Benelux Hostilities – Anderlecht Ajax Europa League Preview

As Hermann Van Donk pointed out in the superb book Brilliant Orange, that Holland “always says that the Germans are arrogant – but we are arrogant towards the Belgians. These are very normal feeling that you have between neighbouring countries”

This attitude was best illustrated in 1999 when the two nations shared a manic 5-5 draw. The defining moment falling to Patrick Kluivert, who had the goal at his mercy, but goaded the Belgian defence to tackle him as he tapped it in.

Over the years, Dutch and Belgian clubs have traded talent constantly, from Rob Rensenbrink’s flourishing career at Anderlecht to today, as Jan Vertonghen’s defensive attributes are vital to Ajax. This mutual relationship is coupled with a friendly rivalry between the European neighbours. They met in the Cup Winners Cup of  1988 (between Mechelen and Ajax), with the Belgians shocking the world, but in general, pragmatic Belgium has been in the shadow of its more flamboyant neighbour

But surprisingly their two biggest clubs, having shared almost 60 domestic championships between them, had never met in European competition until last year’s Europa League group stage. But 12 months on, the last 32 draw put these two greats together to tussle once again. You could argue it was a draw neither wanted, both incredibly respectful of each before the tie.

Mohamed Moallim is your guide for AFC Ajax, whilst I’ll do my best to outline the dangermen of RSC Anderlecht. It promises to be a free-flowing fest of football and the match of the round. Well for us two anyway.

RSC Anderlecht

Strengths and Key Players

Let’s get the obvious candidate out of the way. Les Mauves’ prized asset and wonderkid Romelu Lukaku normally leads the line in a 4-3-3 formation. He’s been linked to just about every European juggernaut there has been, since bagging 20 goals in his first full season at Anderlecht, at just 16. I’m fairly certain you will have heard the comparison to Didier Drogba as well, in terms of the teenager’s immense strength and power for his age. It is a truly phenomenal thing to see; George Leekens has already used him (fairly unsuccessfully so far) as the figurehead of a fluid team and his influence is huge.

Take last weekend for example: Anderlecht chose to rest Lukaku for the game against Cercle Brugge. Even against ten men they struggled to break down the ultra-defensive Cercle. Jacobs put him on (replacing Tom De Sutter) in the second half to try get his team that vital goal, which they did in the 90th minute.

 

Talisman, Mbark Boussoufa (Picture courtesy of Kzel)

The breakthrough came from inspirational winger Mbark Boussoufa. The Morroccan narrowly edged out Lukaku to win his second Belgian shoe. He is key to their system, creating on the wing then cutting inside and switching positions with Jonathan Legear which causes havoc. Of course this game will be probably more important to him than anyone, having learnt his trade through the Ajax youth-system. As high as mark of class as any.

Others players to look out for include recent Argentinian call-up Lucas Biglia, who orchestrates the midfield with wonderful passes – a very similar player to Andrea Pirlo, complete with Loreal hair. He’s aided well by Guillaume Gillet, a very flexible midfielder.

The goalkeeper, Silvio Proto broke a club record this weekend, having now gone 840 minutes without conceding in the league. Once accused of being erratic with his tendancy to rush towards any attacker, he now has cemented his place as Belgian’s No. 1.

Weaknesses

It may seem harsh, and possibly ludicrious to some, to criticise a defence that have conceded just 14 times in the league this season. But when put up against much tougher opponents, Zenit St. Petersburg for example, the usually rock solid defence tend to crumble in awe of their opponents. The centre-back pairing of Hungarian Roland Juhasz and Czech Ondřej Mazuch have been almost everpresent for Les Mauves, forming a great understanding. But you have to feel they will be tested severely by Ajax’s forwards. Mazuch is only 21, and has little experience at this level so could be the prime man to target.

Right-back, Marcin Wasilewski has fought back from a career-threatening double leg-break and you’d expect with someone who had suffered such a bad injury, they would lose a yard of pace at least. ‘Wasil’ scored against Zulte Waregem in December and immediately ran to the away fans and thumped his badge with honour. A tremendous servant to the club, but having hit 30 and with said previous injuries, he could be the weak link.

