Netherlands are the story here. I was almost prepared to pick them to win it all until the injury to Arjen Robben this past weekend which will keep him out at least for the first match, maybe more. With a healthy Robben, I personally think Holland are the strongest side in Europe, even better than Spain. They still enough to make a run at the prize but it’s hard to see them winning it without him, he is that much of a difference maker. It’s likely that at least one of their strikers - Kuyt, Van Persie, Huntelaar or star-in-waiting Eljerio Elia will challenge for the Golden Boot and they have possibly the world’s best playmaker in Wesley Sneijder directing the attack. The key for the Dutch will be how airtight their defense plays as they are breaking in a new goalkeeper in Maartin Stekelenburg after Edwin Van Der Saar’s international retirement. Watch out for defenseman Gregory Van Der Wiel who is on the verge of becoming the next big Dutch export. Holland are a solid team all around with enough in reserve to overcome the loss of Robben. They still remain my official darkhorse pick to left the Jules Rimet when all is said and done. A Quarterfinal matchup with the Brazilians looms which could well be the match of the tournament.
Denmark was quickly entering darkhorse territory themselves after an impressive qualifying campaign in which they easily topped a tough group that included Sweden and 2006 semifinalist Portugal. The Danes usually play solid ball but they might also be missing some key players due to injury. Simon Kjaer (who I know well as he plays in Serie A for Palermo) looks to be out for the opening match against the Netherlands. On offense they will go as far as Nicklas Bendtner takes them. They’ve had a poor run of form since qualifying and my guess is that they peaked too soon. With a good young nucleus of players like Bendtner, Kjaer and Daniel Agger, Denmark should in the hunt for the next WC again but I think they go home early from this one.
Cameroon are in a very tenuous position going into this tournament. Tabbed by most prognosticators as the most talented African team and the one that should go furthest, they currently have problems with the “spirit of the team”. Their all-everything striker Samuel Eto’o is unhappy about recent critical comments made by Cameroonian legend Roger Milla towards him and even threatened to quit the team over them. It’s no secret that Eto’o pretty much IS Cameroon so if he is unhappy or unmotivated, Cameroon will go home early. I’m betting on manager Paul LeGuen’s ability to keep the peace though and do just enough to finish second behind the Dutch. If the Indomitable Lions falter in their opening match to the Japanese, look for the team to fall apart and for the Danes to easily slide in second in this group.
Speaking of Japan, they’ve had a decent record of qualifying for the WC lately but have never won a match outside of their own country (2002). Don’t look for that streak to end here either, I think the best they can hope for in South Africa is picking up a draw or two. However, they have vowed to play an attacking style and indeed, they are coached by Brazilian legend Zico so they should at least be fun to watch.
1. The Netherlands
As you know, I’ve lived in Italy for the past 10 years (minus a 2 year stint in Germany) and have followed the Azzurri religiously in that time. So it’s no small thing for me to say that this is probably the weakest version I can remember. Here in Italy most people are trying to keep the faith and trying to say the right things but the truth is, few really expect this team to go much further than the quarterfinals. Had they been drawn in a tougher group there’d be worries about them not even getting out of the first round. This is an old group but a proud group so they should never be counted out but there’s little to make me think that they can recapture the magic of 4 years ago when they came out of nowhere to lift their 4th World Cup trophy, second only to Brazil. Their only playmaker, Pirlo, will be out at least the first 2 matches and there’s nobody else on the roster who can create like he does. His absence puts more pressure on Ricardo Montolivo and Andrea Cossu, both making their WC debuts. Up front they will probably rely on Alberto Gilardino and Iaquinta, both decent finishers, but neither has done much in International play. Toto DiNatale is the most prolific goal scorer in Serie A but has never been able to replicate that for La Nazionale for some reason. There’s hope in Italy that he might be the Toto Schillaci of this WC. Without Pirlo, much will be expected of Daniele DeRossi who might just be the best player on the current roster. The defense is, in a word, old. Fabio Cannavaro won the best player award in 2006 but he’s 37 now and has lost a little more than just a step. Ditto Zambrotta. The strongest defender is Giorgio Chiellini; if Italy are to go far, they will need one of their young defenders – either Bonucci, Criscito or Maggio – to step up big time. Between the sticks they are set with Gigi Buffon, still regarded as one of the top 2 or 3 goalkeepers in the world. It’s fashionable to be down on the Azzurri these days as the current team has not looked very impressive lately. But they are still Italy and should not be overlooked. Last time that happened was 4 years ago and looked how that turned out…
Paraguay figures to be Italy’s main challenger for top spot in this group. I don’t know too much about them but I do know that they usually raise their game considerably when they play in the World Cup. They should also be helped by the altitude and southern hemisphere climate. I’ve also seen enough of them to know that they can definitely score goals.
