Wednesday, 16 June 2010

World Cup Preview – Maybe New Zealand are in fact worth a punt at 2000/1?

It’s that time again. After thirty, no wait, hang on, 44 years of hurt, it’s our year. We have to believe, now is our time. Anyway enough of the excessive patriotism and jingoistic sentiments, because unlike most articles featuring in our venerable national press at this very moment, this is a review of the entire World Cup, not just uninformed comment on exactly how the multi-millionaires who represent us on the international stage will fail once again to pass the quarter-final stage. For those wishing to lose a great deal of money, this preview may even offer helpful and probably entirely inaccurate tips and hints; I just hope nobody looks back at this after the tournament and realises just how wide of the mark the following predictions will almost certainly turn out to be. Right so I’ll start with the biggest question of all, the real pressing issue of the tournament. Will North Korea actually be able to score a goal, and if not, is there any possibility of the players who failed to fulfil said desire ever being seen alive again? Perhaps I’m being rather unfair and juvenile on everyone’s favourite South-East Asian military dictatorship, after all Kim Jong Il may not have a North Korean equivalent to Uday Hussein amongst his entourage, so perhaps the players may even be able to live normal lives following the end of the tournament. Well, that is normal in the sense of them not being able to see the outside world, being denied free speech and indoctrinated on a daily basis. On a slightly lighter, less political and altogether more accurate note, it’s time to look at the favourites and dissect their various strengths and shortcomings. For the sake of ease and to save me a good deal of almost certainly fruitless Google searching, I will be quoting the outright odds listed on the William Hill website, also as it will help me decide which nation my hard-loaned money ought to be placed on, and subsequently lost.

Spain are the favourites to win outright at 7/2, and based purely on the strength of the Spanish squad, the wealth of experience and talent possessed by almost every member of the first team, and the traditional ability of Spanish teams to maintain possession and cut opponents open with consummate ease, they are the obvious choice. In Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta Barcelona and Spain have arguably the best centre-midfield pairing in the world, and although physicality may be an issue, particularly against more rugged sides such as Germany, and dare I say it England who would look to prevent them dominating the midfield and dictating the play. I have only witnessed one side in the past few years that was able to prevent Xavi and Iniesta playing, and they went on to win the game, albeit slightly fortuitously. That side was Inter Milan, led by former Coach Jose Mourinho, and one would think that any side unfortunate enough to meet Spain, whether in the group stages or beyond, would need to ensure they put on a disciplined, rigid tactical performance. In terms of attacking options, without turning this ‘best partnership in world football’ phrase into a cliché, it could be argued that David Villa and Fernando Torres are the Xavi and Iniesta of centre-forwards, a perfect ‘little and large’ combination of flair, impeccable finishing, excellent movement and immense goal scoring potential. For many casual observers Spain’s main weakness would appear to be in defence, with a back four of Puyol, Marchena, Capdevilla and Ramos unlikely to deter teams such as Argentina and Brazil with impressive arrays of striking talent.

Prior to Spain’s triumph two years ago in Austria, they had been considered ‘big game bottlers’, a team who ‘don’t like it up them’ and perennial underachievers prone to crashing out of big tournaments early, having only progressed as far as the Semi-Final stage in the World Cup, doing so in 1950. Whilst Spain have certainly shown themselves capable of seeing off prestigious, highly-rated sides with perhaps equal reputations and superior histories to themselves, I believe lightening is extremely unlikely to strike twice. Despite victories against Argentina and France in recent friendly encounters, I highly doubt Spain to possess the resilience, mental strength and determination necessary to triumph twice in the space of two years and win successive international competitions. Few would expect Vicente Del Bosque’s side to struggle through games against Switzerland, Chile and rare World Cup attendees Honduras, in what is definitely the ‘group of life’ of the forthcoming tournament. Whilst Spain were able to go 35 games undefeated between February 2007 and June 2009, and gain 15 consecutive victories within this spectacular run, and although it appears likely Spain will top their group with ease, and score a multitude of goals in the process, come the knockout stages it will be a very different ball game indeed. If not I will look extremely stupid for ignoring Spain and placing my confidence, and beer money, on an inferior side, and I will promise never to pollute the information highway with my inaccurate predictions again.