Another huge problem with Anderlecht is their lack of strength in depth. Bar the obvious suspects, you wouldn’t expect any of the benched players, other than midfielder Kanu or US international Sacha Klještan to make an impact in any shape or form. Strikers Matias Suarez, Tom De Sutter and newly signed Dalibor Veselinovic are simply not good enough for this level. Without Boussoufa and Lukaku, they look incredibly average.

Form (in the league)

Anderlecht are currently in the midst of 15-game undefeated streak, which stretches back to the end of October. Right before that they were humbled 5-1 by bitter rivals Standard Liege, which seemed to give Jacobs’ team a wake-up call and they’ve not looked back. They currently sit three points clear of Genk at the top of the Jupiler Pro League and have yet to concede in 2011. Just the right kind of form to bring into European competition.

The manager – Ariel Jacobs

The veteran manager began his coaching career in the Belgian FA, managing various youth teams and nurturing new talent in arguably Belgium’s most exciting era in the late 1980’s into the 1990’s. He then became assistant to Wilfried Van Moer and current coach, George Leekens’ first tenure. He made the step-up to club management in 1998, managing RWD.

His first trophy was with now extinct club La Louviere in 2003, when he won the Belgian Cup. This was a fantastic achievement and Jacobs was (and still is) known for that nurturing of talent, giving Peter Odemwingie his break in Europe for example. Eventually he wound up at Anderlecht as assistant coach to Franky Vercauteren (strangely enough his rival for the title this year, since he’s at Genk). This seemed an appointment in waiting, and Vercauteren left in November 2007.

Jacobs had to wait until last year to taste championship success, ending the dominance of Standard Liege for the time being at least. His policy of integrating youth players into the side has reaped dividends on the pitch and certainly off it too, with an astronomical fee for Lukaku expected in the next transfer window.

AFC Ajax

Strengths

Historically, Ajax’s strengths have been its attacking play. This still applies today, even though they are a far cry from some of their glorious sides of the past, they still play to attack.

With Luis Suárez departing in late January for Liverpool, it diminished somewhat – the Uruguayan was responsible for 35 out of Ajax’s impressive tally of 106 goals in the league last season – if you also add what else he brings, it’s a massive loss if an adequate replacement isn’t found soon. Although, Suárez hardly featured in Frank de Boer’s XI, due to a domestic ban he was serving prior to his move.

De Boer’s arrival after Martin Jol’s departure in early December brought a feel good factor back to the club. On the pitch he reverted Ajax back to their traditional 4-3-3, and more emphasis on wing-play and having an able playmaker playing off a number 9.

The goals haven’t flown in at an incredible rate but he has somewhat rekindled some players, who have already shown more than they did in the first half of the season.

Weaknesses

If attack is the teams strength, then defence/defending is the weakness. In saying that Ajax doesn’t have a bad defence theoretically (on paper) Gregory van der Wiel is one of the brightest young right fullback around, Jan Vertonghen has been Ajax’s most consistent player and a all round talent and Toby Alderweireld has come on strong.

What lets them down is the concentration level, if one nods off then chaos ensues.

The left-full back position has been a worry, especially as Urby Emanuelson has left – even though it’s not really his best position De Boer would rather trust him than say Anita. Right now it’s held by Daley Blind, despite the immense talent he posses, I’m of the mind that it’s too not his best role.

Another weakness stems from the strength, the tempo, De Boer in the system he wants to play, requires quick movement. So far the play has been languid which tends to mean any build-up or counterattack is broken down. It’s still early days in his tenure, but this is one area he would like to correct immediately.

Key players

With Suarez gone, Ajax has to look for other players to emerge from the shadows and take a great degree of responsibility. There are some candidates, and good ones. Siem de Jong whose been a mainstay in the team for the past year has emerged as De Boer’s number 9 of choice, despite being a natural midfield he’s taken to the role of playing the false #9 – he keeps the ball moving, holds it well and allows team mates involved in the play and he has the knack of finding the goal.

Another player is the rejuvenated Miralem Sulejmani, often played as a left-forward under Jol. It looked like he would be surplus to requirement last summer, but a possible loan move to West Ham broke down but its under De Boer that he is showing glimpses of the player that Ajax broke the bank for – playing as a right-forward, Sulejmani has everything to succeed, his dribbling is a strong suit and so is his finishing, taking on a fullback is no problem and so is crossing. He has become the face of De Boer’s tenure so far, he or Christian Eriksen.