Slovakia are playing in their first World Cup but it figures to be a short lived experience. Their best player by far is Marek Hamsik who stars for Napoli in Italy’s Serie A. Best known for his crazy spiked hairdo, he is a dynamic playmaker, deadly finisher and will most likely be on the move to a much bigger club before too long (Inter have been rumored to have strong interest in him). Slovakia should go as far as he can take them. They were decisive in qualifying but in a pretty weak group and they give up a lot of goals which will not bode well for them at this World Cup. Second place is not out of the realm of possibility for this team though given the competition.
New Zealand, along with North Korea, are widely seen as the worst team in the tournament. I don’t see it that way. I’ve watched them play a few times and they are full of pluck and fight. On any given day they are capable of a shock upset, especially considering the fact that they’ll be playing in a familiar climate. They will most likely finish bottom of the group but they are hardly going to go down without a fight. I recall watching them come within a whisker of upsetting Italy in a friendly about a year ago, giving the mall they could handle before losing 4-3 in a very entertaining match. If they can carry the spirit they displayed in that match into the World Cup, they should at least provide a good show.
4. New Zealand
The popular pick for the “Group of Death” but I disagree; no group that features North Korea can be considered a group of death in my eyes. Still, this should be a very entertaining group to watch. It all begins with Brazil of course. This should be a very different Brazil team than we’re used to seeing as they are built on a defense first mentality. And what a defense they have, maybe the best Brazilian defense I’ve ever seen. First you’ve got the twin pillars of Maicon and Lucio, both of whom anchored Inter’s historic Treble this past season. Lucio has been making a name for himself as perhaps the world’s best defender the past year or two but he is also dangerous carrying the ball forward. In addition, you’ve got Thiago Silva who was far and away AC Milan’s best defender this past season, plus Daniel Alves, Michael Bastos, Juan and Gilberto. This is a strong defense. Behind them is Julio Cesar, one of the top 2 or 3 keepers in the world and also a teammate of Lucio and Maicon at Inter.Dunga may have built this team on defense but they can still score a ton too. Up front they are lead by Luis Fabiano who is one of the most prolific Brazilian strikers ever (He is also my pick for the Golden Boot). He is joined by Robihno who is usually quickly dismissed by pundits as a bust for not living up to his enormous potential (and contract) in Europe but who saves his best performances for the Selecao. Their weakness is in the midfield though, which could prove costly. It may seem crazy to call any midfield that features Kaka a weak spot but he has been slowed by injuries the past year or so and has not looked himself for either Real Madrid or Brazil lately. He’s joined by Felipe Melo who has been in poor form for both club (Juventus) and country and who was somewhat of a surprise inclusion to the squad. If they end up against The Netherlands, poor midfield play could see them out of the tournament as players like Sneijder, Van Bommel and Van Der Vaart could eat them alive. Dunga took a huge gamble leaving both Ronaldinho and Pato at home this World Cup. If they don’t win it all, he will be crucified back home. I think he’ll be ok. Brazil are my pick to win the whole thing.
