Goalies. Can't live with them, can't live without them. Which one is most important in the 2010 World Cup? Our experts weigh in with their choices.
Hugo Lloris, France
France, one of the tournament's dangerous outsiders, will be backstopped by the unflinchingly reliable Hugo Lloris. Although he is only 23 and has tended the French nets on just nine occasions, Lloris already looks like a premier goalie and will be pivotal in France's World Cup campaign. Talented as always, France has a lopsided squad, with the bulk of the talent coming in the form of attackers. As such, Lloris will be relied upon to correct whatever mistakes the suspect defense in front of him will make.
Lloris has thus far thrived in big games for France -- excelling in the infamous two-game playoff with Ireland -- and his club, Olympique Lyon. France will need him to replicate that form if it is to have any chance at all. If he fails to do so, France could be in for another nightmare, like in 2002. If he manages, another surprise run to the final like 2006 is a distinct possibility.
To win a World Cup, a team does not necessarily need a great goalkeeper, but it does need a reliable one. Given that, the optimism of England fans about their country's chances has to be tempered by the candidates to start between the sticks for Fabio Capello's side.
In an ideal world, England's first-choice netminder would be David James. Unfortunately, this is not utopia, and so Capello must decide whether to gamble on the creaky body of a 40-year-old who struggles to play more than one game a week. To win the World Cup, England will have to play seven times in 30 days.
Next in line is Rob Green, who at least will be well warmed-up, having stood behind West Ham's porous defense all season. Having the best campaign of the contenders is probably Joe Hart, who has excelled for Birmingham. His main drawback is a lack of international experience, which amounts to exactly 45 minutes.
Beyond this motley trio are outsiders whose chances have probably gone, such as Ben Foster, Paul Robinson and Chris Kirkland. Is Peter Shilton still available?
Tim Howard, United States
One had only to watch the U.S. at last year's Confederations Cup to see what Tim Howard means to the team. While there were heroes aplenty in the Americans' 2-0 semifinal win over Spain, had Howard not made several spectacular saves, there is no way the U.S. would have reached the final of that tournament.
Heading into the World Cup, manager Bob Bradley continues to adopt more of a counterattacking approach, especially given the team's struggles in possession. In order for this strategy to work -- and for the Americans to reach their goal of advancing out of the group stage -- one of the things the U.S. absolutely must have is the continued excellent form of Howard.
Gianluigi Buffon, Italy
Italy's wily manager Marcello Lippi won't take a chance on Sampdoria's Antonio Cassano and probably won't use Inter striker Mario Balotelli, either. While he'll thus have fewer headaches, he'll also have much less creativity and spark up front. That means, once again, the defense will have to hold firm if the Italians want to repeat.
On that front, Lippi is sticking with former world player of the year Fabio Cannavaro, but Cannavaro, 36, isn't the central defender he was four years ago. Far from it. Gianluigi Buffon, who is still only 32 (seems as though he's been around for ages), figures to be busy and needs to live up to his tag as one of the top 3 keepers in the world. Thirty-two is still relatively young for a goalie, so expect Buffon to excel.