Samba. Carnival. Copacabana. Pele. Carlos Alberto. Ronaldo. Rivaldo. Ronaldinho. Roque Junio, no wait, that doesn’t really flow, does it? For those who haven’t yet guessed, I’m talking about Brazil, the side everybody wants to see, the only national team to have competed at every World Cup since the tournament’s inception in 1930. Priced at a tempting 9/2, it is Dunga’s side whom I will be putting my faith in. Featuring an extremely impressive array of attacking talent, with the likes of Luis Fabiano, Werder Bremen’s goal scoring superstar Grafite and the stroppy, sullen superstar Robinho, Brazil will almost certainly be there or thereabouts. Dunga, in his pursuit of harmony throughout the squad, has taken the incredibly wise decision to leave out Adriano, whose attitude has long been questionable, and whose footballing contribution is often overshadowed by his lack of professionalism and commitment. Whilst pundits and supporters alike have regularly asserted over the years that Brazil’s various World Cup triumphs have been entirely or almost entirely due to their attacking prowess, this is in fact somewhat of a myth. The Brazilians boast a nominee for the 2009 Ballon d’Or and a recent Champions League winner in their goalkeeping ranks in Julio Cesar, and behind him is Spurs’ often maligned Heurelho Gomes, very much a worthy understudy. In terms of defenders, Brazil’s central defensive pairing of Juan and Lucio may struggle against younger, quicker and more vibrant opponents, and could be left in the lurch one or two times too many due to the tendency of flying wing-backs Daniel Alves and Maicon to surge forward and occasionally neglect their defensive duties.

When compared with many other sides in the tournament, Brazil’s midfield certainly appears to be rather underwhelming and could be somewhat of a weak spot. A lot will rest on the form of Kaka, which has been rather patchy of late, as he can provide the inspiration and impetus to turn a good side into world-beaters in an instant. Brazil can expect, unlike Spain, to be given a thorough test by their Group G opponents, Portugal, Cote d’Ivoire and North Korea, in what is without question this tournament’s ‘group of death’. Personally I would still expect Brazil to win all their games, albeit not by the huge margins which some may be expecting, with the main question mark hanging over their ability to overcome a relatively strong Portuguese outfit, and although North Korea are an unknown quantity for most, I wouldn’t expect them to be capable of causing any sort of upset. Cote d’Ivoire’s hopes have been significantly dashed by the news that talismanic striker Didier Drogba will miss the tournament through injury, but Brazil will still need to be at their best to overcome the Elephants, who still boast a number of excellent players and can still cause teams problems with or without the Chelsea superstar. Come the knockout stages and I am struggling to find many teams Brazil will be incapable of at least matching, and like many others I would be extremely surprised if the Samba Kings fail to at least grace the Semi-Finals.

Un poco con la mano de Dios. Diego Maradona’s Argentina shouldn’t need any such extravagant and flamboyant language to condone cheating by any of their current superstars, nor should they need to cheat to recreate the form which saw them triumph in 1986, given the presence of most probably the greatest footballer in the world at the moment in their side. Whilst I believe we should be seeking to downplay the similarities between Argentina’s brightest footballing lights of past and present, it is hard to ignore the feeling that the stage has been set at South Africa 2010 for Lionel Messi to shine for his country as he has done so often for his club. It is certainly fair to say that the 22 year old has an ideal opportunity to prove that his Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year titles are entirely deserved by single-handedly inspiring his country to glory as Maradona was able to do 24 years ago. The way most of the international media is talking about Messi, you would think that he would be a safe bet to win the tournament single-handedly, let alone him and his team-mates at an attractive 12/2. In terms of personnel Argentina, like their bitter South American rivals, have an attacking triumvirate worthy of gracing any major final. In Carlos Tevez, Lionel Messi and Gonzalo Higuain, Argentina have three forwards capable of winning the Golden Boot, and I would imagine only a handful of defences to be capable of containing all three for 90 minutes.

