6 things you may not know about MSK Zilina

With the Champions League opener drawing near, it seems only fair to cover the team I glossed over in my main Champions League preview piece. After hours of trawling through many Slovakian websites (some not exactly kosher to my eye) and some Champions League highlights, let me attempt to give Chelsea fans the low-down on their unknown away day to the home of the Slovakian League Champions.

1. MSK Zilina make the group stages for the first time in their history, after dispatching Sparta Prague in impressive fashion, with a  3-0 aggregate win. Admittedly Sparta Prague are in the wilderness after a decade of relevant success. The early 2000’s saw Karel Poborsky lead the side to impressive results and the club itself produced several talented Czech players that left for bigger clubs. Now with only former Reading player Marek Matejovsky and ex-Hammer Tomas Repka being recognisable to English fans in that side, it’s maybe understandable why they lost heavily.

But don’t take anything away from Zilina. They won 2-0 away from home, a match which you can see below.

Well, the first goal may well be gifted by some comical goalkeeping, but the finish from Gambian striker Momoudou Ceesay (more on him later) is brilliant although aided by two defenders providing adequate blinding. The second is typical of what we may see Zilina doing against Chelsea; set-piece dangers. A terrific result for Zilina who entered the competition in the second qualifying round.

2. A few facts about the club itself. They’ve won 5 domestic titles, all coming in the last 9 years. Their best European run was 40 years ago where they made the quarter final of the now defunct Cup Winners Cup (a competition I miss). They play in yellow and green, so maybe some Norwich fans cheering them on. Zilina itself is in the North West of the country, about 200km from capital city Bratislava.

The club is curiously nicknamed Sosoni after the Soshone native American Indian tribe. A bizarre nickname for a club several thousand miles away, although the most likely reason is the tribal nature of the fans.

3. Here is a video of said fans. Passionate is a slight understatement. They’ll certainly drown out the Chelsea away support, even in strong voice. Note the modified We All Dream of a Team of Gary Breens chant.

4. One slight problem as highlighted in this fantastic piece, is that many Slovakian fans aren’t content to pay Champions League prices for a one-off game. With the lowest prices being at around 50 euros, the ultras of the club protested against the hike by leaving their weekend game against Presov at 60 mins, leaving the Stadium Pod Dubnam an empty shell, devoid of much atmosphere. Hopefully, they don’t boycott their biggest game in their history.

5. Arguably their most influential player is new signing Momoudou Ceesay. He should be a player familiar to Chelsea diehards, having spent some time there in the Chelsea Academy. He then moved to Belgian club Westerlo, where he found the league’s physicality tough going, only bagging 1 goal in 30 appearances. A move to Zilina has reignited his career with 3 goals in the Champions League qualifying already. The best being this one, a self-set up overhead kick. Special one:

It will be interesting to see if the 21 year old causes John Terry problems. He has pace and some skill as well, nutured by the youth coaches at Chelsea. Theoretically Chelsea should know what to expect, but this is football isn’t it and wouldn’t it make a fairy-tale story.

Captain Marvel?

6. Zilina retook top spot in the league at the weekend. Their league form has been a bit patchy, most probably down to their campaign in Europe, but they have still yet to lose this season (4 wins and 4 draws). Through looking at statistics, it seems as if Zilina like scoring late goals, with 4 coming in the last 10 minutes this season. Other players to watch include battling and industrious captain Robert Jez, who this week said the side are ‘aiming to go down in history‘ on Wednesday. Jozef Piacek is also important at the back having played all 8 games in the league.

So there we have it, the rank outsiders of Group F, but certainly they deserve every success amongst the elite of Europe.

In more important news, according to Chelsea fans on Twitter, an alcohol ban has been introduced for Wednesday’s game in Zilina, maybe as a pre-caution against hooligans. But of course this is ludicrous.

No beer and no win make Chelsea fans go crazy

For the latest Slovakian football news, follow britskibelasi on Twitter. A man clearly in the know.

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Knights of the (Virtual) Round Table: Part 1 – The Keyboard Warriors

After last week’s highest blog views, I took part in a roundtable discussion on LesRosbifs.net about English footballers abroad, and why many English players don’t ply their trade abroad.

