World Cup Preview – Group F

Once again, we have a scenario of severe overdog versus three other teams scrapping away for the coveted second spot. Holders Italy come into this tournament with accusations of their team being full of veterans and lacking a creative spark. Slovakia make their first appearance at World Cup mainly due to one player shining in their squad. New Zealand reappear amongst footballing elite for the first time since 1982 (where they were destroyed) and hope to upset the big teams. But the most interesting and also harrowing back story belongs to Paraguay.

ITALY

The current World Champions weren’t fancied last time in Germany, and this time they have even less backers at the bookmakers. The main reason for this is Lippi’s reluctance to change his squad. He tried at the Confederations Cup The squad remains largely unchanged from the winning side in Berlin, with hardly any younger players breaking through into the team. On one hand, this means that this side are very well acquainted with each other. But, with an average age of 28.2, it’s clearly a problem. Strangely this is lower than both England and Brazil.

STRENGTHS

As mentioned squad unity couldn’t be any better. This side have played with each other for roughly 4 years, and know their manager’s tactics well. The Donadoni experiment didn’t work out too well, but Lippi knows how to get the best out his team.

Italy have a superb player in every department. Gigi Buffon is still one of the best goalkeepers in the world and the best pair of safehands between the sticks you could want. In defence, Giorgio Chiellini has managed to become of the best centre-backs in the world. The midfield general Andrea Pirlo has the ability to change games when given license to roam. Up front, Lippi has several options to lead the Azzuri. Alberto Gilardino, Gianpaolo Pazzini and Vincenzo Iaquinta are all superb strikers. Antonio Di Natale has also had a superb year in Serie A and should be given a chance as well.

WEAKNESSES

The lack of creativity in midfield never seemed to be a problem in recent years. But with several of Italy’s midfielder not getting enough playing time this season, especially renowned hardman Gennaro Gattuso, they could struggle to keep the ball. Daniel De Rossi could be the man to hold things together now Pirlo has been ruled out of the first two games. The midfield will have to be strong and powerful if Italy are to go far. With Totti now retired, it makes you wonder where an attacking midfielder will emerge from, Di Natale being the best candidate.

The form of Fabio Cannavaro is also worrying. The 2006 Balon D’or winner has been on a career downward spiral since the last World Cup and it will be interesting to see if the Italian captain can lead his side to glory again.

KEY PLAYER – Andrea Pirlo

I bought a Pirlo shirt for this World Cup. I am constantly astounded by the man; his passing technique is beyond belief at times, a free-kick master and all-round superb player. Nicknames L’Architetto (the architect in Italian), he can play as deep-lying playmaker or an attacking role just behind the frontmen. He will be sorely missed against Paraguay and New Zealand.

MANAGER -Marcello Lippi

One of the best managers in the world and of course has won the Jules Rimet trophy. Slight criticism at his loyal support of Juventus players, when their season wasn’t brilliant. Tactically brilliant but lack of Plan B could prove fatal.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 12/1

PREDICTION – I really think they could surprise some people. If Pirlo’s fighting fit by the time they should meet Spain in the 1/4finals, they could shock the world again

SLOVAKIA

Their first major tournament could be a rude awakening for them. But this side deserve their tag amongst the stable of ‘dark horses’. They qualified with a team of talented youth players  and experienced leaders. They are another team who’ve adopted the 4-2-3-1 system (seems to be an international favourite) and they play that formation exceptionally well. Qualifying saw them gain away wins off Northern Ireland, Czech Republic and Poland. Travelling to South Africa could see that trend continue.

STRENGTHS

If Slovakia are to get anywhere in South Africa, their hopes seem to rest on one man, Marek Hamsik. The Napoli man is hot property and shows flashes of brilliance regularly. Other quality players include Liverpool’s Martin Skrtel, who’s figthing to be fit for the tournament and former Chelsea and FC Twente player Miroslav Stoch. Skrtel’s well known for his aggressive tackling and he will have to be at his best if Slovakia. Stoch on the other hand has been superb for Schteve McClaren’s side who won the league.

WEAKNESSES

Not a lot of the first team are given enough chances at their respective clubs. A good example of this is Manchester City Vladimir Weiss Jr who always gets a free pass into the side because of Pop. He’s been on loan at Bolton and failed to impressive.

This may sound fairly obvious but if Hamsik doesn’t turn up, then neither will Slovakia. He’s the link-up man and is the catalyst in their play

Could Marek frustrate the Italian old guard?

KEY PLAYER – Marek Hamsik

Marek Hamsik is a world class player. That’s according to manager Vladimir Weiss. He’s been targeted by Man City and Chelsea, the latter surely interested now they’ve released Michael Ballack. Constantly threatening and creating, he’s one of my players to watch this tournament

MANAGER – Vladimir Weiss Snr

Possibly the most popular coach at the World Cup after bringing this small nation to it. He’s also the youngest coach, meaning he has little experience. Should be commended for bringing the best out of a set of substitutes.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 200/1

PREDICTION – Group stage exit unfortunately. Too many players aren’t match fit.

PARAGUAY

To say the Paraguayans have had a nightmare 2010 is a bit of an understatement. Star player Salvador Cabanas was shot in the head (the bullet still lodged in his skull) in a Mexican bar in January. He’ll miss the tournament but the other players will hopefully strive on in honour of their team-mate.  Cabanas was almost a Wayne Rooney type player in their team, so manager Gerardo Martino has been at work frantically trying to find a new system.

STRENGTHS

Up front may be missing Cabanas, but the back up option aren’t too shabby. Bench-warmer Roque Santa Cruz is a accomplished finisher but will be put on the right wing in the 4-3-3 formation. In the centre will be Borussia Dortmund’s Valdez who might be familiar to England fans after he was impressive in 2006 against them.

