DUISBURG: Ghana. Ghana. Ghana. For months, Italian coach Marcello Lippi has had his focus on one game. Forget about the other Group E games against the United States and the Czech Republic, he kept saying. The most important thing is to start strongly.
"The first game is the most important one. It determines how you approach the second game and then that game determines the approach for the third," Lippi has said over and over again in a sort of mantra since the draw came out in December.
With probes into a massive corruption scandal ongoing in Italy and some major line-up questions, it will be interesting to see if the Azzurri maintains its focus for Monday's match in Hanover.
Ghana boasts a roster with several players from Europe's top leagues and will be making its World Cup debut.
"The pressure is on them. We have nothing to lose," Matthew Amoah said. The striker, who plays for Borussia Dortmund, will feel right at home playing in Germany.
No injury worries
Ghana coach Ratomir Dujkovic has no injuries to worry about, with Chelsea's Michael Essien and former Juventus player Stephen Appiah in midfield.
Dujkovic blamed injuries for Ghana's early exit from this year's African Cup of Nations, but the team has gained confidence with recent warm-up victories over Jamaica and South Korea.
Italy looked unimpressive in two warm-up draws against Switzerland and Ukraine last week.
The team appears unsettled by Lippi's reluctance to commit to a starting line-up.
The coach said he won't decide until matchday whether to start Francesco Totti or Alessandro Del Piero. Totti is the preferred option in a playmaker role behind Alberto Gilardino and Luca Toni the 1 in a 4-3-1-2 formation.
If Lippi decides that Totti needs more time in his recovery from leg surgery, Del Piero will start on the left wing, alongside Gilardino and Toni in a 4-3-3.
"We're tense but also excited," Lippi said. "We're about to play the most important tournament of our lives. It's normal that there are some nerves."
The Italian connection
Lippi noted Ghana's improvement and said, "The team has five or six players that you really have to watch out for." In fact, Lippi recruited Appiah to Juventus when he coached the club.
Other Ghana players with Italian connections include midfielder Sulley Muntari, who plays for Udinese, and AS Roma's Samuel Kuffour, who provides a physical presence in central defence.
Amoah is the key in attack. In Dujkovic's typical 4-4-2 formation, he is likely be paired with Asamoah Gyan, who plays for Modena in Italy. Gyan is a fleet-footed 20-year-old, seen as an emerging star on the World Cup's youngest team average age is 25.
Italy is one of the oldest teams and also one of the most experienced.
"A lot of the guys on this team have already played in big tournaments, that's the biggest difference," Del Piero said when asked to compare this Italy squad with the previous versions.
"The Italians are a good team," Appiah admitted. "But it's not easy for them. Look what happened when Argentina ran into Cameroon and France played Senegal."
Likely line-ups: Italy: 1-Gianluigi Buffon, 22-Massimo Oddo, 13-Alessandro Nesta, 5-Fabio Cannavaro, 3-Fabio Grosso, 16-Mauro Camoranesi, 21-Andrea Pirlo, Simone Perrotta, 10-Francesco Totti, 9-Luca Toni, 11-Alberto Gilardino. Coach: Marcello Lippi.
Ghana: 1-Sammy Adjei, 15-John Paintsil, 4-Samuel Kuffour, 5-John Mensah, 6-Emmanuel Pappoe, 11-Sulley Muntari; 8-Michael Essien, 10-Stephen Appiah, 18-Eric Addo, 3-Asamoah Gyan, Matthew Amoah. Coach: Ratomir Dujkovic.
Referee: Carlos Simon (Brazil). AP