I promise it’s a great read (I’m not just saying that because I feature in it) with some well made points. It’s also quite funny in parts too.

Also check out LesRosbifs in general. There’s some great pieces charting the history of Englishmen in football. Fascinating stuff I promise.

Plus there’s no mention of Rohan Ricketts in the discussion. Sorry 50 Cent’s favourite footballer.

What's poppin?

The Unofficial World Cup Awards Ceremony 2010

Zuma and Blatter stuck in the Spanish mosh-pit Photo: REUTERS/Jerry Lampen

So there we have it. The new World Champions are Spain after a fiery encounter with The Netherlands in Soccer City. Many people expected a classic but in the end, the contest itself was marred with several horrible tackles and neither team really living up to the hype.

You can’t really argue that Spain were overall the best side in this tournament, purely for their retention of possession and their overall belief that a goal would come if they kept with the same style. But within that, some players clearly underperformed namely Fernando Torres, who looked out of sorts and dejected when he pulled his hamstring right near the end of extra time.

The Dutch game plan, to stifle Spain worked for the most part although they can count themselves lucky to have 10 men at the end. Both holding midfielders in Van Bommel and De Jong were forced to press the midfield strangehold and since both men tend to have short fuses, some horror tackles followed. De Jong’s kung-fu kick to Xabi Alonso being the worst of the bunch. Alonso will certainly have the imprint of that Adidas F50 on his chest today. A small price to pay for being world champion.

Howard Webb, I thought did an decent job considering the circumstances. Both sets of players were intent on stopping the other side by any means. You could argue he didn’t have the bottle to send off more, but history shows us that Webb prefers to keep a full compliment of players on the field at all costs (see Nemanja Vidic in the Carling Cup Final this season). Marca disagree with me calling Webb ‘abysmal‘. Dirk Kuyt claims that he cost them the World Cup, which is very rich considering the fouls Holland committed.

Webb was forced to be ‘card happy’ because of the nature of the game. Linesmen Darren Cann and Michael Mullarkey were superb throughout and that should be commended. Maybe Webb could have been slightly better (on one occassion booking someone despite not seeing the foul) but overall he was ok. Very controversial I know but Webb kept his cool, unlike the Dutch.

Holland had their chances but they couldn’t put them away. Arjen Robben was one on one with Iker Casillas twice and couldn’t finish either chance. He looked the most threatening of the Dutch, as Sneijder had a game to forget and I still think he’s been good, but not worthy of the Silver Ball. The Golden Ball, for the tournament’s best player went to Diego Forlan, a very good choice as he led Uruguay to the semi final.

Overall, the best side eventually found the goal in extra time through Andres Iniesta, who’s had a phenomenal tournament considering he got an injury right before it. Strange that a side which is renowned for flamboyant attacking play kept a clean sheet right throughout the knockout round.

I’ve decided to compile my own list of special awards to commemorate the first World Cup in South Africa. It’s been a great World Cup, full of shocks and hopefully these awards will reward the talent but also remember the truly stupid moments as well.

The Plastic Fan Award

Bill opts for a cuppa rather than half-time Bovril. Thank god he doesn't have a vuvuzela, I've heard his sax work

Honourable Mentions – Mick Jinx Jagger who supported England against Germany, USA against Ghana and Brazil vs Chile. That’s supporting three teams in three separate continents and only one of em won.

Winner – Marcel Desailly for his love of Ghana, despite leaving the country as a teen to play for France, a side he played for over 100 times. To be fair, after the whole French debacle, I don’t really blame him.  Kofi Annan is the true winner of the Ghanian Diplomat award.

The Jose Mourinho Award for Most Entertaining Manager

Watching Diego has been a highlight in itself at this World Cup

Honourable Mentions – Marcelo Bielsa for services to 3-3-1-3, Fabio Capello for being irate throughout and Raymond Domenech for a spectacular balls-up, and refusing to shake Carlos Alberto Perreira’s hand after South Africa beat his side 2-0. Nothing like a bizarre Frenchmen

Winner – Diego Maradona has to win this award. He exceeded my expectations just about, although don’t ask him to employ a defensive strategy. It still annoys me that Veron was left out against Germany. He looked very dapper in his chrome suit and his antics during games were a joy to behold. Off the field, he provided the funniest press-conference in recent memory. Diego Corner is a wonderful place.