The defence was key to them progressing out of the South American qualifying group. The centre backs, Paulo Da Silva and Caceres were very strong and didn’t ship many goals. They even got a draw away against Argentina and were narrowly beaten by Brazil.

WEAKNESSES

The midfield doesn’t look great, with no real player standing out. First choice goalkeeper Justo Villar certainly has had practice at Valladolid this season, but does he have enough quality to stop the Italians. I don’t think so.

Fitness concerns run rife through the media especially over key wing-man Oscar Cardozo.

KEY PLAYER – Oscar Cardozo

An absolute goal machine for Benfica. A prize asset for them although his goal scoring record for country isn’t as stunning. If he performs well, expect interest from all over the Premier League. He is a major doubt however.

MANAGER – Gerardo Martino

Great tactician and a believer in attacking football. He also gets the best out of young players.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 50/1

PREDICTION – Should make it out of the groups, but will run into the well-oiled machine known as the Netherlands.

NEW ZEALAND

For a small nation devoted to rugby, making this year’s World Cup was a tremendous achievement. Aided by Australia’s defection to the Asian zone, New Zealand’s route to the World Cup included facing the footballing heavyweights of Fiji and New Caledonia. The friendlies recently have been the best indication of what  ‘The All Whites’ can offer this summer, and with a 1-0 win over Serbia, they have a reason to be optimistic of an upset. On the flipside, their Confederations Cup exploits last year were terrible after being smashed 5-0 by Spain. Tournament football can be  a cruel mistress at times.

STRENGTHS

  • Organised well in defence, considering their talent pool isn’t great (mostly A-League players).
  • Captain Ryan Nelsen is a tough brute of a centre-back.
  • Have little expectations placed upon you could take you far.

WEAKNESSES

  • Erm, no real potency up front. Only scored one goal in the playoff against Bahrain. Their best striker is Rory Fallon who plays for recently relegated Championship side Plymouth
  • Or midfield creativity

KEY PLAYER – Ryan Nelsen

Blackburn’s instinctive centre-back led his nation this far. Will have to be at the top of his game against far superior sides. His experience in the Premier League is vital to a team full of lower league players.

MANAGER – Ricki Herbert

Ricki Herbert unveils disappointing puppet show

We’re ready. I can’t wait for the opening game. The battle cry from Herbert ahead of the kick-off. Typical Antipodean, all talk little substance.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 2000/1

PREDICTION – Small fish in a big pond. Predators will take the All Whites apart.

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World Cup Preview – Group E

Like Group C, there seems to be one team who’s expected to walk the group whilst the rest battle for second spot. Denmark have managed to build a strong side based on a sturdy defence. Japan showed England that they aren’t lightweights either and play nice possession football. Then there’s the African heavyweights Cameroon, who have one of the best strikers in the world, Samuel Eto’o. The battle between these three sides will certainly be intriguing.

DENMARK

The Danes have arguably built their best side since their Euro 92 victory, although their last visit to a World Cup was also impressive. In 2002, they looked comfortable in the group until being taken apart by England. After missing out in 2006, they’ve recovered and rebuilt a fairly robust team for South Africa. Their qualifying group looked tough, with Portugal and Sweden also in there, but Denmark ran away with the group. They beat both away from home. Very impressive.

STRENGTHS

The spine of the team is where the Danes excelled in qualifying. They have two young and talented centrebacks in Liverpool’s Daniel Agger and Palermo’s Simon Kjaer. Kjaer is highly rated across Europe and has been linked with many top Premier League clubs. A good performance in this tournament will certainly improve both player’s value in club football. Denmark only conceded 5 goals in qualifying and kept 7 clean sheets, so this water-tight pairing should do well. Failing that, Per Koldrup is a decent back-up.

Stoke goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen proved a worthy successor to the Great Dane Peter Schmeichel, but an elbow injury late in the season could be bad news for the Danes.

The central midfield pairing of Christian Poulsen (Juventus) and Daniel Jensen (Werder Bremen) is also strong. Poulsen tends to sit deep and help the back four when needed, but can often run into space and prove a real handful. Jensen’s a hard tackling midfielder and is also well discplined.

WEAKNESSES

Don’t expect this side to dazzle the crowd with exciting wing-play, because they simply don’t have any quality on either side. Jesper Gronkjaer and Martin Jorgensen are both over 30 and won’t be running past many centre backs. The problem is even worse further back. Blackburn’s Lars Jacobsen isn’t up to the quality of the rest of the defence and AZ’s Simon Poulsen doesn’t have enough international experience.

Denmark also lack a top quality forward to support lone frontman Niklas Bendtner. Soren Larsen plays for German second divison side Duisburg and Mikkel Beckmann plays for Danish side Randers. Both don’t seem to have the quality to excel at the World Cup. European journeyman, Jon Dahl Tomasson was brilliant in 2002, but he’s 33 now. This underlines one of the key problems the Danish have: this side has a lot of veterans and a lot of inexperienced players.

KEY PLAYER – Niklas Bendtner

I realise several of you will question this selection. Admittedly Niklas Bendtner is incredibly inconsistent at club level but for Denmark, he’s used effectively. Bendtner is the king of tap-ins, and even then he’ll miss a few. He’s also struggling with fitness which also doesn’t bode well. But if the midfield feed him well, then Bendtner should play well

MANAGER – Morten Olsen

He’s been in charge for almost a decade now, and over that time has managed to create two very good Danish sides. He loves attacking football, which is the main reason Denmark won their group. With some very creative players at his disposal, he could well. However his unwilling to change tactics could be his downfall.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 80/1

PREDICTION – Too many questions surrounding fitness, they could make it out of the group if Bendtner plays well. But will get knocked out soon after.

