CENTURION, SOUTH AFRICA - JUNE 17: Fabio Cannavaro of Italy during Italy Training - 2010 FIFA World Cup on June 17, 2010 in Centurion, South Africa. (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
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Group F, the first to play on Thursday, brings the same drama we saw on Wednesday from groups C and D. All four teams are still alive, and with only three points separating first place Paraguay from fourth place Slovakia, we could see a similar shake-up to Group C's, where the team that was in first place entering the last round of matches finished group play in third place.
While it seems unlikely that Paraguay, who have been relatively steady in this tournament, would slip to that extent, it also seemed unlikely that Australia would end up on four points, eliminated from the tournament by a tiebreaker. So let's not be so judgmental.
Group E, the second set of Thursday matches, isn't as chaotic as Group F, but with Denmark and Japan engaging in a clear, win-and-in match, the 2:30 p.m. Eastern time start should give us the kind of refreshingly straight-forward drama we've been missing.
Thursday's matches at the 2010 World Cup:
Where They Stand: Despite being yet to win a match, Italy controls their own destiny as it pertains to the knockout stage: beat Slovakia and they're in, possibly topping the group (should they get a little help from New Zealand). Italy can also get through with a draw if Paraguay wins or they win tiebreakers against a drawn New Zealand.
There is still a good chance of lots being drawn. If Italy and New Zealand both draw with identical scores, lots will decide who goes through. If they win with identical scores, lots will decide who gets first place.
Slovakia, entering today's match with one point, needs help. A win puts them on four points and through under three scenarios: a Paraguay win; a draw between Paraguay and New Zealand; and a New Zealand win, if Slovakie ends-up with tiebreaker advantages over Paraguay.
Player To Watch, Italy: Amidst calls for coach Marcello Lippi to try other options, striker Alberto Gilardino looks set to retain his starting position. Gilardino is one of the holdovers from the 2006 team but, unlike some of the older players brought back by Lippi, was not one of the more criticized choices coming into tournament. His play, however, has underscored Italy's lack of quality in the final third. There is nobody on the team that's finishing open play chances, with Italy's goals coming from a corner kick and a penalty kick. Gilardino is not the only member of the Azzurri that could do for a goal, but being perceived as a Lippi favorite that's failing, he has had to bare more than his share of criticism.
Player To Watch, Slovakia: This continues to be Marek Hamsik, the Slovakia captain who has had an anonymous tournament. In that way, Slovakia's tournament seems tied to Hamsik's performance. Hamsik's had a passive, disappointing tournament, just like his team, and where he to awaken - find a goal or set one up - Slovakia would probably find three points. As bad they've been, Slovakia has not been that far off the pace being set in Group F, but like their star midfielder, they've been walking through the tournament.
Prediction: If Slovakia awakens they can take this match. Italy has not been good and, more worrying, it's unclear how much better this group of players can be. However, even with the Azzurri being highly flawed, they are still set-up for an Italy 1, Slovakia 0 result.
Where They Stand: Paraguay leads Group F with four points, and with coach Gerardo Martino having an incisive tournament (with an astute shift in formation before the Slovakia match), they look capable of maintaining their spot atop the group. They need only a point to secure passage into the knockout round, with five points likely to win the group (unless Italy can win and turn around a two goal deficit in goal difference). Even with a loss, Paraguay could advance, depending on potential tiebreaker scenarios with Slovakia.
New Zealand, on two points, is through with a win but also could advance with a draw. If they get one point from Paraguay and the Italy-Slovakia match ends in a tie, New Zealand and Italy finish on three points, subjecting them to the tiebreaker scenarios and, potentially, drawing lots.
Player To Watch, Paraguay: The All Whites are going to play a 3-4-3 that easily collapses into a 5-2-2-1, a formation which becomes all the more difficult to break down because of the Kiwi's physicality and work rate. It will be important for Cristian Riveros to maintain Paraguay's energy and keep them probing despite the frustration of continuously running into that defense. The periodic shot from distance could help pull defenders out, and the ability to identify and run into space from deeper positions could open-up the defense.
