Decided to come back to the blog, at least during the World Cup. Here goes...
Strange group, very difficult to predict as all 4 teams are question marks. France would normally be heavy favorites here but they have been playing terrible lately and only qualified because of the infamous double hand ball by Thierry Henry. The injury to Diarra will hurt them more than most people realize and two of their more reliable strikers (Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri) will be watching the World Cup from home. They also have problems in defense as Eric Abidal and William Gallas have not clicked for some reason. I’ve never liked Gallas mainly because of his attitude and I can see that being a problem in a squad that seems on the verge of self destructing at any moment. They survived – and thrived – in 2006 mainly because of the leadership and midfield play of Zinedane Zidane. He won’t be there in 2010 and Yoann Gourcuff has yet to step up and fulfill the role as many (including me) predicted. France are a team that could just as easily make the semifinals as crash out of the first round.
Mexico are hard to get a handle on as they started out with a terrible qualifying campaign and were actually on the verge of not qualifying at all when they got smart and fired Sven-Goran Erikkson before it was too late and replaced him with Mexican coach extraordinaire Javier Aguire. Aguire turned things around quick and Mexico has been in fine form since the switch. Still, they have a young team without a lot of international experience and when your best player plies his trade in the MLS, well, let’s just say that doesn’t bode well for their chances.
Uruguay are the wild cards in this group. A lot of people are tabbing them to advance from this group mostly on the strength of their two world class strikers, Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez. They should score some goals but their defense is swiss cheese. They were actually the last team to qualify from the South American federation (CONMEBOL). If they are to go through, they will probably have to score a lot of goals as they will probably give up their share. If the defense can hold out, they could easily go through though.
Everyone has written off South Africa before the tournament has even started…everyone except me that is. I may be the only person in the world crazy enough to predict it but I honestly think the Befana Befana have a good chance of making it out of Group A for a few different reasons. For one thing, you cannot discount the effect of being hosts. Granted, they are probably the weakest hosts in the history of the tournament but are they really that much worse than the US team that shocked the world in 1994 and made it out of a group that included Columbia and Romania? I don’t think they are. Strange things happen when a country hosts a World Cup. How else do you explain the South Koreans making it all the way to the semifinal in 2002? There are other factors at work here too. For one thing, FIFA are corrupt. I’ve followed this World Cup closely and from the moment South Africa were announced as shock hosts, FIFA chief Sepp Blatter has talked non-stop about how much Africa deserves to host a WC and how the continent has been plundered by the rest of the world for years so it’s time to give something back (yes, he actually said that). Not only that, but FIFA have tried to stack the deck in favor of the African teams, even making sure no two African teams were drawn in the same group, presumably increasing the chances that more of them would make the second round. Then there’s the team itself. They endured a rough stretch but Parreira (won the WC as coach of Brazil in 94) seems to have put things together recently and they have enjoyed a good run of form at the right time. The player everyone knows is Steven Pienaar as he plays in the English Premiership for Everton but I like Katlego Mphela and think he could be a player to watch at this WC. Add all this together and I’m picking South Africa to advance from this round.
2. South Africa
Argentina are obviously the class of this group. There’s a lot to like about them, starting with the obvious – FIFA world player of the year Lionel Messi. Beyonf him, they also feature Sergio Aguera, Carlos Tevez, Diego Milito and Higuain so goals should not be a problem for them. Their defense, often overlooked, should be tough as well, led by Walter Samuel who played a big part in Inter winning the treble this past season. Some surprises in midfield however as stalwarts Javier Zanetti and Cambiasso were passed over in favor of Pastore and Maxi Rodriguez. That means it all could rely on Juan Sebastian Veron who has certainly seen better days. Argentina definitely has the talent to win the whole thing, especially since it’s being played outside Europe and in the southern hemisphere. They will win their group easily and go far but they won’t win it all for one reason: Diego Armando Maradona. More of a hindrance than anything, he’s been crap as a manager. He experimented way too much and tried too many different players and I just don’t think he has what it takes to guide a team to a WC title as a manager. I’m guessing he has at least one off the field episode before it’s all said and done.
Nigeria are my pick for the African team that goes the furthest in this WC. They were lucky to be drawn in a relatively easy group and should come second. Obafemi Martins has been one of the most consistent strikers over the past 10 years, never flashy but puts the bulge in the onion bag. They could sneak into the quarterfinals with an easy draw in the second round as well. On any other continent I wouldn’t give Nigeria much of a chance but they’ve been the more successful land competitive African teams over the past 20 years and I’m betting that playing on the continent will raise their game.
Greece are Greece. They’ll keep 10-11 players behind the ball and look to take advantage on the counter attack. If they have any chance of going through, they will have to win their first two matches. Their two biggest assets are coach Otto Rehagel who consistently gets his teams to overachieve and hitman Theo Gekas.