People seem to be forgetting that Portugal made the semifinals 4 years ago. They are a dangerous team who have more to offer than Christiano Ronaldo. Up front, they finally may have found a striker who can take some of the scoring pressure off Ronaldo in Liedson, a Brazilian born naturalized citizen. They should be lively in the midfield as well although midfield artiste Deco is getting up in age although Tiago may be ready to take over anyway. Carvalho anchors the defense as always and is one of the better ones and the inclusion of Pepe only strengthens the unit. Losing Nani to injury takes away another scoring option but it might not be a huge loss given his inconsistency and I think Simao is a better option hands down. My view is that Portugal’s best chance at WC glory was 4 years ago and they couldn’t quite get over the hump. They should finish second in this group which means a second round match up with arch rival Spain awaits.
So far the biggest story leading up to the World Cup has been the unbelievable amount of injuries to key players. And no team has been as unlucky as the Ivory Coast in this regard as they will probably be without Didier Drogba, the heart and soul of the team and the one African player who was supposed to shine brightest at this cup. He suffered a broken arm in a friendly against Japan and although there is still hope that he might see the field, perhaps with a cast, he won’t be the same and neither will the Ivory Coast. In a different group they’d still be able to scrape through but they were unfortunate to draw Brazil and Portugal who I think would beat them even with a healthy Drogba.
Nobody really knows much about North Korea. Here in Italy, the mere mention of the name makes people shake their heads as they still talk about NK’s shock 1-0 over Italy in the 66 WC that saw Italy go home early. They’ll face Brazil in their opener but there’s no chance they can hope for a repeat of 1966 I’m afraid. They go three and out and head home early.
3. Ivory Coast
4. North Korea
Spain are the odds on favorite to win World Cup 2010. It’s funny to think about that as, for most of their history, they were known as the biggest underachieving sides in every tournament they entered. I guess finally winning a major tournament (Euro 2008) changed people’s minds about Spain. I’m still not convinced though. Yes they are completely stacked. Yes, they have two of the world’s best strikers in Torres and Villa. Yes, they have one of the best midfields in the world with Iniesta, Xavi and Xabi Alonso. Yes, they have Iker Casillas in goal, one of the top keepers in the world. Despite all this, how far they go will depend on how well they defend. Puyol gets most of the press but Sergio Ramos was the star at Euro 2008 and Gerard Pique might just be their best defender these days. Nobody will be surprised if Spain win the World Cup this year but I don’t think they will. With all of their talent, they still suffer from mental lapses and tend to play down to the level of their competition at time (witness their loss to the US in last year’s Confederations Cup). They’ll win this group easily and should go very far, if not all the way, but in the end, they are still Spain and I think they will stumble, possibly against Argentina in the semifinal.
Chile should be fun to watch as they are the classic “all or nothing” team. If Humberto Suarez is back from his injury and fit, they should score a lot of goals – he was the leading scorer in South American qualifying as Chile finished second behind Brazil. They give up a lot of goals too which should prevent them from getting too far but it should be a fun ride. They are another team that could benefit from the tournament being held in a similar climate/altitude. If they do finish second as I predict, it will set up a dynamic second round matchup with Brazil. What a match that should be.
The Swiss have a pretty good track record of making tournaments but once they get there they seldom impress. The young generation that was being groomed for Euro 2008 never lived up to their potential and their best goal scoring threat, Alexander Frei, left practice yesterday with an injury. The Swiss always rely on defense – amazingly, they were the first team to get knocked out of a WC without conceding a single goal in 2006 – but in a group with Spain and Chile, their defense probably won’t be good enough. They were very fortunate to draw Spain in their opening match and they can somehow escape with a draw, they could very well go through. I say it doesn’t happen.
Honduras are just happy to be here. They benefitted from a weak qualifying group in which they finished level on points with Costa Rica but went through on goal differential. They probably couldn’t have asked for a better draw but it shouldn’t matter, they have little chance of going through despite some talented players such as David Suazo (plays for Genoa in Italy) and Wilson Palacios (Tottenham Hotspur, England).
(More thoughts later on…)