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THE WORLD CUP

Separate paths

Italians are top-seeded in Group E, but Czech Republic and the U.S. are listed higher in FIFA's world rankings.

May 21, 2006|Chris Lehourites | Associated Press

Italy is the only seeded team at the World Cup that will play two higher-ranked opponents in the first round, the United States and the Czech Republic.

It seems strange, but when the FIFA rankings are involved, things sometimes get confusing. Very confusing.

Italy is ranked 13th by soccer's world governing body, but was rated one of the top eight teams for the tournament in Germany -- ahead of the second-ranked Czech Republic in Group E and the United States, which was fourth before recently dropping back to fifth.

The Italians, who won two of the first three World Cups and then added another title in 1982, first play 48th-ranked Ghana, the other team in the group.

"At the moment I am only thinking about the match against Ghana, because the first game is always the most important," Italy Coach Marcello Lippi said. "The outcome of that match, whether we win, lose or draw, will decide how we will approach the second game. And the second game decides the approach for the third, and so on."

Perhaps. But the Italians, who have not fared well in the last two World Cups, should keep a wary eye on the Americans and Czechs.

The Americans reached the quarterfinals four years ago, and 11 players from that squad are still with the team, including Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride, Eddie Pope and goalkeeper Kasey Keller.

"I don't think it's going to raise too much expectations," Keller said of the high U.S. ranking. "It's a bit false, and I think everybody can realize that around the world. We're not the fourth-best team in the world. But when you start getting into the top 10, top 15, any of those teams can beat anybody."

Donovan, who scored two goals at the last World Cup in South Korea and Japan, isn't worried about possibly facing Brazil if the Americans advance.

"Would I bet that nine times out of 10 we're going to beat Brazil? Probably not," Donovan said. "Could we beat Brazil? Absolutely. So you have to be a little bit realistic, but we want to put ourselves in that situation. And if we're in that situation, I would still be confident."

The United States faced Brazil in the second round at home in 1994, and lost, 1-0. Brazil went on to win its fourth title at the Rose Bowl, beating the Italians in a penalty kick shootout.

Italy's current roster will include playmaker Francesco Totti, who recently returned from an 81-day injury layoff, Filippo Inzaghi and Vincenzo Iaquinta.

Gianluigi Buffon, engulfed in gambling allegations that are tearing apart Italian soccer, is expected to be the team's starting goalkeeper.

"He's a great person," Totti said of Buffon. "I don't believe he did anything, but even if did make an error, I would stand by him."

Since winning its last major title at the 1982 World Cup in Spain, Italy has been eliminated from soccer's top competition on penalty kicks three times. At the last World Cup, South Korea's Ahn Jung-hwan scored an overtime "golden goal" to send Italy home after the second round.

"You can't say Italian soccer was of poor quality during these 25 years," Lippi said. "It's not like we haven't done anything. It shouldn't be a burden."

The bigger burden might be finishing in a position to avoid five-time champion Brazil in the second round.

The Czech Republic will face Italy in its final group match. The group runner-up could be looking at a match with the defending champions, assuming Brazil wins Group F.

Czech Republic Coach Karel Bruckner isn't taking the United States or Ghana for granted, however.

"Football has developed so much as a game, so weaker opponents are very often able to beat the team with a stronger reputation," Bruckner said. "For example, if they have a disciplined approach to the game, a few good players can make a big difference."

The Czechs, who reached the World Cup final twice as Czechoslovakia, will be led by Jan Koller, the 6-foot-8 forward who recently returned from a knee injury and is the team's all-time leading scorer with 40 goals in 66 games.

Pavel Nedved, who came out of international retirement to help the team qualify, also will play a key role.

If the Americans hope to advance again, they likely will need Ghana to spring an upset -- even a tie would be helpful -- against the Italians or the Czechs. The four-time African Cup of Nations champions are one of four teams from that continent making their debut at the World Cup.

"There is a lot of determination from the boys and the technical team to see this dream realized," Ghana team spokesman Randy Abbey said.

Ghana, which gave up only four goals in 12 qualifying matches, is expected to depend heavily on Chelsea midfielder Michael Essien and captain Stephen Appiah.

The only other seeded team that will face a higher-ranked opponent in the first round is Argentina. The two-time World Cup champion is ninth on FIFA's list, but faces the third-ranked Netherlands in Group C.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Germany '06

Fact and figures for this summer's World Cup:

* When: June 9-July 9.

* Where: Twelve stadiums in Germany, with the final at the Olympiastadion in Berlin.

* Defending champion: Brazil, which defeated Germany, 2-0, in the 2002 final in Yokohama, Japan.

* Format: Eight groups of four teams each will play round-robin competitions in the first round, with the top two teams in each group advancing to the 16-team second round.

* Television: All 64 matches will be broadcast live on ESPN, ESPN2 and Channel 7, at starting times ranging from 6 a.m. to noon, Pacific time. The championship game will begin at 10:30 a.m. on Channel 7.

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