“Just look at his face”

Greatest Spectator Award – Ghanian Pot Man wins this award by a landslide. He was seen at every Ghana game, complete with his famous cauldron sat firmly on his noggin. What puzzles me slightly is what’s brewing in his cauldron. I’d like to think it’s some oxtail soup but more likely is just plain firewood. Passionate man.

Best ‘British’ Goal scored – Wesley Sneijder vs Brazil

This award is to commemorate the stupidest phrase coined by the amateurish ITV commentary team, narrowly beating Mark Lawrenson’s ‘Hollywood pass’. I should probably blog about that alone, considering the ITV production over the month was so poor. Interesting to read that their final only got 3.8 million viewers compared to 18 million at the BBC, an indication of their quality perhaps. Anyway, any bullet header was given the moniker ‘British goal’ because as we know no other league can score a header from a set-piece.

The Jaap Stam Man of Steel Award – Xabi Alonso

See above video for reason. He’d have to be made of steel with that impact from Jong Kong Phooey (credit to David Stubbings for that superb pun he likely read in the Daily Star)

Das Wunderkind Award – Thomas Muller and Mesut Ozil

Honourable mentions to Ghana’s Andre Ayew and Kevin Prince Boateng but it’s clearly these two. It’s hard to separate the two of them, so I haven’t. Both were key to Germany’s path to third place, and Joachim Loew should be praised for giving some under 21’s into the side. And boy did they grasp the opportunity. I wasn’t a big fan of Thomas Muller before the tournament but he worked brilliantly in Germany’s 4-2-3-1 formation, nabbing 5 goals and 3 assists on his way to the Golden Boot. Mesut Ozil was the spark of the front four and his positioning off the ball is absolutely superb. He’s not too bad on it either. If Bayern sign Ozil, they could have a magnificent side.

Ronny Rosenthal Award – Yakubu

Yakubu may well claim he was offside or that he wanted to destroy the Evian water bottle (other brands of water are available) but it’s a tremendous miss that kickstarted a national ban inadvertently. Chris Iwelumo claimed it was worse than his. Firstly, no it wasn’t. Secondly, having arguments about worse misses is ludicrous and lastly, Yakubu may well be remembered for something else in his career.

Most Patriotic – North Korea Jong Tae-Se for crying during his national anthem against Brazil. It was a wonderful moment that’s been ridiculed since. But playing for such a small (but most glorious) nation like North Korea on that stage must be emotional.

Least Patriotic – Any member of the French national squad. This also wins the Funniest Moment of the World Cup as France decided to revolt against their manager. They refused to train, Anelka packed his bags and sulked back to his West London flat and then they crashed out of the group stage. This tournament will be repressed from the memories of Frenchmen but savoured in crystal clear fashion by everyone else, especially for the Irish.

The Golden Zizou – Felipe Melo wins this award for a good player going into meltdown at a key moment. He was pretty much single-handledly responsible for Brazil’s exit, after scoring an own-goal (it was a own goal not Sneijder’s) and then stomping a mudhole into Arjen Robben. Dunga must be angry with him after he lost his job because of it. The best part about this was Brazil legend Ronaldo telling him not to return to Brazil in a tweet. Modern technology eh?

The Dennis Bergkamp Wondergoal Award

Honourable Mentions Gio Van Bronckhorst’s thunderbolt effort from 35 yards and David Villa’s solo run against Honduras.

Winner – Fabio Quagliarella’s wonderfully pointless deft chip against Slovakia. Brilliant goal that left Jan Mucha knowingly lobbed. He played in one game and did that, maybe Lippi should have shown more faith in the Napoli man. I’ll guess we’ll never know.

The Dimitar Berbatov Award – This is a special award for the front man who didn’t turn up. Honourable mention to Fernando Torres but he became a World Cup winner. Therefore Wayne Rooney wins it. Never really threatened the goal and provided a lacklustre performance. Let’s hope for better things in 2014 from him, it’ll probably be his last chance.

Unsung Hero Award – Antolin Alcaraz for being Paraguay’s rock in defence which saw them reach the quarter finals, narrowly losing to Spain 1-0 in the end. Paraguay didn’t exactly set the world alight, but were solid throughout. Roberto Martinez’s decision to sign him pre-tournament from Club Brugge could be a masterstroke.