The biggest question mark hanging over La Albiceleste, besides the managerial experience of Maradona, his tendency towards passion rather than logic, his perhaps inordinate closeness to the first team squad, and his tactical naivety, hangs over the defence. The prospect of flying winger Jonas Gutierrez, an extremely talented forward player, occupying the right-back slot is frankly bewildering, and indicative of Maradona’s desire to slot what he considers the best, or his favourite players, into the side no matter whether or not they can truly play in the positions he allocates them. Similar doubts have been expressed about Gabriel Heinze, who suffers from a shocking lack of pace and may well be critically exposed by a fast centre-forward or pacy winger. In terms of central defenders Walter Samuel and Martin Demichelis are both solid enough, and should be able to make up for all but the most glaring deficiencies of their defensive team-mates. For those familiar primarily with English football, the inclusion of Juan Sebastian Veron in the squad and probably in the first-team as well is nothing short of mind-boggling, but in fairness to Maradona he does have an excellent record and reputation in Argentinean domestic football, and on this basis probably merits his inclusion. For those still in doubt of Argentina’s attacking potential, the fact that Maradona can justify leaving strikers of the calibre of Diego Milito and Sergio Aguero on the bench indicates the plethora of talent in the Argentinean forward ranks. Expect them to be there or thereabouts, and to comfortably emerge from the group stages, most likely having scored a hatful of goals and wowed fans all over the world with their mesmerising attacking flair. However it may well be that Maradona does indeed lack the managerial capability and tactical expertise to turn Argentina from an attacking powerhouse capable of demolishing sides such as South Korea and Greece, into serious contenders. Time will tell, but I would certainly imagine a man as passionate, and ruled by his emotions as Maradona to find the strain of coaching a side in the latter stages as step too far, and be unable to spring the tactical surprises and provide the organisational efficiency that will be necessary to triumph.

Now we come to the big one. Whenever England grace, if that really is the most appropriate word, a major tournament there are huge expectations. This year is no different, with Fabio Capello seen as an authoritarian, commanding coach with a huge amount of managerial experience, a proven track record and the level of tactical knowledge most probably lacked by his predecessors. Indeed based purely on Capello’s excellent reputation throughout the footballing world and the ease with which England qualified for the tournament, odds of 15/2 seem almost plausible. After all England boast some of the world’s foremost players, including Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard. However to blindly bow to the media’s relentless pressure to ‘back the boys’ and believe, in the absence of any real evidence, that England really are capable of outperforming the aforementioned teams, is to fundamentally ignore the facts. Whilst England’s squad undoubtedly possesses a number of talented players, there are too many weaknesses in Capello’s side to see the Three Lions as any more than outsiders to hold that famous trophy aloft for a second time. First of all England lacks a nailed-on first choice goalkeeper, and the issue of who should be selected continues to divide opinion across the nation. Some, such as myself, favour the relatively inexperienced but talented and in-form Joe Hart, whereas others would opt for the experience of David ‘Calamity’ James, and there are those who believe that of the three candidates, Robert Green is the best all round choice. Furthermore there is the perpetually divisive issue of who should partner Wayne Rooney up front, for make no mistake, Rooney will play for England whether in-form or not, and rightly so. To leave out a player with such raw talent and the potential to change a game in an instant would be unthinkable for Capello. At the moment it appears that Emile Heskey is the manager’s choice, for he is seen as being the only striking option for England able to get the best out of Rooney, and he is certainly a valuable team player and a useful aerial presence. However Heskey’s goal scoring record for England is little short of appalling, and there are many who believe Peter Crouch, who possesses a far better record, should deputise in his place. Personally I believe both options ought to be tested in the group stages, for if England are unable to beat Algeria and Slovenia, then frankly they do not deserve to progress.