Christian Eriksen, another of Europe's most exciting emerging talents (Photo courtesy of Martini DK)

The 19-year-old Danish sensation was a bit-part player under Jol (which is fair enough) but he’s now a crucial component in the makeup of the team. As a trequartista, Eriksen pulls the strings – though he’s not known to be a proven goal scorer, it’s his vision, passing and playmaking abilities that excite De Boer more than anything, and as soon as he took charge he highlighted Eriksen as the one who could take Ajax back to the top. A player mature for his age, he has spoken of his desire to stay at the club to develop instead of moving elsewhere, and there are a plenty of suitors.

Form (in the league)

As a season overall, it’s not been the best. What started as a promise faded as Jol’s tactics became stale and players frustrated. De Boer revitalised but a 3-0 defeat away to FC Utrecht derailed any comeback for the league, they’ve since gone on to record wins but a recent 2-2 draw at Roda means the side are 5 points behind the joint leaders PSV and FC Twente. Of course that lead can be cut down but with games running out Ajax’s priority could mean qualifying for the Champions League for next season becomes the major goal.

The manager

One of Ajax’s greatest players, Frank de Boer played under Louis van Gaal in Ajax’s great side of the mid 90’s with a degree of success. That greately inspired his footballing vision and how he wants Ajax to play.

This role is his first major one and becomes only a select few to have managed the side after previously playing for the club with distinction, before the role his major position was Bert van Marwijk assistant with the Dutch national team that got to the World Cup final.

At the same time he worked at De Toekomst, Ajax’s fabled youth academy, and it’s this education and expertise of the future talents that might have gotten him the job – the cynic in me see’s a couple of first team players leaving in the summer. If Ajax decide to invest by bringing through some of the young talents then who better to coach them.

Already the likes of Jody Lukoki, Lorenzo Ebecilio and Araz Özbiliz (albeit he played one game under Jol, after being pressured into playing with wingers) have made their debuts and featured under him.

So there we have it, a quick guide into Belgium and Holland’s most successful teams. Here’s an interesting stat: Anderlecht have played ten games against Dutch opposition with a record that reads W8 D2 L0. Only one winner then…but for balance here’s Edgar Davids goal in that ten goal thriller:

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Champions League group draw thoughts (Group E-H)

Group E: Bayern Munich, Roma, Basel, CFR Cluj

This group may seem very clear to whom will emerge from it, but the clash between Bayern and Roma promises to be exceptional. Bayern ran their luck all the way to the final last year, effectively with Arjen Robben bailing them out twice in the nick of time (Fiorentina/Manchester United) but they were well worthy of being in that final. Louis Van Gaal has built a tremendous side there, with the only weak area really being the left back, Holger Badstuber, which is incredibly harsh on a rookie. Last year marked a turning point in the wilderness for Bayern. Philipp Lahm finally managed to eradicate his form of a few years back, captain Mark Van Bommel is his usual combatant self and of course the combination of Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben destroying full-backs and defences in general.

Add to that some underrated talent up front in Ivica Olic, Thomas Muller (who came of age at the World Cup), Miroslav Klose and Mario Gomez and Bayern should look at least making the quarter finals. The only worry is the centre-back pairing of Van Buyten and Demichelis (a rumoured Chelsea signing) who were given the run around by Diego Milito in the final last year, and also the lack of big name summer signings. It shouldn’t be an issue really as Van Gaal is a master at getting the best of his players, that and his desire never to throw the towel in.

Roma are also very strong this year, following on from pushing Inter right down to the wire for the Scudetto. Ranieri’s improved the team a lot since he took charge, but can he convert that to European success? The centre back pairing of Juan and Mexes looks solid, but could be susceptible in the later stages. The addition of Adriano leaves a lot to be desired really, considering he doesn’t look near his former best. But Roma can call upon a superb midfield engine in Daniele De Rossi, Simone Perotta and David Pizarro, the latter being severely underrated as a central midfielder. They’ll rely on the everpresent and ever controversial Francesco Totti and Mirko Vucinic to bang in the goals, but is that enough?

FC Basel return to the Champions League after playing the Europa League last year, full of Swiss internationals who started with a bang in South Africa then ultimately petered out. The stand out players here would certainly be Benjamin Huggel, who is a consistent defensive midfielder, although at 33 could find the Roma and Bayern game tough. Up front is Alexander Frei, who has an impressive goal to game record at Basel, but again could be left wanting at this level, and his best days at Stade Rennais well in the past now. All in all, Basel have a look of Bolton about them, but a Euro version. It could work but most probably won’t, although Thorsten Fink who replaced Christian Gross as manager, has done a great job to get them here.