Quick, lock him in there

Unwanted Hero Award – Paul the Octopus. Unanimous winner, he’s nothing special. Just because swims to the right hand side box every time and the whole media goes crazy. I don’t condone death-threats to cephalopods but I’m glad to see the back of an animal who didn’t even bet on his predictions. Has he not seen Ray Winstone’s massive disturbing face telling him of all the markets? Come on Paul you could have bought a nice new tank with that.

The Harlem Globetrotters Award – Germany easily win this award for entertaining team. Pure counter attacking football with loads of goals. ‘What more do you want?’ as Lawro would say.

Now for the big one – The Johan Cruyff Award. The award that is presented to the overall best player of the tournament (although unlike Cruyff now has a World Cup medal).

It has to go to Xavi. This is also a recognition of his talents over the past 5 years in general really, there’s no one who’s better at passing in the world or holding onto the ball, and ultimately this is what won the World Cup. Along with Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta, the Barca trio looked phenomenal.

So, those are the awards, I’ll see you in 2014 if the world hasn’t ended. My tip is Brazil as it’s in Brazil


World Cup Preview – The Quarter Finals

Well that round certainly lived up to the hype. Many many talking points, but it seems fairly obvious to start with Germany vs England. I had a slight inkling that England were going to get a spanking but due to my blind patriotism, I decided to undermine my prediction.

As I said, the game would all come down to who was covering Ozil. In this case Gareth Barry took up that role and provided a truly underwhelming performance. He was meant to be the shield for Terry and Upson; that shield was metaphorically made out of crate paper and Germany stook 4 past the woeful defence. I felt sorry for David James as he’s played pretty well but had a pretty poor defence in front of him. I don’t even want to go into the whole Lampard goal as it would have made no difference at all to lacklustre England.

Downbeat England during Germany game

I could do a blog about everything that went wrong and how we can look to other national sides in an effort to improve the development of young players. But several respectable journalists have done this to much better effect than I could ever do, so I’d merely be reiterating them. Plus I could ramble all day about what’s wrong with the FA which is boring.

On to much less depressing issues. Paraguay and Ghana made the Quarter Finals for the first time. Ghana were brilliant against the U.S. and Kevin Prince Boateng continues to impress me. He’s made the step up to international level look effortless. Paraguay edged past Japan on penalties in quite possibly the dullest game so far, but to their credit, they provided a penalty master-class.

The heavyweights of Brazil, Argentina, Spain and Holland all came through their games, some easier than others. Brazil were relatively comfortable against Chile, and Chile can surely be proud of this campaign after bringing some flamboyance and also some hard tackling when pressing. Argentina Mexico was a great game, sealed with a terrific strike by Carlos Tevez. Unfortunately this game will be remembered for the second officiating blunder of the day, when it really should be remembered for being a terrific spectacle. Javier Hernandez scored a great goal as well, and I hope to see more of that at Old Trafford this season.

Spain and Portugal was fascinating tactically. Portugal looked the better side until Del Bosque brought on Llorente, who played well unlike Fernando Torres. Portugal capitulated and David Villa sneaked in past a lax Simao. Holland provided an efficient performance against Slovakia. Holland looked a lot better with Arjen Robben, and he scored the first in a 2-1 win.

I’ve left Uruguay last for a reason. I genuinely believe they could make the final. The front 3 have been sensational and it’s great to see Diego Forlan finally cast that lazy tabloid tag of being ‘forlorn’. Without doubt one of the best players this year.

So onward to the Quarter Final previews:

The Netherlands vs Brazil

Port Elizabeth, Friday 2nd July 15:00 GMT (BBC)

  • A reincarnated Total Football vs Dunga’s defensive policy. Maybe they’ll both cancel each other out. Ranking 4th and 1st respectively in the world, this has all the makings of a classic.
  • They last met in a World Cup in 1998, which was also a tight affair with Brazil coming out on top on penalties after Phillip Cocu and Ronald DeBoer both missed their spot kicks
  • Holland now with Robben look better with that injection of pace. Brazil have gone about their business with little effort but Luis Fabiano’s found his goalscoring boots at the right time. Juan and Lucio have done well and I think Van Persie will have to play a blinder to break them down
  • I don’t think Holland have been tested yet defensively and that will be their undoing if Robinho and Luis Fabiano play well.