Player To Watch, New Zealand: Ryan Nelson was the name player on the All Whites' squad list before the World Cup, but it's often the case that such distinctions reflect league and culture biases rather than actual performance. In this tournament, Nelson has verified that his place is justified, playing remarkably in the middle of the three man back. Against a Paraguay strike force that includes Lucas Barrios, Nelson Valdez and Roque Santa Cruz - and may start all three - Nelson is about to face his toughest test of group stage.
Prediction: Martino will have his team as prepared for New Zealand as he did Italy and Slovakia, which should lead to a hard-earned Paraguay 1, New Zealand 0 result. If Paraguay can maintain their focus on set pieces, they should be able to keep a clean sheet.
Where They Stand: It's nice to have a straight-forward, uncomplicated scenario.
Denmark and Japan are tied for second place in Group E. The winner advances, probably as the group's second place team. If it's a draw, Japan goes through thanks to the better goal difference into today's match.
Player To Watch, Denmark: In World Cup qualifying, Japan had problems with Australia's direct approach: targeting Joshua Kennedy and Tim Cahill, challenging the Japanese defense in the air. Denmark is similarly capable of doing this, and although Nicklas Bendtner is not as good in the air as his size would indicate (you sometimes get the feeling Bendtner would rather be a quick 5'10" winger than a strong 6'4" striker), he is still capable of doing a bad Joshua Kennedy impression and heading Denmark in front.
Player To Watch, Japan: Japan's finishing has been poor and cost them a point against the Netherlands. While it would be nice of Takeshi Okada showed some faith in his team, played with a striker (Shinji Okazaki) and sacrificed some midfield presence in search of a goal, it's more likely Okada stays with attacking midfielder Keisuke Honda as his ostensible striker. Honda was on the end of a Daisuke Matsui cross for Japan's goal but may need to create opportunities himself if Japan is going to able to break through Daniel Agger and Per Koldrup in Denmark's central defense.
Prediction: Japan will be able to use its midfield advantage to contain play in the same way they contained the Dutch. The same conservatism that led three of yesterday's matches to go into halftime drawn nil-nil will make this a low-scoring affair. Ultimately, Japan's going to be able to hold-out for a Japan 0, Denmark 0 result, putting the Blue Samurai through.
Where They Stand: This is a bit of a dead rubber, with the Netherlands needing only a point to win the group. They are already through to the next round, with their +3 goal difference probably protecting their first place spot, even if the Oranje lose.
Cameroon, with no points, has already been eliminated.
Player To Watch, Netherlands: With Bert van Marwijk likely to make changes, many will be focusing on Eljero Elia. Elia has been called-upon by supporters and the punditry to replace Rafeal van der Vaart in the starting XI, a proposition that's becoming decreasingly relevant with the potential return of Arjen Robben. Elia, already having set-up one goal in this tournament, will be called-upon for more playing time if he performs well today, potentially passing van der Vaart on the depth chart.
Player To Watch, Cameroon: In situations like these, where a team is eliminated before their final game, it's always nice to use the match as chance to see the next class of players. Amongst the notable, new Lions: 18-year-old defensive midfielder Joel Matip; 18-year-old attacker Vincent Aboubakar; 21-year-old attacker Eric Choupo-Moting; 22-year-old midfielder Alexandre Song; 20-year-old defender Nicolas N'Koulou. They don't have Ghana's talent (but who does), but Cameroon does have a number of young players who will put the Lions in position to make a return to this tournament in 2014.
Prediction: The drop-off from Netherlands' starters to reserves is not enough to get Cameroon a result. Players like Elia, Ibrahim Afellay and Klass-Jan Huntelaar will bring the same style and tempo as the starters, which should be enough for a Netherlands 2, Cameroon 1 result.