Defensively England are also suspect, for in the absence of arguably England’s best defender in Rio Ferdinand, the Three Lions are relying on the fitness of Ledley King and the form of John Terry. If the former were to experience a recurrence of his chronic knee problem, which really has prevented King fulfilling his undoubted potential, then England would be forced to look to Jamie Carragher, recent returnee to the England fold, an uncapped Matt Dawson, and a potentially out of his depth Matthew Upson. None of these would be adequate replacements for either King or Ferdinand, and coupled with Glen Johnson’s obvious defensive frailties, England could be progressing into the knock-out stages with a defence fundamentally incapable of containing superior, or even equally talented sides. Without meaning to state the obvious, it is paramount that England manage to win their group, otherwise the unwelcome spectre of Germany, who look the most likely winners of Group D, will be looming on the horizon. If England are fortunate enough to progress to the Quarter Finals, or even further, it will be then, not in the Second Round, that they would expect to face sides of the calibre of Germany. It remains to be seen whether or not Capello will rue his decision to leave Theo Walcott, a player capable of injecting pace, impetus and drive into a side looking for inspiration and somebody capable of breaking down a stubborn opponent. In the meantime expect the usual excessive coverage, and typical mix of jingoism and despair, even before England’s almost inevitable exit in the Quarter Finals. Take my advice, keep your money, and spent it on a having a few pints down the pub and just hoping and praying that this may finally be our year. If I’m wrong, I will eat my hat, or a similar item of clothing, but I somehow doubt I will be.

I’ve just mentioned them there, the team that everyone seems to have forgotten about, despite them finishing runners-up in the 2008 European Championships, and having progressed at least as far as the Quarter Finals in every tournament since 1982. I am indeed talking about Germany, who are very much dark horses for 2010 in the sense that everybody seems to have dismissed them as a spent force and an irrelevancy, despite the presence of many young, vibrant, talented players in the German ranks. To be able to get odds of 14/1 on a side as talented as Germany, with their history and the undoubted potential of many of their players, is frankly ridiculous. Whilst a number of these, Sami Khedira, Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller and Jerome Boateng, are undoubtedly huge talents, it is Mesut Ozil whom the eyes of the world will be focused upon. The central midfielder, Turkish by origin but having been born in Gelsenkirchen, currently plays for Werder Bremen but can expect a number of offers from the best and brightest in the Premier League, Serie A and La Liga if he lives up to his phenomenal potential. So expect him to sign for Manchester City for an extortionate fee later this summer if he fails to do so, and a genuine title contender if he doesn’t. Beyond Ozil’s strong presence in midfield lies the powerful Bastian Schweinsteiger, but it remains to be seen whether or not the young German midfield will prove too light and inexperienced, due to the lack of strength in depth, to contain the likes of Spain, Argentina and Holland. In attacking terms, Germany have a hugely impressive array of forwards, most notably Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose, who have scored an incredible 88 goals between them in 177 games. Klose in particular needs just four goals to equal Ronaldo’s record as the all-time top goal scorer in World Cup history, a remarkable feat for a player whom many wouldn’t consider to have the all-round attributes necessary to be compared to those with similar records to himself, such as Pele, Gerd Muller, Jurgen Klinsmann and Gary Lineker. Podolski’s record is particularly spectacular, given that he is only 25 years of age, and doesn’t look set to be deposed in the Germany forward line any time soon. Back-up forwards Cacau, Mario Gomez and Muller should be able to deputise effectively, but Joachim Low will be looking to ensure his first choice striking line-up remains intact if Germany are to keep their excellent World Cup record going in South Africa.

Defensively Germany ought to be as strong as ever, with captain Philipp Lahm a perpetual candidate for the UEFA Team of the Year, and a hugely capable attacking full-back, whilst Per Mertesacker is an imposing presence at the back, and despite his relative lack of pace, he and Arne Freidrich form a capable and hugely experienced central defensive unit. Tactically few would expect Germany to come up short, and whilst in the past German sides have been easily dismissed as unexciting, methodical and unexciting in the extreme, but with a strong attacking line-up and clear potential for goals within the squad, maybe this year’s competition will be different. The Germans certainly ought to emerge from Group D, but they will still have to contend against the significant and very different threats posed by Ghana and Serbia. Assuming England manage to top their group, Germany can likely expect to meet the United States in the Round of 16, whom they should dispatch with relative ease. Personally I cannot envisage the Germans failing to reach the Semi-Finals unless they were to come up against a side capable of at least matching their athleticism, work-rate, precision, defensive solidity and attacking flair. They are very much the forgotten men of this World Cup, and I feel that gives them a freedom to play in the manner they and Coach Joachim Low wish, whereas many other sides are subject to far greater expectations, such as Spain, Brazil, and perhaps only in this country, England.

