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Herbert Happy To Avoid France, Portugal

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Auckland, Dec 5 NZPA - All Whites soccer coach Ricki Herbert says he's glad to have avoided tough potential opponents such as France and Portugal in the draw for next year's World Cup in South Africa.

The New Zealanders drew defending World Cup champions Italy, European group three winner Slovakia and the third-placed South American team Paraguay in group F for the tournament next June.

All three of their games are at high altitude in the northeast of South Africa.

Their campaign will begin against Slovakia at Rustenburg on June 16 (NZT). They play Italy at Nelspruit on June 21 (NZT) and their last group match against Paraguay at Polokwane on June 25 (NZT).

The way the draw was set up meant France, Portugal and Cote d'Ivoire were probably the teams most countries did not want in their groups, and fortune favoured the All Whites.

"We would have wanted to avoid France and Portugal I think as the non-seeded teams," Herbert said.

"Italy however speaks for themselves, but Slovakia and Paraguay are two new sides to us. They are two big obstacles but we go in with some confidence."

The All Whites pushed Italy to 4-3 in their lead-up to last year's Confederations Cup but the four-time winners are ranked four in the world and are invariably tougher at the World Cup itself.

Their squad includes outstanding players such as goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and defender Fabio Cannavaro.

"The Italy match last year was obviously an opportunity for both sides to try a few things leading into the big competition," Herbert said.

"This is the World Cup now, so no doubt they'll be a massive task for us but also a fantastic team for us to draw."

Slovakia are in the World Cup for the first time after winning their European qualification group over Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Northern Ireland and Poland. They are ranked 34 in the world.

"You always want to get off to a good start. They're unknown to us, as we will be to them, so they're an interesting one to get first up."

Paraguay, ranked 30, have reached the second round of the World Cup three times but have not progressed any further. They qualified third in the South American pool and beat Brazil during qualifying.

Their best-known player is Manchester City striker Roque Santa Cruz, a former teammate of All Whites captain Ryan Nelsen at Blackburn Rovers.

"From the South American point of view with Paraguay, we know their qualifying group well, we know their strengths and weaknesses through their qualifying group, and it would be good to test us in that environment before we get into competitive games against them.

Herbert said the fact the All Whites would be playing at altitude might mean they have to arrive in South Africa earlier to acclimatise.

"We've got to move as quickly as we can now from a preparation point of view," he said.

"Getting two European teams maybe shapes our thinking a little bit and perhaps we will look at getting some games in that part of the world prior to going, but we may need to assemble now into South Africa a little bit sooner than what we thought."

Herbert said he hoped a game could be organised for the All Whites in the Fifa international window in early March, but if that failed they would look towards the end of March.

"We're going to have a whole lot of players that come off competitive football, all the ones coming out of the A-League will stop," he said.

"I think going into the Confederations Cup last year wasn't that productive for us given that it's the same timing as the World Cup, so we'll be pretty aggressive to get something at the back end of March or early April."

Herbert acknowledged the other teams in their group would see the 77th-ranked All Whites as a good draw for them.

Most of the sides would be thinking New Zealand was an opportunity to grab three points, he said.

"But we'll be going there with very strong ambitions to make a statement and make it as difficult as what we can."

Should the All Whites beat the odds and make it through to the second round they would play a team from group E, which includes the Netherlands, Japan, Cameroon and Denmark.

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