JAPAN

We saw a lot of this side in England’s friendly and I don’t think anyone expected Japan to prove a challenge for England. But they were pretty impressive, holding the ball well and proving that England’s defending from set-pieces isn’t as great as we thought. Japan come into the tournament hated by their own media, mainly believing that Okada was a poor appointment. They have some good players but can they make it out of the group?

STRENGTHS

Japan have a history of producing top class midfielders for example Shensuke Nakamura and Hidetoshi Nakata. Yashuito Endo is a versatile midfielder who can act as an anchor or the creative man of the four. Makoto Hasebe has been impressive at Wolfsburg and will provide the attack down the right. Experience is provided by Shensuke Nakamura, who often scored superb free-kicks at Celtic and now at Espanyol. If the midfield generals perform to their absolute best, then Japan can pass it around like the best of them, and also be a threat from set-pieces.

Marcus ‘Tulio’ Tanaka proved, apart from scoring great own goals, that he’s a brutal centre-back. Dirty, yes, but he may be the inspiration that Japan desperately need. He can also score from corners as proved against England.

WEAKNESSES

Like Denmark, the striker pool isn’t great , bar Keisuke Honda. They lack a hitman up front which can often be the turning point for mediocre teams to make it out the group. With all their flair in midfield, you need someone to finish the moves off. Shinji Okazaki is likely to lead the line, although against England he had several chances and didn’t finish them. This suggests that Japan will struggle to break through tougher teams, and this is certainly an issue when you’re considering the weakest in the group.

KEY PLAYER – Keisuke Honda

The CSKA attacking midfielder has shown his quality in the Champions League this season and he’ll have to help the forward line if Japan are to make it any further than a group stage exit. Another great free kick taker.

MANAGER – Takeshi Okada

A football manager with a worse press relationship than Jose Mourinho in Italy. Hated when he took over, and has done little to make amends since. Harsh considering his record against big teams isn’t too bad. Reluctance to change players is his major weakness.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 200/1

PREDICTION – Group stage exit, mainly as they’ve never won a World Cup game outside Japan.

CAMEROON

It would be very harsh to say that this team is based on one player. But that is unfortunately the case. Samuel Eto’o remains one of the best strikers in world football, renowned for his finishing and off-the-ball movement (in my opinion the best in the world for it). Although this hasn’t stopped Cameroonian legendary footballer and dancer, Roger Milla from criticising Eto’o saying he does ‘nothing’ for his country. Milla would do better sticking to Coca Cola adverts with the ubiquitous Ian Wright.

Out of the African sides, they have the easiest task to make the knockout stages. But this preview isn’t just about one man, let’s have a look at the rest of the squad.

STRENGTHS

Apart from Eto’o, other young players are really starting to shine, particularly Alex Song, Sebastian Basong and Benoit Assou Ekotto, both playing well this season for their English clubs. Jean Il Makoun is also a great central midfielder, often the hard tackler. He can also score from long range, however his place could be taken by Song.

Achille Webo will do his best to support Eto’o from the wings in a 4-1-2-3 formation. He has a very good scoring record at international level. Keeper Carlos Kameni is a superb shot-stopper as well. The younger generation have arrived, now is their time to show the rest of the world about African football.

WEAKNESSES

The defence doesn’t look capable of maintaining the performances shown in qualifying. Geremi was a sensational player 10 years ago but he’s past his best, and he’s hardly played this season for Turkish side Ankaragücü. Creativity could also be an issue as the midfield doesn’t have an outstanding candidate for the playmaker role.

KEY PLAYER – Alex Song

Finally showing the reasons why Arsene Wenger brought him to Arsenal very early on his career. Has filled in at centre-back this season. Occasionally lapses are his main problem and he’s certainly have to be exceptional against Holland and Denmark if they are to take anything from either game.

MANAGER – Paul Le Guen

Won Ligue 1 with Lyon consecutively for 3 years but been in the doldrums since. After his brief and torrid time at Rangers, he’s found himself in the hot seat here. Bit of enigma, and that’s putting it lightly. Talented manager but he’s found it tough to win over the fans.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 80/1

PREDICTION – Team politics could undermine the best chance they’ve had since Italia 90, Le Guen’s unpredictability (plus not winning any warm up game) means a group stage exit for me.

World Cup Preview – Clockwork Oranje

When every World Cup comes around, everyone places an outside bet on Holland. Based on their qualifying campaign, it seems a very safe bet. Their football is certainly entertaining and at times, dazzling for the spectator. But when it comes to tournaments, the Dutch will often begin with performances full of flair and vigour, but then collapse in the late stages. So can this crop of flying Dutchmen eradicate the memories of old?

For so many years, Holland have been the nearly men of international football. In the 1970’s, they were the creators of Total Football and had the maestro, Johan Cruyff as the master of that system. The 1980’s saw other great players emerge. Rijkaard, Gullit, Van Basten. All superb footballers who had an hand in Holland’s only tournament victory, Euro 1988.

The 1990’s saw Dutch club football reach its heights, with the Ajax youth system reaping dividends. Bergkamp, the De Boer brothers, Kluivert, Davids, Overmars. I could go on. But they didn’t win anything internationally either.

The point is Holland produces some of the best footballers of their respective generations. But they’ve never won the big one. The question is why?

This decade has seen the Dutch decline set in, after failing to make the World Cup in 2002 (under arguably their most successful manager Louis Van Gaal). They were arguably the most fluid side at Euro 2008, dismantling World champs and runner-ups Italy and France. These goals show the pure tactical class of the Dutch passing system and also their ability to counter attack like no other side.