Finally CFR Cluj make another appearance in the Champions League, following on from two season ago where they beat Roma in the Stadio Olimpico. Serious doubts over whether they can top that. Like many Eastern European sides, they’ve got tons of journey Brazilians, none of which really have lived up to their potential. Cadu, their captain has been voted the best defender in Romania two years running will have to be at his upmost best to keep Vucinic, Olic and co at bay. They are managed by Andrea Mandorlini, who’s finally found success at  a club after knocking around Serie B for 10 years.

Winners: Bayern Runners Up: Roma

Group F: Chelsea, Marseille, Spartak Moscow, Zilina

Carlo Ancelotti should be fairly content with this group albeit it conjures a travel nightmare for their away games. This shouldn’t be a problem for one of the richer clubs in the world. Their signings over the summer have certainly bolstered their midfield options. Ramires adds another wide player, something pundits have claimed Chelsea have lacked, and Yossi Benayoun is a decent back-up in the Joe Cole benchwarmer role. We all know of Chelsea’s strengths, but this season could be an opportunity for younger players to make an impact, notably Daniel Sturridge and Jeffrey Bruma, a sturdy centre-back. They shouldn’t have any issues here.

The return of Didier Drogba to the Velodrome is the highlight here, and he should be given a rapturous reception by the Olympique fans. Which is a deep contrast to the internal struggles currently going on at the club. Didier Deschamps may have led them to the Ligue Un title last year but since then he’s seen several of his best leave the club, notably Mahamadou Niang (who wanted a fresh start at Fenerbahce) and Hatem Ben Arfa’s loan to Newcastle is imminent. Apart from that, they’ve had a pretty poor start to the season, although they finally won last weekend. Players for Chelsea fans to be wary of include Benoit Cheyrou (who’s better than Bruno),  Mathieu Valbuena who should thrive under no competition from Ben Arfa and finally Gabriel Heinze, who’s attributes are clear to Premier League fans.

Spartak Moscow could surprise a few. Firstly, the Luzhniki stadium (not a happy hunting ground for Chelsea and John Terry) could see teams fall foul of the artifical turf, yet Inter and Manchester United didn’t have issues last year. The weather in November could be another factor that could catch teams out. Apart from that, they’ve signed Aidan McGeady from Celtic who will be looking to do better than Garry O’Connor at Spartak. Welliton has been in stunning form in this year’s league bagging 13 goals for himself. They will be tough to beat at home, but could come a cropper away.

Finally, MSK Zilina qualified after eliminating Sparta Prague. I won’t try and claim that I know much about the side, but I promise a further blog into the side, before the Chelsea game. Either way, its a great achievement for the Slovakian side.

Winners: Chelsea Runners Up: Marseille

Group G: AC Milan, Real Madrid, Ajax, AJ Auxerre

The group that got everyone salivating. 20 European titles between three of them, and throw in Auxerre who were sensational to beat an albeit 9-man Zenit, and you have potential for some great action. Plus Kaka returns to Milan again, Clarence Seedorf and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar could return to two of their former clubs. Mouthwatering.

This group is difficult to call. Many have touted Real Madrid as the favourites for the trophy itself but Jose Mourinho would have liked to get an easier group. He drew a great top seed really, avoiding the English sides, but Ajax could easily throw a proverbial spanner in the works. It also remains to be seen whether he can co-exist with director Jorge Valdano at Real, since it seems inevitable there will be a power struggle of sorts. Will Jose adapt his style, most probably considering he has most times he’s joined a league. His summer signings have been great, Mesut Ozil was a nice bit of business for the fee, but Ricardo Carvalho could be a masterstroke. Real look weakest in defence, and it seems perfect for him to buy a player he knows so well, and generally improves his centre-back partner, which is great news for Sergio Ramos. Add to that the exciting duo Angel Di Maria and Sergio Canales (if given games), and you can see why Real have been installed as tournament favourites. That spectre of the 2nd round haunts them but not this time.