The Dutch, providing that internal disputes do not tear the squad apart as they have done in previous tournaments, are also definitely worth considering, especially at 9/1, a good price when the quality in their squad is taken into account. With the flair of Van Persie, the pace of Robben, the industry of Kuyt and the playmaking ability of Sneijder, the Dutch have an extremely strong spine to their side. Add to the mix younger players such as Eljero Elia, and the vastly experienced, despite his relative youth, Rafael Van Der Vaart, and it would be reasonable to suggest that Oranje should be looking to progress at least as far as the Quarter Finals. Coach Bert van Marwijk certainly has his work cut out keeping any potential rifts in the camp from spilling over into outright conflict. However should he be capable of doing so, and even he should not be, the Dutch would rightly expect to emerge from Group E as comfortable winners, despite the challenges posed by Cameroon, Japan and Denmark, and probably face either Paraguay or Slovakia in the Round of 16. With the traditions of Total Football and memories of the great Dutch side of the 1970s ever present, perhaps it is time to put rivalries, petty disputes and pointless arguments to one side and truly justify Holland’s fourth place in the often maligned FIFA rankings.

Whilst those who have placed bets on the following teams may be offended at my presentation of them as outside bets, for sides such as France, Italy and Portugal, the best they can hope for is to get through the group stages relatively unscathed, ideally as group winners, and hope for an easy draw in the Round of 16 and, if they are able to progress far enough, the Quarter Finals. Now I may be placing myself firmly in a minority by thinking and saying this, but I believe France to have a real fight on their hands to defeat any strong side in the knock-out stages, and should look forward solely to emerging from Group A, for it will likely be the only highlight of their tournament. At the crux of my critique of France’s potential, is the over-reliance on players who quite frankly are unable, for a variety of reasons, to deliver on the international stage. Nicholas Anelka may be able to demolish lower-ranking Premier League teams with ease for Chelsea, but perhaps he either experiences a higher level of motivation for his club or he is simply surrounded by better players. Whatever the reason, 14 goals in 64 internationals for France is simply not good enough for a striker set to lead the line by himself. Furthermore in my opinion Franck Ribery is a hugely underrated, ineffective player prone to feigning injury and bullying referees rather than producing the type of match-winning performances of the man he is consistently, and incorrectly compared to, Zinedine Zidane. Whilst on paper France do still have a good squad capable of perhaps having an impact on the competition, Thierry Henry, the man whom many Frenchman are still pinning their hopes on despite his age and the deterioration in his ability to perform to the high standards he was once able to, will not be the saviour for Les Blues. Furthermore, to leave out players of the calibre and reputation of Karim Benzema, Samir Nasri, Hatem Ben Arfa and Lassana Diarra was certainly hugely surprising and may prove to be a huge mistake. Now we come to the final reason why France can’t expect to win the competition, Mr. Raymond Domenech. Never in the history of international football that I am aware of, has a manager so devoid of any expertise, evident ability, respect from the players and any sort of impressive sequence of results been able to remain in gainful employment. Domenech should have been sacked immediately after France slumped to defeat in the 2006 World Cup Final, before the aberration in 2008 when France were unable to progress past the group stages. My opinion is and will remain that whilst Domenech, whom I feel no qualms about openly describing as a ‘clown’, remains the Coach of the French national team, they will not achieve what the French supporters expect from them and what the talent at Domenech’s disposal ought to be capable of achieving. I do not expect to be proved wrong, and if I am I hereby pledge to write a grovelling letter of apology to Mr. Domenech. Although only if France progress at least as far as the Semi-Finals.

