World Cup’s biggest winners, five-time champion Brazil, four-time winner Italy, in action

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Brazil, Italy take stage at World Cup

JOHANNESBURG — Brazil owns five World Cup titles. Italy is next on the list with four.

Both play Sunday at South Africa 2010 and, as often happens early in soccer’s biggest event, the Brazilians already are in position to advance while the Italians’ status is uncertain.

Fast starters nearly every time they come to the World Cup — which means every World Cup — the Brazilians beat North Korea 2-1 in their opener. It was not a vintage performance, but a win over Ivory Coast (2:30 p.m. at Johannesburg) in Group G will boost them into the second round.

Defending champion Italy needed to rally for a 1-1 draw with Paraguay, hardly something new for a team that often gathers momentum as it proceeds.

The Azzurri meet New Zealand (10 a.m. at Nelspruit) in their second game. Slovakia takes on Paraguay in the other Group F match (7:30 a.m at Bloemfontein).

Brazil struggled more than expected with North Korea, at 105 the lowest-ranked nation in the 32-team field. The Brazilians are No. 1.

“We gained confidence with the first victory and we need another one now to guarantee a place in the next round,” Brazil striker Nilmar said. “We can do it in advance, so we need to try to go for it.”

Ivory Coast is considered the strongest African team in the first World Cup staged on that continent, and star striker Didier Drogba could start after playing as a late sub in a 0-0 draw with Portugal. Drogba broke his right arm in a warmup match and wore a FIFA-approved cast during the Portugal game.

“Every player feels very, very well and we’ve got confidence in ourselves,” Ivorian defender Emmanuel Eboue said. “If Drogba plays, it will be very great for us.”

Both sides expect an entertaining, open game.

“Ivory Coast will come out playing more offensively and that should give us some openings,” Brazil goalkeeper Julio Cesar said. “It’s harder for us if a team plays only thinking about defending and not about attacking.”

There was much of that sit-back mentality in the opening series of games. Italy and Paraguay also should be more aggressive in their matches.

Group F is the tightest after all four teams drew in their openers. A win Sunday will be a huge boost toward advancing, although no team in the group can move on or be eliminated before the third series of matches.

Italy is ranked fifth in the world, New Zealand 78th. The Kiwis got their first World Cup point with a second-half goal in injury time by Winston Reid against Slovakia.

“At a World Cup you’ve got to build belief, confidence and condition game by game,” said Italy coach Marcello Lippi, who led the Azzurri to the 2006 championship. “I’ve never seen a team start off at 100 percent and maintain that form for seven games.”

Paraguay coach Gerrardo Martino said his team can improve on its impressive opening performance, which gave it “a lot of confidence.”

“We attach great importance to what we have done (against Italy),” Martino said. “We need to improve on our possession and how we move the ball.”

Slovakia was burned late by New Zealand and there could be a carryover.

“Winning would have been the perfect start,” said winger Vladimir Weiss, son of the Slovak coach, “but conceding a goal in the last minute has changed everything.

“That was our big debut in the World Cup … and we’ll do our level best to prevent the same thing from happening again.”

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