AC Milan on the other hand could struggle. Forever aging, forever manager changing, this could be a season of disappointment for the Rossoneri. That being said, some astute deals in signing Kevin Prince Boateng on loan and the impending Zlatan Ibrahamovic transfer possibly will strengthen a side that lacks youth and a good frontman. Alexandre Pato will be looking to prove Dunga wrong for not selecting him for the World Cup and the  duo of Seedorf and Pirlo have undoubted quality. They’ve also signed Marco Amelia on loan from Genoa to amend the goalkeeper problem, Abbiati is a liability at times.

Ajax finally return to the top stage, under Martin Jol, who encourages attacking football in his side. The frontline looks superb, particularly Luis Suarez who’s been dynamite up top for 12 months now. They’ve signed his international teammate Nicolas Lodeiro to strengthen the backline, which looks a lot better that it did, with Dutch international Gregory van der Wiel being the best of the bunch. The midfield looks decent, particularly Urby Emanuelson bombing down the left flank and Demy De Zeeuw, a supremely able midfielder. Ajax have huge potential.

Finally Auxerre, the outsiders handed a monster task. They dumped Zenit out to get here, and contain some quality players such as Stephan Grichting, a robust Swiss defender, Ireneusz Jelen and Anthony Le Tallec forming a good partnership up front. They will be dangerous from set-pieces mostly as Zenit found out. Had they been in an easier group they could have done well.

Winners: Real Madrid Runners Up: Ajax

Group H: Arsenal, Shaktar Donetsk, Braga, Partizan

Finally we reach the Gunners group, which looks good on paper but not so great once you delve into the logisitics of things. Wenger’s side always promise it to be their year but ultimately this passes on from season to season. This has to be their year in my opinion to win a trophy, will it be this one?

They’ve managed to keep hold of Cesc Fabregas, but his move is inevitable this following summer. The signing of Laurent Koscielny from Lorient looks to be another Wenger work in progress, and Squillaci from Sevilla will provide that experience so desperately needed. Jack Wilshere will be given time too, which is great news from an England stand-point in the long-run. Theo Walcott looks to have improved following his World Cup snub, deserved in my opinion and could mould himself into a great talent finally. But that underlying issue of the goalkeeper remains. Manuel Almunia looked assured against Liverpool and can’t get the critics off his back. Even if Arsenal did sign Schwarzer it’s a short term measure and more for the league than here. Arsenal should coast this group really.

There will be a quick reunion with former striker Eduardo after leaving for Shaktar in the summer, a good move for them since he lost pace from his leg injury and could make the Ukrainan league his playground. Other that Shaktar may look flash but otherwise don’t impress me. I saw them against Fulham in the Europa League last year. They dominated but couldn’t finish at home, and it ultimately cost them. Sounds a lot like another team in this group (I jest). Jadson is really their best player who looks skilful and a great finisher (notably in the Europa League final of 2009). The signing of Dmytro Chygrynskiy from Barca will shore up a weaker defence. Pep Guardiola didn’t want to let him go apparently, but the board needed to create funds.

Braga provided the biggest shock of qualifying beating highly fancied Sevilla in a thriller of a game. They almost won the Liga Sagres last year until a late collapse. They looked great upfront midweek, especially striker Lima who got a hat-trick. That being said they looked a bit shaky at the back, so improvement is needed there. But as Celtic and Sevilla found out, this side is lethal from a set-piece and from all around play really. Expect flair and passion from them for sure. They also have a player called George Lucas. I hope to god he hasn’t seen Brazilian Star Wars.

'The force is with Braga' George Lucas of Braga.....he did say this

Finally Partizan Belgrade will look to bring back the glory days of ’66 where they reached the European Cup Final (they don’t go on about it as much as England does). They participated in the world’s worst penalty shoot-out against Anderlecht to get here. From the highlights it was clear Cleo is a striker to be wary of, he finished off scraps and can find space easily. Also keep a look out for Sochaux loanee Ivan Stevanovic who is a decent right-back

Winners: Arsenal Runners Up: Braga

So there we have it. After today’s Europa League I’m not as excited about this draw as I was, but come September 14th I’m sure I’ll change my mind when Bremen take on Spurs.