But once again, Holland fell short after they were undone by their former manager and national team specialist, Guus Hiddink.

This time round, Holland possess arguably the most dynamic frontline out the European teams. Wesley Sneijder has had a sensational season at newly crowned Champions League winners Inter Milan, and was in my opinion, the best footballer in Europe this year. He was the creative engine behind that side and similarly here, he will look to link up with Robin Van Persie. Van Persie, by his own admission has had a injury-plagued season, but there’s no denying what he brings to the side: a accomplished striker. If he reaches peak fitness in time, then he can be deadly.

The wings in the adapted 4-2-3-1 formation will often blaze forward in an aid to help Van Persie. Arjen Robben, like Wesley Sneijder, has excelled after leaving Real Madrid, scoring some outrageous solo efforts. His form could well be key to Dutch success in South Africa but if reports are to be believed, he’s suffered a hamstring tear. On the right should be Rafael Van Der Vaart, who chose to stay in Madrid. He offers may options as well, and could also cut inside with devastating effect.

Oranje is the colour for these passionate fans

Bert van Marwijk has balanced his side well. The glamour up front is well supported by bruising determinism and experience behind. Mark Van Bommel and Nigel De Jong will likely be the holding midfielders, each bringing different aspects. De Jong has proved at Manchester City that he’s a superb no-nonsense tackler, which City really needed. Van Bommel is an enforcer but also a great passer as well. Tackling isn’t exactly his strongest attribute and he has  a short fuse.

The subs bench also looks good as well. Ibrahim Affelay has been a revelation for PSV, and will be a useful impact sub when called upon. Dirk Kuyt’s work ethic is often underrated and he would also easily slot into Van Marwijk’s system.

Holland’s defence however worries me. Some players are way past their prime, particularly captain Giovanni Van Bronckhorst, a superb servant over the years, but I doubt he could cope with particularly fast wingers at left back. Andre Ooijer also falls into this category, and both him and Gio are 35. They both provide vital experience and composure to the defence, but speed is lacking at the back. This could see Johnny Heitinga partnering Joris Mathijsen in the heart of defence.

If the Netherlands had a world-class centre back, like so many other nations, then they would be classed as one of the favourites. Brazil have Lucio, England have John Terry (on his day can superb, just not this season) and Spain have Gerard Pique. All 3 are great centre-backs, although I’ll gladly except one has been haphazard at times this year.

Holland need a defensive rock similar to Jaap Stam, a player who would cast fear into opponents. They don’t have that.

The goalkeeper situation is worse however. Since Edwin Van Der Sar retired from international football, Holland have struggled to find a replacement. Maaten Stekelenburg lacks the leadership qualities of predecessor and he often looks shaky at times. This could prove to be disasterous, but he’s the best option viable to Van Marwijk.

If Holland’s defence perform as well as they did in a easy qualifying group, then there won’t be a problem. Unfortunately, for them as they well know, this stage is much tougher. Injuries will be a factor as well, the side is ridden with players prone to injuries.

So, is the future bright for Holland? Certainly, but they’ll need a lot more luck on and off the field, if they are to make the final in Johannesburg on July 11th.

World Cup Preview – The rest of Group D

Group D certainly is a tough group to call. Germany and Ghana are both missing arguably their best players from the heart of midfield. Meanwhile the other two teams, Serbia and Australia are really starting to push forward as solid international sides. This could go either way.

AUSTRALIA

It has taken several years, but Australia have finally gained the respect of the elite nations  The turning point was on a cold wintry night at Upton Park in February 2003, where Australia dismantled a full strength England side. It made the global press sit up and take notice.

That game also marked the international debut of Wayne Rooney and also Sven Goran Eriksson’s worst night in charge of England, where he lived up to his tinkering nature and gave 22 players caps (including Francis Jeffers)

It was last time out in Germany 2006, where they made a big impact under super coach Guus Hiddink. Placed in a group with the footballing behemoth, Brazil, they came out runners up. The match with Croatia is often remembered for refereeing mistakes rather than the convincing show they put on. They were cruelly eliminated in the first knock-out stage by the champions elect, Italy, after Fabio Grosso dove in the last minute for a penalty, which Francesco Totti duly converted. Within that tournament, Australia felt the highs and lows of World Cup football. This tournament, Australia hope to erase the memories of that World Cup exit, and certainly hope progression is on the cards.

STRENGTHS

Several players ply their trade at some top European clubs, most notably Tim Cahill at Everton and Mark Bresciano at Palermo. Australia didn’t lose during their qualifying campaign (which saw them play in the Asian Confederation, as this gave them a better chance of qualifying, rather than playing off against an South American team) although the sides on show here will be a much tougher challenge. Their goalkeeper, Fulham’s Mark Schwarzer has become more consistent in both the league and European competition (and in my opinion is one of the best keepers of the Premier League) and has excelled under the tutelage of Roy Hodgson.

The Australian midfield looks like the best part of the side, assuming Pim Verbeek plays the 4-2-3-1 formation he used in qualifying. Both Vince Grella and Brett Emerton (Blackburn) have improved with age and will provide a tough obstacle to overcome. Jason Culina, who plays at Gold Coast, should also help this experienced side keep the ball in midfield.

WEAKNESSES

The Australians don’t have a quality front line. Often whoever is left up top is isolated. I expect Josh Kennedy to lead the line and the majority of you may be asking who he is. Kennedy is a journeyman of mediocre European teams, most notably Wolfsburg, Nurnberg and Karlsruhe. Finding Europe a tough nut to crack, he know plays for Nagoya Grampus (the side managed by Arsene Wenger before Arsenal). I don’t seem him scoring many goals, so Tim Cahill will be key to them progressing.

