Some random observations after the first group fixtures:
Italy 1-1 Paraguay: After all the talk of Italy playing too many of their older players from four years ago, they actually took the field with only three players who started the final four years ago. Most of the players on the pitch were not on the team then. Both teams have so much faith in their defense that neither felt the need to keep midfield players back (especially Italy, whose backline played very far forward, practically in support of the midfield). No attack from Paraguay to speak of. After about 15 minutes Paraguay started to make some long countering breaks through the center into the Italian penalty area, taking infrequent advantage of that advanced Italian backline. Italy is still one of the best teams on set pieces there is. Clearly what makes Fabio Cannavaro great is not just his world-class defense but also his intelligent distribution once he gains possession. Shock set piece strike from Antolin Alcaraz for Paraguay off a Torres spot-on free kick, where Italy was surprisingly asleep at the wheel (Italy’s first goal allowed during the run of play in a World Cup since 2002). Most of the game Italy lacked a certain productivity going through the center, which got a little better when Mauro Camorenesi finally got on the pitch. Italy got its equalizer on –- what else – a set piece corner from Daniele de Rossi when the goalkeeper missed the cross into the box entirely, leaving a wide open net. That’s when Italy began to play with confidence, putting passes together, making diagonal runs and finding space in the final third. Disciplined, workmanlike organization for Paraguay to preserve the point, while Italy is lucky to get even that.
New Zealand 1-1 Slovakia: Cold weather and a half-empty stadium – no surprise with this fixture. Slovakia controlled the possession but New Zealand did more to challenge on the offensive end with a direct attack. More long-range tries from both sides than any sustained attacks into the box. Mostly an east-west game, not a lot of diagonal runs or passes. Very pedestrian game, neither side took advantage of space or showed any particular skill at anything. Like two boxers feeling each other out, both sides seemed to just want to not give up too much, hoping not to get too adventuresome for fear of making a mistake. Both sides were pretty decent on set pieces. Robert Vittek of Slovakia began to find some avenues into the box and had the better chances on goal, mostly from Kiwi mistakes that led to easy interceptions, with Vladimir Weiss creating some direct attacking quality. On the other hand, New Zealand’s Shane Smeltz also made a few diagonal runs on the offensive end and found his shot on occasion. After halftime Slovakia opened things up offensively, building from the back, spreading the field and putting together passes in combination, resulting in a early second half score on a Vittek header from a well timed and well-placed Weiss cross. Very disciplined midfield for Slovakia, who did not give the Kiwis any space to get forward. Not much width from New Zealand, who didn’t use the flanks or switch play to break down the Slovakian midfield and create space in the center. Only in the last five minutes did New Zealand play with any urgency, finally putting together some sustained attacks in injury time to break down the Slovakian defense and get a shock goal from a Winston Reid header in the box off of a Smeltz service. Two 1-1 draws in Group F results in a 4-way tie in the group.