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Game preview: Italy-Paraguay

June 13, 2010
Ubha By Ravi Ubha
ESPN.com

WHAT'S ON THE LINE

Whenever the Azzurri play, most everyone in Italy expects a win. As defending champion, there's further pressure. But Italy didn't exactly get the fans excited heading into South Africa, losing to a talented Mexico side 2-1 and drawing 1-1 against a steady, not spectacular, Switzerland.

Marcello Lippi, orchestrator of the unlikely title in 2006, would probably take a draw against Paraguay. It wouldn't hurt Italy's chances of advancing from the group. And let's not forget the Italians got better as the tournament progressed in Germany.

Paraguay wouldn't mind a draw, either. The South Americans would then target victories against minnow New Zealand and tricky Slovakia.

One thing is for sure: Italy needs a big tournament after losing in the quarterfinals at Euro 2008 and exiting embarrassingly at the group stage in the Confederations Cup last year.

STYLE AND TACTICS

Italy won the 2006 title thanks to defense, and if it wants to repeat, defense is again the name of the game. Despite Juventus' horrible season, Gianluigi Buffon arguably remains the world's best keeper. Central defender Fabio Cannavaro is back, too, although we're not sure if that's a good thing. Cannavaro, 36, has clearly lost a step. And unlike Spain, Brazil, Argentina, England and even Germany, Italy doesn't possess an elite front man.

Paraguay is likely to opt for conservatism and play a 4-4-2 rather than three forwards. Paraguay won't mind if Italy bosses possession, content to hit the Italians on the break.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Claudio Marchisio, Italy. Marchisio is the playmaker in midfield. "I really like him in that position because of all the midfielders, he's the one who moves the most without the ball," Lippi told reporters on the eve of the tournament. "He inserts himself and accompanies the action and finds open spaces." He becomes more important given the uncertainty surrounding Andrea Pirlo.

Lucas Barrios, Paraguay. Born in Argentina, Barrios was only recently cleared to play for Paraguay. He was called up to replace talisman Salvador Cabanas, ruled out when he was shot in the head in a bar in January. Barrios finished third in Bundesliga scoring with 19 goals for Borussia Dortmund and netted three goals in as many friendlies leading up to South Africa. He may start up front with club teammate Nelson Haedo Valdez.

What we can expect

The Italians will attempt to win the midfield battle, prevent Paraguay's dangerous attacking players from causing havoc, and nick a goal of their own. Paraguay's defense was shaky in friendlies against Ireland and the Ivory Coast, better against less-than-creative Greece.

Intangibles

If down a goal, Paraguay can call on some real talent off the bench. An injury-filled season meant Roque Santa Cruz couldn't do much at Manchester City, but he's now fit. Santa Cruz is an aerial option who can outmuscle Cannavaro and Giorgio Chiellini. Santa Cruz's teammate Oscar Cardozo, who had a breakout season at Benfica, has seemingly recovered from an ankle injury.

Who'll win

A 2-2 draw.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.