Question marks also surround the form and fitness of Harry Kewell who hasn’t been on the radar since 2005. Verbeek only picked 3 strikers, this risk may prove costly.

Australia's answer to Rocky Balboa

KEY PLAYER – Tim Cahill

Time and time again, Tim Cahill pops up with important headers for club and country. He’s certainly one of Everton’s best players, and ultimately Moyes’s best buy as manager. His leap is superb for his size, and Australia could be very dangerous from set-pieces. However, the Serbians and Germans both have strong centre-backs which should be told to keep Cahill out of the game. He is that dangerous at times.

MANAGER – Pim Verbeek

A veteran manager, who will make his 3rd successive appearance at the World Cup, having assisted Guus Hiddink in 2002 and Dick Advocaat in 2006. Unlike Hiddink, he opts for cautious attacking play which could be a good strategy. An unbeaten qualifying campaign proves he’s got national support as well.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 125/1

PREDICTION – If Australia adopt the team spirit they had in 2006, they’ll make it out of the group. I don’t see it happening this time.

SERBIA

Serbia undoubtedly have the most talented side they’ve ever had. In 2006, they entered the tournament with a sensational defensive record in qualifying (one goal conceded in ten games) but the experience is largely remembered for them buckling in that tournament’s ‘Group of Death’, including a 6-0 defeat to Argentina. In South Africa, the squad is largely unchanged but importantly, the majority of that side has gained experience at top European sides.

STRENGTHS

This side is littered with high-calibre players and the right balance between strength and speed. Nemanja Vidic has excelled at Manchester United since 2006 and is often considered one of the best no-nonsense centre backs in Europe. Branislav Ivanovic has become a regular at Chelsea, and was undoubtedly the best right-back in the league.

Champions League winner, Dejan Stankovic is the captain of this side and also their playmaker, creating great moves from the centre. Milos Krasic (who has an eerie similarity to Raiden from Metal Gear Solid 2) has burst onto the scene at CSKA Moscow and provided a superb performance against Manchester United earlier this season. He can be a real handful on the wing and expect him to show his flair in South Africa.

Up front is Birmingham’s new signing, Nikola Zigic. Think Peter Crouch, but taller and twice as potent.

WEAKNESSES

It doesn’t really matter the amount of talent at your disposal if the man between the sticks isn’t up to the job. Vladimir Stojkovic was loaned out to Wigan this season and made 4 appearances. A goalkeeper with a lack of matches doesn’t bode well for them. Serbia have also been very dodgy in preparation for the tournament, losing t0 outsider New Zealand and drawing against Poland.

KEY PLAYER – Dejan Stankovic

The Serbia captain will hope to be the gel in this youthful side. He is renowned for accurate passing and starting moves in the attack. He can also deftly place from long range as this goal proves. His opportunities have been limited this season as Wesley Sneijder’s form was superb, but there’s no doubt ‘Deki’ is the instigator in Serbia’s strong and flowing play

That goal. The preceding pitch invasion haunts me

MANAGER – Raddy Antic

Fondly remembered for sending Manchester City down in 1983 with a late goal. It also sent David Pleat galloping on the Maine Road pitch in his beige suit, a sight etched into the memories of fans for many years to come. A sight I don’t want to relive. Antic’s policy of involving younger players could prove astute especially against older teams. He’s got the balance spot on.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 66/1

PREDICTION – The potential is there. The pressure is mounting. Should make it out of the groups at least.

GHANA

The Ghanaians will have been rocked by Michael Essien’s withdrawal from the side, after a massive injury lay-off this season. It will be interesting to see how they cope, and also if any younger players, especially in defence, manage to make some headway on the biggest stage.

STRENGTHS

Despite missing Essien, the midfield is still full of good players. Inter Milan’s Sulley Muntari will be given the role of creator and he will hope to provide the drive forward. Captain Stephen Appiah will hope to avoid constant fitness criticism and deputise where Essien played. He is clearly talented, a former Juventus player after all but he’ll need to rekindle that form.

Kevin Prince Boateng has already made a impact at the World Cup even before it started, after his rash tackle on Germany captain Michael Ballack. A decent season at Pompey might see him make his debut at the tournament.

WEAKNESSES

The strong defence of the African Cup of Nations, which was held together brilliantly by 20 year old Sammy Inkoom, looked terrible against tougher opposition. They lost  a recent friendly to Holland 4-1. Hardly an indication of how things will play out, but its clear that their defence might well struggle to hold teams with great strikers.

Also, Wigan keeper Richard Kingson has never impressed me at his spell at the Latics. And he will be first choice. I expect Ghana to get hammered once in the group stage, most probably by Serbia.

The frontman is profilic for Ghana

KEY PLAYER – Asamoah Gyan

A perfect lone striker that bagged several goals at the African Cup on Nations. It remains to be seen in the supporting cast can help Gyan hit the net here.

MANAGER – Milovan Rajevac

Unknown Serbian that took over 2008, but has turned this side into a very tactically aware unit. Can also be complemented for giving all 23 members of the squad time to prove their worth.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP –  100/1

PREDICTION – No Essien = No progression

Join my next time where I preview the Dutch, a team often backed to end their trophy draught. Are they realistic favourites after a superb qualifying campaign?

I leave you with my favourite World Cup song this year. Simple but effective is always the best way I’m told.

And also the  funniest moment in World Cup History

Group D – The Germans

Nobody can deny that in international history, Germany are always among the front-runners. The Germans hold an impressive pedigree having won the World Cup three times, finishing runners-up on four occasions and having made the Quarter Finals in 14 of 16 appearances. The reason for this winning mentality: belief and efficiency. Even when critics have written them off, Germany manages to produce the goods.

