WORLD CUP: Tuesday's previews

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Didier Drogba has been practicing with a cast all week, but his status for Ivory Coast is uncertain.


When: 4:30 a.m. PT. Where: Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace (Phokeng, near Rustenburg)

TV: ESPN, ESPN Deportes and Univision (KMEX/Channel 34), 4:30 a.m.; ESPN Classic, delayed, 3 p.m.

Players to watch: Slovakia will go on the attack from the start, and its success will depend on three youngsters: 22-year-old playmaker Marek Hamsik, the Repre's most prodigious talent, and 20-year-old wingers Miroslav Stoch and Vladimir Weiss Jr., the coach's son. New Zealand will count on central defender Ryan Nelsen, a former MLS star, and big goalkeeper Mark Paston to slow them down.

The scoop: Slovakia makes its major tournament debut, and they're somewhat of a mystery. Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel is the only known quantity, although the young attacking talent is the squad's greatest strength. Skrtel seems to have recovered fully from an ankle injury suffered last week in training, and Stoch is beyond a knee problem. New Zealand is one of the contenders for weakest side in the tournament, but they'll make up for deficiencies in skill and experience against top competition with physical play and all-out effort. If the All Whites can hold steady at the back, half-American forward Shane Smeltz might steal a goal -- and a win.

History: New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert played in all three games, starting two, when the Kiwis made their previous World Cup appearance in 1982. They surrendered 12 goals in three games, falling to Scotland (5-2), the Soviet Union (3-0) and Brazil (4-0). Steve Sumner and Steve Wooddin scored 10 minutes apart in the opener to trim the deficit to 3-2, but the Scots scored in the 73rd and 79th minutes to crush New Zealand's hopes.

Prediction: Slovakia 2, New Zealand 0


When: 7 a.m. PT. Where: Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium (Port Elizabeth)

TV: ESPN, ESPN Deportes and Univision (KMEX/Channel 34), 7 a.m.; ESPN Classic, delayed, 5 p.m.; ESPN2, delayed, 7 p.m.

Players to watch: If Ivorian captain Didier Drogba is able to play -- he has returned to training, despite his broken arm -- his effectiveness likely will determine the Elephants' chances of success. His Chelsea teammate Salomon Kalou must step up regardless. Defender Kolo Toure will be occupied by Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo in what should be the pivotal fight.

The scoop: This is the most anticipated of first-stage matches, a battle of giants that, should there be a winner, almost certainly will determine which team will join Brazil as Group G's round-of-16 entrants. Portugal, semifinalists four years ago, have considerable talent, but Ronaldo struggles to make the expected impact for the national team. Fellow attacker Simao Sabrosa takes some of the pressure off, and Raul Meireles provides the midfield support. Ivory Coast might be more talented but with a lesser foundation, and Didier Drogba's broken arm, which may not keep him off the field, severely limits the Elephants' effectiveness.

History: The Portuguese have twice reached the semifinals. They fell to host/champion England in 1966, when Mozambique-born forward Eusebio, one of soccer's most enduring legends, won the Golden Boot with nine goals. And they lost four years ago in Germany to France, which was the last go-round for the remnants of their most golden generation.

Prediction: Portugal 2, Ivory Coast 2


When: 11:30 a.m. PT. Where: Ellis Park/Coca-Cola Park (Johannesburg)

TV: ESPN, ESPN Deportes and Univision (KMEX/Channel 34), 11:30 a.m.; ESPN Classic, delayed, 7 p.m.; TeleFutura (KFTR/Channel 46), delayed, 7 p.m.

Players to watch: Wing-defender Maicon, playmaker Kaka and striker Luis Fabiano ought to have their way with the North Koreans, who played fine defense on the road to South Africa but never faced an attack like Brazil's. If backliner Ri Jun Il and goalkeeper Ri Myong Guk stand tall, maybe the scoreline won't be so ugly.

The scoop: You've got one of the tournament's best teams (and maybe THE best team) against one of the tournament's weakest, so this could be either ugly or entertaining, but expect it to be one-sided. Brazil coach Dunga has deemphasized the flair for which the Selecao is celebrated, but this match might be the best hope for the jogo bonito everyone wants to see. Goalkeeper Julio Cesar's abdominal injury, Dunga says, won't keep him out, although Brazil can likely afford to give him a few more days of rehab. North Korea is a mystery mostly; the Chollima have made huge strides, as their qualification attests, but this World Cup will primarily be about gaining experience, and they'll certainly get their share here.

History: Brazil has won a record five World Cup titles, at Sweden 1958, Chile 1962 and Mexico 1970 (with Pele, only 17 for the first), at USA 1994 (captained by Dunga) and at Korea/Japan 2002 (Ronaldo's last stand). The Brazilians had the best teams at Brazil 1950 (losing to Uruguay in the decisive game) and Spain 1982 (falling to champion Italy in the second group phase), and they also were finalists at France 1998 (losing to the host nation). They're the only nation to take part in every World Cup.

Prediction: Brazil 5, North Korea 0