How Italy's loss affects the draw
There's nothing like a world champion being eliminated in the first round to remind you that you're watching a tournament in rampant disarray. Italy is gone. And rightly so, considering it played a mere 15 minutes of passable soccer in three games, most of it coming in the final 10 minutes of a 3-2 loss to Slovakia on Thursday.
So the Slovaks are in the knockout stage. Joining them are the Netherlands, Japan and Paraguay. Thus we can add the following matchups to our calendars:Netherlands vs. Slovakia, Monday
This round of 16 game will feature a team stacked with quality attackers against a band of no-names and Marek Hamsik. But Slovakia has been strong all tournament, while the Dutch have yet to play an entire game, or even half of one, at their best. Meanwhile, several Slovakians, in particular striker Robert Vittek, have emerged as quality players and could make this a tougher contest than the typically arrogant Dutch will expect.
The Netherlands so far has refused to leverage its strength, its width, by starting Dirk Kuyt and Rafael van der Vaart on the flanks. Because these players naturally drift inside, Dutch playmaker Wesley Sneijder has been crowded out. As such, Slovakia might be content to let the Dutch hold the ball and hit them on the counter-attack.
Food for thought: At Euro 2008, the Dutch dominated tournament favorites France and Italy in the group phase but rested their regulars in the third game. In their next game, they lost to Russia. Perhaps learning from past mistakes, the Dutch rested only one regular in Thursday's final Group E game.
Paraguay vs. Japan, Tuesday
Paraguay, which now has made it out of its group in four of its past five World Cups, is the epitome of a team. Strong collectively, without any real individual standouts (given Roque Santa Cruz's indifferent tournament), the Paraguayans have a rock-solid defense and a midfield capable of holding the ball forever. They don't score much, but so what? This is a team happy to sit on a lead.
Japan, a nifty and super-fit side, leans heavily on the class of attacker Keisuke Honda and central defender Marcus Tulio Tanaka. The Blue Samurai will have to try to engage Paraguay in an open-play shootout to stand a chance, because in small spaces it won't be able to compete.
Food for thought: Although Paraguay is without star striker Salvador Cabanas, it is exceeding expectations. It will be tough to beat.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.