So what of this year’s injury-ridden squad. Can they live up to their predecessors?

Germany will miss their talismanic captain

The injury to captain Michael Ballack has clearly hit Germany hard. He’s arguably been the best German footballer of the last decade, with almost 100 caps for his country. This season he’s been given more game time at Chelsea, with Michael Essien out injured, and he’s shown the quality that made him one of Europe’s best players.

Seeing him leaving the Wembley pitch at the FA Cup Final, you could see immediately that he knew he was out of the tournament, A real shame for someone who wants to eradicate the memories of previous World Cups, especially in 2002 when Ballack missed the final due to suspension.

The captain’s armband has been given to full-back Philipp Lahm, who’s improved a lot in the past few years. His first responsibility was to calm down the media hysteria over the plague of injuries.

He told reporters at a recent training camp: “‘The team cannot be allowed to be influenced by these injuries. The big aim is the semi-finals but you first have to deal with the group stage. We want to get into the semis and the team does indeed dream of more than that.”

But it isn’t just Ballack that won’t be on the plane to South Africa. Leverkusen’s keeper Rene Adler will miss the tournament after picking up a rib injury last month. His club team-mate, midfielder Simon Rolfes, who hasn’t played since January has lost his fitness battle as well.

Add to that injuries to Schalke’s Heiko Westermann, who was impressive in qualifying, and Stuttgart’s young midfielder Christian Traesch has seen Joachim Low effectively have his squad picked for him.

Although the first-team is largely unaffected, Low clearly has a large gap to fill in the centre of midfield if Germany are to be considered amongst the rest of the favourites. However, over the past year, the Bundesliga has seen a wealth of talented midfielders emerge, and consequently made the rest of Europe take more notice in the league itself.

Several of these players hold dual nationality. Werder Bremen’s young attacking midfielder, Marko Marin for example was born in Yugoslavia and expects Serbia to be their main rivals in Group D. He’s often compared to Joe Cole by scouts, being fairly adept in the attacking midfielder role.

Similarly, his team-mate Mesut Ozil (who’s half Turkish) has received rave reviews, and has been linked with a post World-Cup move to Arsenal. It is clear that if the younger players perform well, their stock in the transfer market will sky-rocket.

Low has several options up front available to him but it seems certain that Lukas Podolski will be on the left and Thomas Muller on the right, with the experienced but out-of-form Miroslav Klose in the centre. Klose tends to be prolific at World Cups, with 5 goals in each of the last two tournaments.

More worryingly for Low seems to be his defence. Only Per Mertesacker and newly appointed captain Philipp Lahm hold experience at international level, although Jerome Boateng is held in high regard at Hamburg. Low’s key problem is finding another full-back to complement the defence.

Just like bears, Germany have grizzly determination

Erratic and now retired goal-keeper, Jens Lehmann spoke out against the lack of experience, especially in the keepers, in the German national team.

He said: ‘You can’t win the title with relatively inexperienced keepers. Neither plays regularly in the Champions League, at the highest level.’

It’s fair to say that they haven’t found an adequate replacement goalkeeper since Oliver Kahn, but with so many great young outfield players coming out of the Bundesliga, the negativity from former players doesn’t exactly help the team.

If German fans finally show some optimism towards the array of youth on show and get behind the side, like on home soil in 2006, then they should do very well. Never count out the Germans, their record speaks for itself.

And failing that, a penalty shootout always serves them well.

I leave you with the first goal from 2006, a peach by new Germany captain, Philipp Lahm

World Cup Preview – The rest of Group C

So we’ve had a look at the 3 Lions, but how will the other three teams in Group C do. The USA side have finally hit their potential by making the Confederations Cup final last year. Algeria have surged up the FIFA rankings in recent years, and had a good African Cup of Nations campaign. Slovenia could be a dark-horse in this competition. England better not get overconfident here then.

USA

The US were ridiculed throughout the 90s when it came to football. After holding at the World Cup in 1994, they went to France 98 full of optimism; only to be the worst team in the competition (this could be down to a certain situation reminiscent of a certain England player however).

Just over ten years later, the US made the Confederations Cup final in 2009 proving they had finally overcome the barrage of criticism aimed at ‘the rebirth of soccer’ initiative set up in the early 90’s . They even beat European champs and tournament favourites Spain along the way.

But last time out in the World Cup, things didn’t exactly go to plan as the Yanks crashed out of the group stage. They will hope to emulate their 2002 campaign where they made the Quarter finals.

STRENGTHS

One thing they can rely on is certainly their goalkeepers. All three selected play at Premier League clubs and Tim Howard has had a pretty solid season at Everton this year. They can also count upon some great midfielders at their disposal, who have made a name for themselves at various European clubs. Fulham’s Clint Dempsey is fairly adept in midfield and can be a decent frontman when called upon. Landon Donovan showed exactly what he can do from his loan at Everton.  This side isn’t about style and flair, but build upon strong foundations of being tenacious at times.

WEAKNESSES

Where some players thrive in the Premier League and Europe, others flounder. Jozy Altidore barely scored at relegated Hull. Former Rangers winger, Da Marcus Beasley has barely played in the last few months and hasn’t looked anywhere near as good as he was at PSV Eindhoven. Former wonderkid, Freddy Adu now finds himself at Greek side Aris. The fact that many of these players  failed to live up the hype shows that the Americans don’t have a strong enough side to contend.

