PRETORIA - Never write off the Italians is a World Cup cliche many pundits have ignored this time around such is the lack of buzz around the defending champions.
Marcello Lippi's team are being dismissed as past their sell-by date and 36-year-old captain Fabio Cannavaro's move last week to Al-Ahli in Dubai hardly helped dispel that impression.
Lacklustre displays in warm-ups, including a loss to Mexico, have added to the impression of a side falling far short of the one that beat France in the final in Berlin four years ago.
But the Italians do have a few things going for them - experienced players throughout their squad and in Lippi one of the game's top coaches who is a proven winner.
The former Juventus boss knows, like every Italian who remembers their slow start in 1982 before winning the title, that success at the finals is all about putting together a run of results with performances peaking at the right time.
"No team comes to the World Cup knowing exactly what they can do, you grow through the tournament," he said this week ahead of their opening game against Paraguay on Monday.
The calf injury to creative midfielder Andrea Pirlo, which will keep him out of at least the first two games, is a blow however and will test the flexibility of Lippi's plans and the depth of his squad.
Group F should be relatively forgiving for Italy though.
New Zealand are outsiders, Paraguay traditionally disappoint at the finals while Slovakia are playing in their first World Cup as an independent nation.
The Slovaks should provide the toughest test for the Azzurri with classy midfielder Marek Hamsik, who plays in Serie A for Napoli, their top performer.
"The most important match is against New Zealand, the first match," Hamsik told Reuters.
"We watched their (warm-up) match against Serbia, New Zealand won 1-0, it's a strong team. The match against Italy is very different for us because they are the world champions," he added referring to Slovakia's final group game.
The Kiwis were boosted by that friendly win over the Serbs and have shown themselves to be a hard-working unit, albeit one lacking top-level experience.
The 'All Whites' should manage an improvement on their only previous World Cup appearance, in Spain in 1982 when they lost all three games with a goal difference of 12-2.
If there is to be a surprise in the group Gerardo Martino's Paraguay should be the team to provide it.
Although the South Americans are appearing in their eighth finals, they have never got beyond the second round and have failed at the group stage on four occasions.
However, this time they qualified in style, just a point behind top-ranked Brazil and with a victory over Argentina indicating that Lippi's team will face a tough opener.comments