PREDICTION – 0-2

Uruguay vs Ghana

Soccer City, Johannesburg  19.30 GMT (ITV)

  • Both sides can see the semi-final within grasp, a superb achievement for them with neither really expecting to form a run like this.
  • Uruguay front three of Diego Forlan, Luis Suarez and Diego Cavani have been the driving force behind the team, but have been well supported by the defence. Ghana on the other hand have arguably been led by Asamoah Gyan who’s scored most of their goals, his winner against the U.S. being the highlight.
  • I think the Black Stars don’t have enough at the back to keep Uruguay out, especially with some suspensions. They are also missing Ayew wh0’s been solid. Uruguay are missing key defender Diego Godin, the defensive clearance speciallist in the France game.

Prediction – 3-1

Argentina vs Germany

Cape Town, Saturday 3rd July 15:00 GMT (BBC)

  • The second titanic clash of the quarter finals. Diego’s dynamic Argentina versus ‘Yogi Love’s’ youthful Germany. Both sides have been clinical so far and have shown the best attacking football in the competition.
  • The key contest here is Messi vs Ozil. Both have been instrumental in their teams providing the foil to attack and also creating key chances. Both have exceptional off the ball movement.
  • With such great attacking players, both sides look decidedly average at the back. Germany have been flattered by poor opposition, and Manuel Neuer has looked flappable.  Also, at times whereas I still worry about Martin Demichelis but if Diego plays Burdisso, it might tighten them up a bit.
  • It’s only a matter of time until Messi scores. I see it being here. I’ve been convinced by the extrovert Diego Maradona and I think Argentina will edge a classic although I’m going to sit on the fence, and say a Germany win isn’t out of the realms of possibility if they show the camaraderie and efficiency of the England performance.

PREDICTION3-2

Paraguay vs Spain

Ellis Park, Johannesburg 19:30 GMT (BBC)

  • Paraguay have to be considered underdogs here, but their performances so far have been so inconsistent its impossible to say which Paraguay will turn up. They’ve been good defensively however and you’d have to think that’s what will be needed here. Antolin Alcaraz has been the standout centre-back at this tournament for me, which was a great move from Roberto Martinez at Wigan to sign him pre-tournament.
  • Spain have been underwhelming so far. Their tactics need fine tuning, for example I don’t think they need two defensive midfielder, so Del Bosque needs to drop Sergio Busquets or Xabi Alonso and put in either Pedro, Jesus Navas to add width and ideas.
  • Dropping Torres is also a good move in my book. He’s been terrible mainly as I don’t think he’s match fit. Del Bosque, put in Llorente or Cesc Fabregas behind Villa please.
  • Spain should win this easily but they’ve yet to show anything like they can produce (except David Villa). Paraguay have a certain gritty determination about them, and I think they’ll give it everything but fall short.

PREDICTION – 0-2

So that’s it. Let’s hope my record of prediction continues to be better than Mark Lawrenson and level with Paul the Octopus.

World Cup Preview – The Last 16

Well, so far, the World Cup has seen many talking points, arguably most off the field. The mass hysteria over the flight of the Jabulani football and the whurring of mutant bees around the grounds courtesy of that old friend, the vuvuzela. The French threatening a mutiny and also who could forget Robbie Earle selling his 36 tickets ( he had 400 in total for the tournament) for the Holland Denmark game to some lovely Dutch ladies. This World Cup has set a precedent for outrageous moments.

We’ve had some great footballing moments in a World Cup apparently littered with terrible games if you believe the pundits. But this only makes it more fascinating, some of the ‘dull’ games have been great tactical battles, others have been exactly that: dull (England Algeria, France Uruguay being the 2 main examples). At the end of the day, if you are a pundit moaning at getting paid for being at a World Cup, then you need to re-assess how much of a prat you are.

Some sides have fascinated, others have fallen flat at the first hurdle. Underdogs have shined in South Africa as well. New Zealand were unbeaten in the group stage but faced an flight back to Auckland whilst Italy became a country for Old Men after they finished bottom of Group F. Switzerland’s tight defensive unit defeated the pre-tournament champions elect, Spain and Germany once again proved their tournament mettle with some convincing displays. And of course El Diego’s faith in Saint Martin Palermo was proved right after he scored a goal. I honestly didn’t predict that.