They also lack an out and out goalscorer. Donovan and Altidore will lead the line and neither are complete strikers. The defence seems a bit weak as well, and certainly injury prone. Milan’s Oguchi Onyewu has only made fleeting appearances for them, last playing in October. His partner in defence will likely be Jay Demerit, who has had a terrible season on the sidelines with a serious eye injury and currently nursing an abdominal strain. The defence doesn’t look formidable and Tim Howard will have his work cut out.

Will Donovan inspire?

KEY PLAYER – Landon Donovan

A move to Germany early in his career didn’t prove to the smartest move, and he struggled to make an impact. Back from the Bundesliga, in the MLS, he became the league’s most valuable player at LA Galaxy (until a certain superstar transferred). He is the US’s all time leading goalscorer and became the catalyst at Everton on loan, turning their season around.

MANAGER – Bob Bradley

Took over from Bruce Arena after the last World Cup, he made a slow start and fans called for his removal because of his style of play. But after the 2009 Confederations Cup run, he’s finally been accepted by the fans. This will be the 6th straight World Cup for the US and anything better than 2006 is expected as a minimum requirement.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP –  66-1

PREDICTION – Should make it out of the group as runners up

SLOVENIA

Much is unknown about the Slovenians but they managed to knock out a good Russian side in the playoffs to South Africa. A Russian side with multi-million pound talent available to it in Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavluchenko to name two. This isn’t their first World Cup either, after appearing in 2002, in what I can describe as the weirdest group of World Cup history. But I shouldn’t knock this side, to make 2 World Cups in only 20 years after declaring independence from Yugoslavia, is pretty impressive. This side is completely different to the previous side as well.

STRENGTHS

Keeping it simple. Straight out 4-4-2 with short neat passing. By looking at their qualifying campaign, it seems they keep clean sheets and work hard to achieve good results.They have a decent young keeper in Samir Handanovic who has made over 100 appearances for Udinese. Other players that you should look out for are former West Brom player Robert Koren, who will captain the side from the centre of midfield. Another good player is frontman Mile Novakovic, who’s scored 14 goals for his country and 51 in 108 league games for Cologne. He could grab a few here.

Slovenia also have some gifted youth players. Rene Khrin plays for Inter and has yet to become a household name in that side, but to even be at a club of that stature shows his talent.

WEAKNESSES

Their greatest strength looks set to be their downfall. Keeping the football simple works against sides worse than you, but against the US and England, they might well be torn apart. Several players are fringe players at their clubs across Europe, which isn’t going to help either. Pure determination won’t be enough unfortunately.

KEY PLAYER – Zatko Dedic

The scorer of the winner against Russia, he’s a tireless worker for the side. Will support Novakovic up front. Think Carlos Tevez but not as profilic.

MANAGER – Matjaz Kek

He got this side to the World Cup, so should be loved in his country. After wining titles with Maribor, he was appointed in 2006 as the national coach of the smallest country in this World Cup.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 200/1

PREDICTION – Out at the group stage, not enough quality here

ALGERIA

The Desert Foxes (what a nickname) endured what can only be described as the most long winded and dramatic route into the World Cup. Facing fierce rivals Egypt in a playoff, which included 15,000 police being deployed in Sudan to control riots after the game, the Algerians came out on top and make the trip to South Africa.

They will make their first appearance at World Cup since Mexico 86 after more than 20 years in the wilderness. They had a reasonable successful Cup of Nations earlier this year, which was marred by stupidity against Egypt in the semi final. This game saw several red cards, one of which for a headbutt on the referee, and Algeria finished the game with 8 men.

STRENGTHS

Algeria have a lot of pace. Nadir Belhadj was one of Portsmouth’s better players this season, and can fly down the left side, and even grab a goal or two if needed. Hassan Yebda, also of Pompey this season, can also trouble defenders on the right. Expect a counter attacking nature from this side.

Majid Bougherra, who often turned up late from international duty with Rangers, can be a very good centre-back and will aid a defence who will be under siege at times.

WEAKNESSES

Algeria are very ‘Jekyll and Hyde’. It all depends which side turns up in South Africa. As shown as against Egypt, the heat of the moment can get the better of them at times. Occasionally tactical suicide occurs as well, after deploying a 3-5-2 against Malawi in the group stage at the Cup of Nations. They lost 3-0.

They undoubtedly have the desire and capability but this might be one tournament too far for them.

Can Belhadj translate club form to the national side?

KEY PLAYER – Nadir Belhadj

He certainly made an impact at Portsmouth, with some exceptional running from left-back and he grabbed a few goals as well, notably in a 1-0 win against Liverpool. Looks certain to leave the relegated club with West Ham (under Avram Grant) or Roma being possibilities.

MANAGER – Rabah Saadane

Little is known of the 64 year old former defender. Vast experience throughout African football and has managed Algeria 5 times. You just can’t get rid of him, so he must be good.

ODDS ON LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 500/1

PREDICTION – Too crazy, not enough talent. Group stage exit

Overall, it has to be England and the US going through. Next time on 6 Pointer, we take a look at Group D, and more specfically the Germans, but never count out the Aussies or the Serbs.

I leave you with the greatest Algerian never to play for Algeria, Zinedine Zidane


World Cup Preview – England

44 years of hurt now and it’s made England the laughing stock of world football. Several world-class teams and managers have passed by. But now under Fabio Capello, the ingrained pre-tournament hype has resurfaced again:England will do it this time.

Same again boys please (Photo courtesy of Colin Palmer)

Many believe this is the best chance since Italia 90 and with the squad that Capello has picked, that assertion seems well placed.But I can’t help but have a sense of forboding about the Three Lions. I mean, its only natural. They were one of the favourites for 2006, but ultimately Sven’s squad stuttered and never really hit top gear. Also, as we all know, England lack the winning mentality that rivals Germany always seem to pluck out of nowhere. Efficency and an ability to take penalities.