Behind France, although not necessarily deservedly so, we have 2006 Champions Italy, a country I am greatly fond of and a football team I am indifferent to, almost to the point of dislike. Whatever my personal feelings towards the Italian national team, like France I do not expect them to be a major player in the final stages of this tournament. Marcelo Lippi’s decision to stick with a number of those players who were victorious in 2006 may prove to be unwise, or an entirely shrewd bet. Time will tell, but based purely on my convictions, and my assessment of Italy’s footballing ability and potential, they are not in the same league as many of the aforementioned sides. Having said that, I would be shocked should Italy fail to emerge from Group F, competing against weaker opposition in Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia. Furthermore I would be greatly surprised to see Italy bow out of the competition before the Quarter Final stage, but should they reach this point, I find it unlikely that they would be able to cope with sides such as Germany, Spain, Brazil and Argentina whom I feel have a slight edge at this tournament. I remain unconvinced by Italy’s striking line-up, and I believe they will struggle to score the crucial goals necessary to edge out the top teams in the latter stages. Gilardino in the lone striker role, with his admittedly not terrible return of 16 goals in 42 matches, worries me slightly, and I feel Italy’s main strengths lie in the midfield engine-room, where the exceptional Daniele De Rossi offers passion, dedication and no small measure of skill, and relative newcomers Riccardo Montolivo and Claudio Marchisio are both able partners for the Roma player. Defensively Italy should be solid enough, but their attacking weaknesses will, for me, prevent them repeating the excellent form which saw the Azzurri triumph in 2006.

Without meaning to disregard the rest of the teams in this tournament, I will conclude my preview by addressing the sides with an outside chance of progressing to the latter stages of this tournament. Portugal fall directly into this category as far as I’m concerned, who possess a number of talented players but in many ways restricted by their dependence on one Cristiano Ronaldo. For a player who hasn’t scored in 15 months to be his country’s main hope and most likely goal scorer at the World Cup is certainly a dangerous situation, and I would warrant that Ronaldo, despite his huge popularity at home, has underachieved for his country. Furthermore his fellow strikers do not inspire me with any confidence; having mercifully seen the light and ditched Nuno Gomes, and I in no way mean to complement the player here, his replacements are no better. Hugo Almeida, Liedson and Danny have scored just 14 goals in 49 games between them. This, and the fact that Carlos Quieroz’ main attacking hopes are two wingers, Ronaldo and Simao Sabrosa, leads me to believe that they will have a rather barren World Cup, and be unfortunately knocked out before the tournament becomes serious at the Quarter Final stage. Next we have Cote d’Ivoire, more commonly known in Anglophone nations as the Ivory Coast, who would feature rather higher up this preview, were it not for the injury to star forward and talisman, Didier Drogba, and former England Coach Sven Goran Eriksson. The Elephants have a well-equipped squad, and despite having been drawn in this World Cup’s ‘Group of Death’ alongside Brazil, North Korea and Portugal, they should still harbour ambitions to reach the knock-out stages. They are certainly Africa’s main hope at this tournament, with established, experienced players such as Kolo and Yaya Toure, Abdul Kader Keita, Didier Zokora, Salomon Kalou and Arouna Dindane, who should be capable of causing any side at these finals significant problems.

Africa’s second biggest hope is Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire’s neighbour to the East, arguably the most established African team in international football. The Black Stars will sadly be without their obvious star man, Michael ‘The Bison’ Essien, who misses out with a knee injury. Although slightly light up front, with Asamoah Gyan definitely the stand-out man in Ghana’s attacking line-up, they have the vastly experienced Stephen Appiah and Sulley Muntari in midfield, along with the tempestuous youth of Kevin-Prince Boateng, who could well be the Black Stars’ driving force. As for the rest, whilst we can say with little doubt that Honduras, North Korea, New Zealand and Greece will almost certainly bow out at the Group Stage, for the rest opportunities may well open up through the profligacy and under-performance of more illustrious opponents. Expect to see a few teams, such as South Korea, Nigeria, Japan or perhaps even Slovakia making their way through to the Round of 16, and perhaps even further. After all, it’s the World Cup, anything can happen. Apart from England going all the way, of course; looks like it’ll be 46 years of hurt at the very least, despite or perhaps because of Fabio Capello’s best efforts. Oh well, at least we should sail through the group stages without breaking a sweat...

No comments:

Post a Comment