Half the fun of this tournament has been the off-screen stuff (such as watching Diego Maradona waltz around in a rather fetching monochrome number) but we now reach crunch-time. The Last 16.

Throughout the years, we’ve had some unbelievable ties and this year will hopefully be no different. So here’s my look at the fixtures and how I see them panning out. (Editors Note: Chris Mayer is often wrong, he thought Italy would shock people this year, but not in the way they did)

Uruguay vs South Korea

Uruguay came out as winners of Group A, after some great performances notably against hosts South Africa. The draw against France was forgettable but they improved as the group wore on and look a very good side. Diego Forlan’s form has been sensational but other players have impressed me. Luis Suarez adopted a Pippo Inzaghi role, and was constantly offside against France but grabbed the winner against Mexico. They’ve also yet to concede a goal in the groups, but as we know things get tougher from here on in. Diego Godin and Nicolas Fucile have both been impressive at the back and were responsible for several clearances in the opening game. Midfielder Egidio Arevalo has also tough tackled in the midfield. I really rate this side.

South Korea finished runners-up in Group B, with the easy win over Greece being decisive in progression. They were taken apart by the glorious attacking football of Argentina however and just about got a draw against Nigeria. They’ve looked fairly tight throughout the group, minus one incident and the midfield has done a superb job in getting South Korea here. Ji-Sung Park, Park Chu Young and Kim Sung Yeung have all put in hard graft and provide the attacking threat that saw them score 5 goals in the groups. The defence was ripped apart in the last two games really and I think that will be their undoing here.

Prediction – 2-1

USA vs Ghana

A fixture that’s bound to have split loyalties for former wonder kid Freddy Adu. The US lumbered to the group winners spot after a late goal by the perennial Landon Donovan once again showing his talent. They made hard work of Algeria and Slovenia but their performance against England was fairly solid. I fear for their defence who were excellent against England but poor against Slovenia. The stand out players so far have been Donovan and Bradley.

Ghana finished runners up in Group D but weren’t entirely convincing either. They were great against Serbia, failed to capitalise on 10 men Australia and showed promise against Germany. One thing is clear, Asamoah Gyan has got them this far. He’s a great striker and has shone on the biggest stage. Ghana’s opening game performance was brilliant and they stunned Serbia with their passing and all-round better teamwork. Kevin Prince Boateng has played a blinder as well.

Tough one to call this but I think the US will edge it.

Prediction – 1-0

Germany vs England

The Battle of Bloemfontein. Every superlative possible will be used in the build-up to this mammoth clash. Even Franz Beckenbauer has been mud-slinging in the past few days. England wouldn’t have wanted this tie as early as it has arrived and are slight underdogs for me. They haven’t performed at all well in the group and even the Slovenian performance didn’t impress me despite being a marked improvement. The team hasn’t gelled well unlike the Germans who hit the ground running against Australia. However they aren’t one of the favourites and that performance was aided by a Pim Verbeek tactical meltdown.

Germany are beatable, but not for the reasons I’ve seen (weak centre back pairing). Mesut Ozil has been a revelation, hey I tipped him to do well beforehand, but other players have excelled as well, notably Friedrich, Muller and the international men of mystery, Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose.

I could probably do a blog about this game alone now I think about it, but the key area for me is who is going to stalk Ozil. Also if service to Klose is limited then, England could win this.

I don’t see it happening on the basis of what’s come before

Prediction – 2-0 (realistic result, if you want a outrageous patriotic one then 5-1 ENGLAND 😉

Argentina vs Mexico

This match is the one I’m most looking forward to, without being incredibly tense throughout. Both sides were the group stage pioneers in terms of fluid attacking football. Argentina boast world class talent in their front-line whilst Mexico’s team built up impressively from the back.

Argentina destroyed the rest group pretty much with the arsenal of Messi, Tevez, Higuain and others. But they weren’t without fault. The right hand side of the defence looked very ropey, particular Jonas Gutierrez, who isn’t a right back. Martin Demichelis had his moments of absolute idleness against South Korea, and he’ll hope that it doesn’t happen again.