I’ll leave you with my favourite goal from last year’s competition, starring Dutch wonder Arjen Robben

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 – Group A

The football season has ended. Some pundits will tell you this season has lacked quality, with the departure of the league’s biggest player, CR-9, it was thought that the league would struggle to compete with its Spanish and Italian counterparts. But for my money, this season has been one of the most level contests going. The gap between the supposed ‘Big Four’ and the rest closed, and Spurs sneaked in for the coveted 4th place. The relegation battle was intriguing for a while, with several sides struggling with payments, and other teams such as Wigan received several thrashings.

But anyway, that’s all done and dusted. The greatest tournament of them all is up for grabs once again, this time in South Africa. So, in a change to the blog, I’ve decided this week to preview a group each day to give you an insight into the vast array of teams that will compete for the trophy. Some hot favourites, other complete long shots, the World Cup truly unites the globe with a veritable footballing fest. And I can’t wait for it.

South Africa is ready, are you?

Here’s a promise, it won’t be as complicated as Alan Partridge’s World Cup Countdown to 94

GROUP A

SOUTH AFRICA

Well it makes sense to start off with the unfancied hosts. When South Africa won the bid for the World Cup, it represented more than just making money, it represented an opportunity to show the world that they had overcome the past tragedies of Apartheid. One thing is certain, Bafana Bafana will make the tournament vibrant and full of colour. The sheer effort put in to make South Africa ready to host a World Cup is astounding.

The pressure is truly on for them as well. No host nation has gone out at the group stage and it’s fair to say that they wouldn’t be in the World Cup if they weren’t hosting. The team has gone backwards since they last reached the group stage in 2002. But, to say they don’t have a chance of making it out of Group A is truly disrespectful. There are some decent players within the side, and being on home soil will enhance their chances.

STRENGTHS – The defence is fairly strong and full of Kaizer Chiefs (the clearly superior version, as opposed to the band) players. Captain Aaron Mokoena will lead the hosts out, after a turbulent year at Pompey and will want to make his side not seem like pushovers. Fulham’s Kagiso Dikgachoi will partner Mokoena in the centre in midfield. He’s used sparingly at Fulham, but given a chance here, he will hopefully prove to be a decent player.

WEAKNESSES – The attack. Only Benny McCarthy seems capable of scoring for them, and he’s been a bit part in West Ham’s poor season. Someone will need to become a hero if South Africa are to make it anywhere near the knock-out stage.

KEY PLAYER – Steven Pienaar

The Everton winger has come off the back of an impressive season, often taking games by the scruff of the neck (see Man City home) and he has finally hit good form after disappointing in Dortmund and Ajax. Whether the contract discussions and constant links to the European elites will distract him, remains to be seen.

MANAGER – Carlos Alberto Parreira

A Brazilian with massive World Cup pedigree, after lifting the World Cup with Brazil in 94. That side were hated by the Brazilians, but South Africa have taken Parreira to heart in his 2nd stint as their coach. Also managed Kuwait in 82, UAE in 90, Saudi Arabia in 98 and Brazil again in 2006. If there’s one man who knows the World Cup, it is him.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE TROPHY – 100/1 at best.

PREDICTION – I put a sneaky bet on with my housemate that South Africa would make it out of the group stage so I’m praying that they do. Realistically, it’s a long shot.

FRANCE

Never has a French side been detested so much internally and externally. After Thierry’s handball in the play-off for a place at the finals, the side, and the man himself has faced a constant barrage from the media over their side. Raymond Domenech has turned a side who were world-class into a unit that struggles. Just by looking at their qualifying campaign shows you how poor this French side is on paper.

STRENGTHS – The spine of the side is full of absolute quality players. Les Bleus midfield contains experienced players in Jeremy Toulalan and Alou Diarra  (both have had great seasons) plus adept wingers in Florent Malouda and the man to watch Franck Ribery. France are also blessed with two superb keepers. Hugo Lloris has been exceptional for Lyon, which has seen him linked with every European heavyweight going and Steve Mandanda has just won the league with Marseille.

WEAKNESSES – Age is a major factor in France’s decline, especially up front. Anelka and Henry aren’t setting the world alight anymore, and are both bit-part players at their clubs. Another problem is the lack of players coming through to replace. Karim Benzema hasn’t made the squad after a poor debut season as a Galactico, and the supporting cast don’t look up to much either. Domenech has called up forgotten man, Djibril Cisse to attempt to find a striker in some sort of form, after all he has scored 29 goals for Panathiniakos this year. I completely understand the decision to not take Benzema. In Euro 2000, France took Anelka, who at the time had been poor at Real. Result being that he didn’t play well in the tournament either.

