Cote d'Ivoire will have a slightly healthier Didier Drogba for Sunday's match against Brazil, and if the Selecão doesn't improve upon their lackluster performance against the North Koreans, Drogba's return could make for a more competitive match than most would have predicted last week.
But before the day's marquee match, Slovakia and Paraguay open the day from Bloemfontein in a match that was, pre-tournament, thought likely to identify the team that would move through Group F with Italy. The Italians look to reaffirm that place as favorites in Group F when they take on New Zealand in the day's second match.
Sunday's matches from South Africa in World Cup 2010:
Slovakia versus Paraguay, Bloemfontein, 7:30 a.m. Eastern, ESPN
Where They Stand: Paraguay got a draw in their first match against the world champions, but while prior to the tournament they would have been happy to get one point from Italy, getting an early goal against a sub-par Italy may make them remiss they didn't end their World Cup opener with three points.
Slovakia also has reason for disappointment, having New Zealand's Winston Reid pull the All Whites even in the 93rd minute to earn a 1-1 draw with the Slovaks on Tuesday. It was a match most felt Slovakia would win, and with Vladimir Weiss now tasked with guiding his team through their two toughest group matches, Slovakia may need four points from Paraguay and Italy to advance.
Player to Watch, Slovakia: He would be the player to watch almost any time Slovakia plays, so it is a bit of cop-out to pick Marek Hamsik, but coming off an surprisingly anonymous performance against New Zealand, Hamsik will need to have a better match to help break down a Paraguayan team that can play tight defensively. Slovakia got a strong performance against New Zealand from the coach's son, also named Vladimir Weiss, but they can't leverage those types of efforts without better play from Hamsik.
Player to Watch, Paraguay: The Slovaks looked surprisingly vulnerable in central defense versus the Kiwis, and with news that Roque Santa Cruz may be inserted into the starting lineup, the Paraguayans look set to go directly at that weakness. Santa Cruz is coming off a poor season for Manchester City where injuries kept him out of many of Paraguay's last World Cup qualifiers. He moves back into the starting lineup, attempting to re-form the partnership with Nelson Valdez that helped guide the Paraguayans through qualifying.
Prediction: Slovakia will need to be stronger in the midfield than they were against New Zealand, and if they lose that battle to Victor Caceres and Christian Riveros, they could be on one point going into Thursday's match with Italy. But although these are very different teams, they're a relatively even match, with both teams trending toward a Paraguay 1, Slovakia 1 result.
Italy versus New Zealand, Nelspruit, 10:00 a.m. Eastern, ESPN
Where They Stand: New Zealand's 93rd minute goal salvaged a point against Slovakia, while Italy disappointed in their opener against Paraguay, also earning only a draw. It was the type of slow start we've come of expect from the Italians, but getting the All Whites in their second match, the Azzurri are favored to get on-tracked and move to the top of Group F.
Player to Watch, New Zealand: Playing as their lead attacker, New Zealand's Rory Fallon has a chance to exploit an Italian defense that was a question mark coming into the tournament. Right center-half Fabio Cannavaro had a good match against Paraguay but is still the obvious target amongst the back line. Fallon winning individual battles against the former FIFA World Player of the Year may be New Zealand's best chance for goals.
Player to Watch, Italy: Daniele de Rossi was responsible for allowing Paraguay's goal on Monday but redeemed himself by finding the second half equalizer. On Sunday, he will be the best player in the midfield and have a chance to control the match. The Roma-man's passing should be able to pick apart a tough-but-slow Kiwi defense. He will be able to pick his spots to jump into attack and look for a second goal, and his intensity can help Italy maintain the momentum they had at the end of the Paraguay match.
Prediction: Italy may not look great doing so, but they should post a Italy 2, New Zealand 0 result. The team still has a number of problems, but the spirt they showed in the last forty minutes against Paraguay will be enough to win this match comfortably.
Brazil versus Cote d'Ivoire, Johannesburg (Soccer City), 2:30 p.m. Eastern, ESPN
Where They Stand: Brazil, as expected, is at the top of Group G, but their 2-1 win over North Korea was far less impressive than most had hoped; however, in the context of first round of matches where few teams impressed, Brazil still looks like on of the tournament's best teams.
Cote d'Ivoire only got one point from Portugal but looked stronger in defense under Sven-Goran Eriksson than they had looked at January's African Cup of Nations. In attack, however, they looked unimaginative, relying on crosses from the flanks that went for naught without a healthy Dider Drogba in the lineup.
Player to Watch, Cote d'Ivoire: Will Didier Drogba be healthier for Brazil than he was against Portugal? Because if it was even possible, Drogba has become more important to the Elephants' team during the time he's been out. Whereas Cote d'Ivoire was previously employing an attack that would build through the middle with the hope of eventually getting a final ball to Drogba, now they're employing the flanks better. Unfortunately, without Drogba's aerial presence leading the attack, the good work down the wings went unrewarded.
Even of Drogba's able to play more than the half-hour he did on Tuesday, will his injuries allow him to be as physical as he'll need to break through Lucio and Juan, Brazil's central defense tandem?
Player to Watch, Brazil: The Selecao's leading goal scorer, Luis Fabiano, was surprisingly quiet against North Korea, but against Cote d'Ivoire you would think a match-up of Fabiano against Kolo Touré would be one the Brazilians seek to exploit. To do so, Brazil will need to play wider to keep Cote d'Ivoire from playing as compact as North Korea was allowed to. That will open up more space for Fabiano to exploit.
Brazil could also pick up the intensity of their play, attack with more pace and force more fouls from Cote d'Ivoire than they did from North Korea. If they do, that will put Fabiano in a position of strength - on the end of Kaká set pieces.
Prediction: Brazil should wake-up in this match, with their strengths matching-up well against Cote d'Ivoire. With the tournament becoming more open over the last round of games, it may be time for a relatively lopsided Brazil 3, Cote d'Ivoire 0, though it will play much closer (as all Brazil matches do).