South Korea has probably been the most successful Asian team in World Cup history. They always seem to make the final stages but have only once advanced past the first round – and even that deserves an asterisk as it was at home and due mostly to some very questionable refereeing in their favor (Like I said, FIFA are corrupt). Win or lose, they are usually fun to watch as they feature a lot of movement and are never afraid to take chances. Sort of like the anti-Greece. They’re led by JS Park who stars for Manchester United but is currently suffering from a hamstring injury that could see him miss some if not all of the tournament. They don’t have much else going for them though and I’m predicting a last place finish for them in Group B.
4. South Korea
All the focus is on England and the US but you would be wise not to overlook Slovenia or even Algeria, both of whom are capable of springing an upset. England should win this group but I don’t think it’s going to be the cakewalk that everyone is expecting. Losing Rio Ferdinand hurts them in the back and up front they need to pray that Rooney stays healthy. Seems like he picks up an injury at every major tournament England play in. They’re basically the same team that didn’t qualify for Euro 2008 with a couple differences, the biggest being Fabio Capello of course. Don’t overlook James Milner, he had a great season for Aston Villa and could be needed. England seem to be everyone’s fad pick to win it all for some reason but I still see weaknesses, not the least of which are in goal. Not only that but my feeling is that the altitude will affect them negatively. I’m always pulling for England and I’m hoping they go far. But I don’t see them winning it all. Regardless of whether they win the group or finish second, a tough draw will await them in the next round.
Being overseas for the past 12 years means that I am not as familiar as I probably should be with the US national team. I am a big fan of Clint Dempsey and I think he’s the most talented and dangerous player on the team, even more so than Landon Donovan. The US are not the most tactfully gifted team but what they lack in skill and organization, they more than make up for in grit and determination. That could be enough to get them through to the next round with this draw but they will have trouble against teams who are organized in attack. Onyewu was showing signs of being a star in the Confederations Cup last year and then tore up a knee tendon and lost an entire season. He still doesn’t look entirely healthy and the layoff seems to have left him rusty. That could really hurt the US. Fortunately they have Tim Howard in goal and he is the kind of keeper who could get hot and carry a team (similar to Kasey Keller in 02). I’m picking the US to advance in second place but I’m not entirely convinced that Slovenia will go through in their place.
Slovenia are a team devoid of stars but they are at least as good as the US tactically and they play in a much tougher qualifying region, having beaten a very strong Russia team to make the WC. They are the classic team that everyone overlooks and then springs a shock upset. Plus, they are from the Balkans and in case you’re not familiar with my “Balkans Principle”, it goes something like this – in every WC or European championships, there is almost always at least 1 team from the Balkans that surprises people and goes further than anyone predicted. Past examples are Romania and Bulgaria (1994), Croatia (1998), Turkey (2002), Greece (2004) and both Turkey and Croatia again (2008). The smart money is on Serbia for the Balkans Principle this year but don’t overlook Slovenia.
Algeria are best known for causing one the biggest upsets in WC history when they beat West Germany in 1982. On paper they don’t have much but they easily handled African champions Egypt in qualifying so they should not be taken lightly.
This is my pick for the real “Group of Death”. Germany are always Germany, Serbia are a very popular dark horse pick, Ghana have been the best team in Africa the past few years and the one who went the furthest 4 years ago and Australia have been coming on strong lately, making the knockout stages in 2006 before losing a heartbreaker to eventual champion Italy. All 4 teams have a realistic chance of going through here. Germany should win the group, even without Ballack, their midfield general. Schweinsteiger will step up and look for another youngster to make his mark, probably Mesut Ozil. Low needs to resist the temptation to stick with Miroslav Klose who is obviously past his prime. Podolski is their best option at striker now. He hasn’t had a good domestic season but always raises his game for the Mannschaft.
Serbia dominated their qualifying group, a group which included France. Since then they’ve looked disorganized and uninspired. Serbia are a defensive team and that’s what is expected to carry them far in this WC but I’m not convinced. While everyone seems to picking them as a darkhorse, I’m picking them as a darkhorse disappointment to crash out early.
Australia are a much better team than people give them credit for. They played out of their skulls in 2006 and bring back a similar team this year. I REALLY want to pick them second in this group for the simple fact that the tournament is in the southern hemisphere which might give them a slight edge. But I just can’t do it as I can’t see them recreating the same magic of the 06 team that took Italy to the wire.
Ghana suffered a major blow when Michael Essien was lost with injury. He’s the engine that makes them go. I am picking them to go through this group for 3 reasons. First, they have some young, dynamic talent such as Dominic Adiyiah who can really pressure defenses. Second, even without Essien, they came one or two bad calls from upsetting Brazil four years ago and can hang with almost any team in the world. And Third, they are from Africa. Not only does that mean they will get a mental boost by playing a WC in Africa but it also means that they could benefit from FIFA wanting very badly for African teams to have a good showing. Hint hint.
(For Part II, CLICK HERE)