So, let’s take an in-depth look into England’s chances for South Africa.

ATTACK

After several years, England can finally call upon a truly world-class forward in Wayne Rooney. The supporting cast is also very promising. Up front, England can call upon several strikers for a tactical change if needed. Peter Crouch is menacing against smaller nations due to his size. Emile Heskey, whose inclusion surprised many, provides the perfect support for Rooney by holding up the ball. Plus Jermain Defoe proved earlier this season that he can prove to be an able hitman. If Darren Bent avoids the cut, his form could prove to be useful from the bench if England need to nick a goal.

The only issue I see up front is the fact that other than Rooney and Bent, the others don’t score enough. Crouch’s international record is sensational, but his chances of finding the net against tournament contenders is unlikely. Ditto Heskey, who might be a scapegoat in waiting (joining David Batty and Gareth Southgate) if England fail.

MIDFIELD

England’s engine room is now at full capacity, with several options throughout the squad. The key player within this system should be Frank Lampard, who has been sensational this season for champions, Chelsea. He never seems to replicate his club form on the international stage. But with over 20 goals in the league, he is a proven goal threat. In contrast, Steven Gerrard has arguably had one of his worst seasons with Liverpool, but is often reliable in the England set-up.

The main issue for England is where to place these two. My suggestion would be Gerrard on the left, with Lampard and Gareth Barry (if fit in time) joining him. If Barry is injured, then England would have to use the upcoming friendlies to attempt to find another defensive midfielder, as the importance of Barry is underestimated.

The more interesting scenario is who to put on the right. With D-Beck on the sidelines, attentions turn to Theo Walcott, who has undoubtedly matured and improved since his surprise inclusion in 2006. His crossing has improved and he isn’t all about pace, like he used to be. I’m still not 100% convinced however. Aaron Lennon has just come back from injury and would be a decent choice. Shaun Wright Phillips has the experience plus James Milner can play across the midfield to a fairly high standard.  Adam Johnson’s transfer to Man City in January propelled him into the squad and he would probably be useful in the groups.

My choice would be Milner, mainly as he would be the best crosser for Rooney.

DEFENCE

What was once considered the strongest area of the side now seems the most shaky. The once rock solid partnership of Rio Ferdinand and John Terry seems under threat. Rio has been constantly injured this season whereas the revelations about John Terry have seen the no nonsense centre-back become very erratic. Both clearly on their day are world-class but their faults have been shown often this season.

The other defenders are also prone to problems.  Ledley King is often touted as ‘the best centre back in the world when match fit’. But the key word here is when match fit. Which is never. King has managed to play more than a game a week, but at the World Cup, fixtures come thick and fast. Michael Dawson, for my money the most improved player in the Premier League this season, is theoretically the player in form. But he’s never played at this level before, so Fabio will probably stick to his guns.

One in, one out (Photos by Nigel Wilson)

The full-backs, especially on the right, seem the weakest part of the back four. Ashley Cole is fairly certain of his place as left-back, and will probably be backed-up by Leighton Baines. Both are capable, and Cole is one of the best left-backs in the world, no question. The right-back position is an issue. There are no quality English right-backs in the league, with Glen Johnson being the best candidate. Jamie Carragher has come out of retirement to aid the cause. One issue, Jamie Carragher has also had a bad season for Liverpool. He seems likely to make the cut as well, as he can ‘play’ centre-back. Bizarre

Also, if Johnson was picked, both him and Ashley Cole would often bomb forward to aid the wingers, which could leave England exposed.

GOALKEEPER

This selection is no-brainer for me. Robert Green hasn’t been great at West Ham this season and David James is often prone to mistakes. James has been pretty good for Pompey, but Joe Hart has been outstanding on loan at Birmingham. His only problem is the one international cap to his name, meaning a lack of experience. I say give him a shot, he deserves it.

KEY PLAYER – Wayne Rooney

After bursting onto the international stage at Euro 2004, ‘the next big thing’ never looked back and has established his place in the top 5 players worldwide this season. With Cristiano Ronaldo leaving Manchester United, Rooney managed to become the focal point of United’s attack, and if England want success in South Africa, they must use him as the spearhead of any attack. 34 goals this season in all competitions gave his best haul in his career, plus ability for super strikes. I think it’s time for Young Wayne to become a national hero.

MANAGER – Fabio Capello

England’s best manager since Sir Bobby Robson. The Italian has won several league titles in many countries so his calibre can’t be underestimated. He’s managed to transform a side with no confidence in Dutchman Schteve McClaren to a team of possible world-beaters.The side has quality and the most astute tactician. It must be destiny.

IMPORTANT THINGS TO NOTE

  • Since its a Winter world cup, the weather should favour Europeans. It won’t be cold, it won’t be scolding, but pretty warm, meaning memories of scorching days back in Mexico 86 won’t rear their ugly heads.
  • England, like many other teams, will play a game at high altitude. The game in Rustenberg against the US will be like playing on top of Ben Nevis. so Fabio has taken the lads to Austia for altitude training. Unfortunately several other teams have followed suit, meaning this shouldn’t be an advantage.
  • On paper this group looks easy. It isn’t. All teams are in the top 32 clubs in the world, according to FIFA Rankings. The U.S. have some good players in Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. The Algerians made the African Cup of Nations final. The Slovenians might be a tight unit to break down. It won’t be a cakewalk that’s for sure.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 11/2

PREDICTION – Semi final tragedy. Again.

To hopefully inspire here is the best world cup advert this year and the best world cup song. Join me next time for a preview of the rest of Group C.