CAPE TOWN, June 13 (Reuters) - Holders Italy, written off at home as no-hopers to retain their world title and traditionally slow starters, are in danger of being caught napping by in-form Paraguay in their Group F opener on Monday.
Coach Marcello Lippi has kept faith with the bulk of the team that triumphed in Berlin four years ago but local media and Italian fans have not stopped complaining despite an unbeaten qualifying campaign.
A draw with Switzerland and defeat by Mexico in warm-up games added fuel to the fire and with Lippi seemingly still unsure about his first-choice lineup there is a real fear his team could be caught out.
With subsequent games against New Zealand and Slovakia it remains unthinkable the four-times champions could fail to advance but the Azzurri seem to be putting their faith in past pedigree rather than current talent.
"We have our traditions, our characteristics. If we put our army on the field we can compete with everyone," said captain Fabio Cannavaro, outstanding in the 2006 campaign but at 36 now looking past his sell-by date.
"The coach is trying lots of things and he will decide the best team for us but it's right for a coach to try things. Right now we don't know what he'll do."
All that experimentation means few observers in Italy have a clue about Lippi's likely side for Monday.
Midfielder Andrea Pirlo is out with a calf injury for the first two games while Daniele del Rossi missed Friday's 6-0 thrashing of the Gauteng All Stars with a similar problem.
Antonio Di Natale, with 29 goals for Udinese as Serie A's top scorer this season, and Alberto Gilardino should carry the strike threat and the vastly experienced Lippi, unsurprisingly, is not concerned by the critics.
"No team comes to the World Cup knowing exactly what they can do, you grow through the tournament," he said.
That is something Paraguay rarely have the luxury of experiencing having never got past the second round in their seven finals appearances, falling at the first hurdle four times.
This time, though, confidence is high after ain impressive qualifying campaign in which they finished second and beat Brazil and Argentina along the way.
Despite losing their main striker in qualifying, Salvador Cabanas, after he was shot in the head in Mexico City, they have maintained that form in warm-ups, drawing with Ivory Coast, losing narrowly to Ireland and beating North Korea and Greece.
Roque Santa Cruz remains their key striker, despite barely getting a game in the Premier League with Manchester City, but there is serious concern over fellow forward Oscar Cardozo.
The Benfica striker, who was joint top scorer in the Portuguese league this season as his club won the title, has an ankle injury and is almost certain to miss Monday's game.
Coach Gerardo Martino has a ready-made replacement in tall Argentina-born Borussia Dortmund striker Lucas Barrios, who has a Paraguayan mother and has scored three goals in three games since becoming eligible to play for the country.
Despite Paraguay's previous failures there is a real optimism about this campaign and a draw against Italy would be seen as the ideal start ahead of two winnable matches.
"I'm happy to start against Italy, I like the fact we're not defining anything against them," Martino told World Soccer magazine. "Whether the group turns out to be easy or difficult is up to us."comments