Mexico looked reasonably strong at the back, especially off the ball which allows Rafael Marquez to support the centre backs, making them a fortress difficult to penetrate. Gio Dos Santos has been quite good too, making me wonder whether he could hack it at Spurs.

This will come down to Veron for me. If he’s on form, Argentina will walk this game. If not they may need extra time. I’ll plumb for the former option.

Prediction – 3-1

The Netherlands vs Slovakia

Well this was a minor turn up for the books. Not for Holland, they were expected to win the group but they’ve not exactly set the world alight. It took them a while to break down all three teams, and I think without Arjen Robben they lack pace and width. The turn around against Denmark came through young winger Eljero Elia and that injection of raw energy broke the Danish stronghold on the game. If Robben is back, I think Holland will motor and it worries me that they haven’t hit their peak yet.

Slovakia have blossomed. They were woeful against New Zealand and Paraguay. But against Italy they looked a much better outfit, mainly because of the shuffling of the team allowing Marek Hamsik to do what he does best and move further forward, becoming a real threat in the process. Robert Vittek was also impressive against the aging Italian stallions.

I feel Holland have enough to see off Slovakia. It’s a question of whether the Slovakian defence can handle pace, and I don’t think they can. Still this tournament has proved a great one for them.

Prediction – 2-0

Brazil vs Chile

This mouth-watering South American clash will indeed see a clash of styles. Brazil have become a tough defensive machine under fashionista Dunga whereas Chile are clearly gung-ho under Bielsa. Bit unfair on Brazil as they can turn on the style at will but in my opinion, Lucio and Felipe Melo are the representatives of their new defensive style. No nonsense possession football. Their group was tough and they are fully prepared for the knockouts. The Ivory Coast game showed their prowess for goalscoring.

Chile are without doubt my favourite team at this World Cup. The only team to use the 3-3-1-3 formation. Fluid counter attack style football make them a menacing side. But they will need to cut out the bad tackling, which like the Spain game will be forced by them as they press the Brazillians. The best players for Chile so far have been Alexis Sanchez and Mark Gonzalez, both men terrorising their full-backs.

I have also said if Brazil are going to lose at the World Cup it will be to a South American side. Not this one though, I feel Brazil will have too much for a depleted Chile side. Although their best central midfielders (Carmona and Fernandez) will be back, it won’t be enough

Prediction – 3-0

Paraguay vs Japan

This tie surprised me. I didn’t see either team being as good as they were, and I thought this would be Italy Denmark. Still, this game is massive for both sides, as the winner will make it the furthest they’ve made it in a World Cup. Paraguay were efficient in the group and the standouts for me have been new Wigan centre-back Antolin Alcaraz and Enrique Vera. Even more impressive is they’ve done this without Oscar Cardozo most of the time, arguably their best player

Japan have also quietly gone about their business. They were good against a weak Cameroon side, narrowly beaten by the Dutch before stunning against Denmark. Keisuke Honda is the key man for them after dispatching his superb free-kick. The midfield has been outstanding for Japan. Endo, Honda and Hasebe are the driving force in midfield and they have to control the game if Japan are to win here.

Once again, two very equal sides. I fancy an upset if Japan play as well as they did against Denmark

Prediction 1-2

Spain vs Portugal

An Iberian derby to finish. This is arguably the closest game to call. Spain have proved themselves to be vulernable, after the defeat to Switzerland. Both soon after, order was restored, although they started slowly against Chile, ultimately they were the better team. The pre-tournament favourites face a tough task here, but a familiar enemy in Portugal, who’ve performed much better than I though they would (even with two 0-0’s).

Their 7-0 demolition of North Korea proved that up-front they can overpower weaker teams. Against Spain that’s not going to happen but I see them scoring. Defensively Portugal have looked immaculate, yet to concede. Fabio Coentrao has been magnificent but Raul Meireles has performed way above the levels I thought he could. Given space, he could punish the Spaniards.

If Puyol and Pique hold steady, then Spain should win this. But not comfortably.

Prediction – 2-1

So there we are, the last 16 teams left have been previewed and there some terrific ties in prospect. I leave you with my favourite match so far. Slovakia Italy. Truly remarkable game.


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