settle into a game of even possession then it is anyone's game. A lot of it will come down to luck on the day. I am predicting a 1-1 draw for this one. Both sides will be playing conservatively for their first games. New Zealand might score first but late pressure from Slovakia will result in an equaliser.
 New Zealand vs. Italy    20thJune – Nelspruit
On paper this is a no-brainer. With a population of 58 million, a player base of 5 million and a world ranking of 5, Italy the 4 time champions should walk away with a comfortable 3 points from this one.
New Zealand almost caught Italy napping in a friendly before the last Confederations Cup. It seems unlikely that they will take us lightly again.
Sport can be a funny beast though and every now and then a result is thrown up that seems impossible even to a dodgy bookie. As much as Italy will talk up respect for New Zealand and that they will not take them lightly, it is extremely hard for a top side to get into the right headspace to play their best football against lower level opposition.
The first leg qualifying tie against Bahrain and the friendly against Serbia showed that some days it doesn't matter how good you are the ball will just not go into the back of the net.
So that means if New Zealand plays their best football for the whole 90 minutes, if luck goes their way, if Italy has a shocker preferably with a player sent off early then New Zealand might just squeak a win here. Nah, sorry this one I have down as a 3-0      
Victory to Italy. New Zealand will fight hard and achieve parity at times but in the end class will bring home the pasta for Italy with three well constructed goals from general play as our midfield tires from endlessly chasing quality passing. New Zealand's hardworking strike force will struggle to find a way through the likes of Cannavaro, Zambrotta and Buffon at the back for Italy.
 New Zealand vs. Paraguay    24th June – Polokwane
The final match of the pool could well see the winner go through with Italy to the next round. Paraguay had some impressive results in their qualifying games most notably a victory over Argentina. For a country of 6.3 million to have 1 million soccer players it is not hard to work out what the national obsession is.
Paraguay are tricky opponents. On paper they have enough class to overcome New Zealand and have built up useful world cup experience with this their 4th consecutive appearance.
There is some hope for New Zealand though. Many of the second tier South American football nations don't always travel that well outside of their own continent. If this is grasping at straws something more concrete is that Paraguay's main strike weapon Roque Santa Cruz is well known to New Zealand Captain Ryan Nelsen with Santa Cruz playing for Nelsens Blackburn Rovers Team 57 times up until 2009. If anyone knows how to negate the threat he poses it is our man Ryan. The task is daunting though with Benfica's Oscar Cardozo and Borussia Dortmunds Nelson Valdez the other strike weapons. 
For both sides a lot will ride on how they have travelled in their previous two matches. Injuries will be crucial and the mental and physical strain of the tournament may take the edge off both sides' attacks.
As much as I would like to see a New Zealand victory all I can picture here is a 1-0 victory to Paraguay.          
Team spirit, class players in key positions and the element of surprise will not be quite enough to see New Zealand advance to the last 16 for the first time. I will predict however that they will not have to wait another 28 years for their next finals appearance, and if the current development of the side continues then a place in the last 16 next time up is a realistic possibility.
Go the All Whites!!

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