The defence isn’t the best either with only William Gallas being the only true centre-back as he will be partnered by Eric Abidal.

Key Player – Franck Ribery

Bayern’s star player will hope to translate his club form onto the big stage. He has all the attributes to make an impact in South Africa. He will probably make mincemeat of most right-backs in the group.

Manager – Raymond DomenechRay-Dom adopts Wenger approach 'He did not see it'

Alistair Darling impersonator, with even less popularity. He made the final last time out, but that was with better players; players he chose to ignore this time, such as Patrick Vieira. His PR man has a massive job ahead of him to avoid Ray becoming Public Enemy 1,2 and 3. Well known for his proposal to TV girlfriend, live on air, after crashing out of Euro 2008.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE TROPHY – 12/1

PREDICTION – Should walk the group but tension within the ranks may prove costly to Le Bleus

MEXICO

A massive turnaround was needed in qualifying for the Mexicans. Sven came and Sven left, with a side on the verge of failure to qualify from CONCACAF. But under Javier Aguirre, Mexico improved and continue their run of World Cups since 1994.

They are full of some decent youth players, namely Arsenal’s Carlos Vela, who has huge potential, yet it hasn’t had the chance to be unlocked under Arsene Wenger. West Ham and Manchester United are also represented by strikers Guillermo Franco and Javier Hernandez.

STRENGTHS – Counter attacking. With some many young players, the speed of the team is key, especially when Mexico are under the kosh. They also have experience in Barca’s Rafael Marquez.

WEAKNESSES – Not enough quality throughout the side, to mount a serious challenge for the trophy. They are also known as a dirty side, which is backed up by of course, Rafael Marquez.

KEY PLAYER – Carlos Vela

The 21 year-old front-man hasn’t shown a lot at Arsenal, but in Mexico, he’s the linchpin of the Mexican front-line. Arsenal fans should see more of his quality here than at the Emirates.

MANAGER – Javier Aguirre

The former Atletico Madrid manager found a side lacking confidence and points in their qualifying campaign. after Sven’s defensive play didn’t suit ‘El Tri’. Focuses on counter-attacking flowing play which is sorely needed in this group

ODDS ON LIFTING THE TROPHY – 50/1

PREDICTION – Lack enough quality to go far, so will fall at the first hurdle.

URUGUAY

The first team to lift the World Cup and 2 time winners. Uruguay certainly thrive on the big stage, but their recent record in the competition isn’t as glittering. They missed out in 2006 and will be looking for a marked improvement from Japan/South Korea 2002 after being knocked out in the groups (along with France).

STRENGTHS

The frontline. Diego Forlan is now a veteran in this side, and after leading Atletico Madrid to Europa League success, he’ll want another medal in his trophy cabinet. Alongside him , should be Ajax’s Luis Suarez, who is a terrific player, who will provide the foil for Forlan to pop up for important goals. Like he does regularly.

There is also a decent defence, with Juve’s Martin Caceres being the most talented. He’s made the squad but has been injured for most of the season, meaning his quality will have to outweight his lack of form.

WEAKNESSES

Inconsistency. In qualifying they beat Peru 6-0 but got destroyed by Brazil 4-0. Suggests that they don’t have what it takes to hang with the best countries in the competition.  But this group is wide open, with all teams in for shout of qualifying. They shouldn’t fear France, that’s for sure.

KEY PLAYER – Diego Forlan

He comes from Uruguay. he makes the English cry. The fox in the box who didn’t live up to the billing in Manchester. Coming off the back of a great season, including goals against Fulham and Liverpool in the final rounds of the Europa League, could this be Forlan’s finest performance yet?

Manager – Oscar Washington Tabarez

Great name and an even great following in Uruguay after he took them to Italia 90. Has also managed AC Milan and Boca Juniors throughout his career, so he clearly knows pressure.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE TROPHY – 80/1


PREDICTION – Going to be close, but I think 2nd in the group, thanks to Diego Forlan’s form.

So to go through, France and Uruguay. Both won’t go far. Join me next time for Group B  and to discuss Maradona in general

Ciao. I leave you with one of my favourite goals from World Cup 98.

Adrian Ilie, please stand up

Odds courtesy of bet.fourfourtwo.com