World Cup Preview – The Group of Death?

And so we come onto the hotly contested ‘Group of Death’. Three of these teams possess a world class player each. Brazil know everything about the World Cup, and now with manager Dunga at the helm they’ve managed to maintain a technically brilliant side and also strengthen their defence. Portugal made a meal of qualification and just about made it through the playoffs, but with Cristiano Ronaldo in their side, they should go far. Ivory Coast are one of the stronger African sides, complete with a deadly front-line, but the injury to Didier Drogba could prove costly.

Then there’s North Korea making their first World Cup appearance since 1966. Outsiders is a mere understatement here. No chancers is more appriopriate.

BRAZIL

Brazil have indeed created ‘the beautiful game’ as we know it. Five time winners and undoubtedly the kings of the World Cup. Renowned for stylish and creative genius, this Brazilian side could be considered the improved article. Why? The defence has finally been sorted out. In 2006, they looked sluggish and were shut out and knocked out by the French, mainly as Zinedine Zidane went on a 1998 style self-imposed rampage.

But this time round, under former World Cup winning captain Dunga, they’ve built the foundations from the back and the new generation have emerged to great acclaim. This could be their year once again

STRENGTHS

The defence. Yes, you heard me correctly. Dunga’s instilled belief into the back four. Captain Lucio, who was the best centre-back in Europe last season, will be looking for his 2nd World Cup win and he brings a certain brutal tenacity to the side. Described as a ‘one-man devastation unit’ by some, he’ll be partnered by Juan and the two have become a reliable duo. Lucio will be the aggressor while Juan will tidy up if needed. Calm and composed, they should be a nightmare for strikers. Maicon could be a key player as well if given license to roam like for his club

Brazil haven’t had the best keepers over the years either but Julio Cesar has changed that. The Inter Milan man is up there with the best. His acrobatic skills are very impressive and he gets the ‘bread and butter’ right as well.

Another side with the trusted 4-2-3-1, the jobs of Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo are key. Set up the rest. The front four look deadly. Nilmar, Kaka, Ramires and Luis Fabiano are all certain to be dangerous. Luis Fabiano has made the lone front man role his own and has 25 in 38 for Brazil. Phenomenal and also my pick for the golden boot.

Even the bench looks superb with Dani Alves, Grafite and Robinho all in waiting. Be fearful other top nations.

WEAKNESSES

I’ve struggled to find a weakness to be honest, but I guess one could be that some top players have indifferent club form. Kaka by his incredibly high standards has been fairly average at times. Robinho spent half the season being subbed at Man City but came back strong for Santos. If a youngster from the bench excels, Dunga should do the right thing and drop either. Might not be popular but the correct decision must be taken. I think Nilmar will excel at this World Cup if given the chance.

I think if they were going to be eliminated it would be to a fellow South American side, mainly because Dunga’s strategy is very European, opting for a more direct style. Not that I’m saying the flair side badly either, but teams like Argentina could be their undoing.


Can Fabiano overcome the goal drought?

KEY PLAYER – Luis Fabiano

The Sevilla striker has been unbelievable for a few years now, for club and country. Out and out target man and both teams he plays in work their system around him. Consistently getting more than 20 goals a season, expect him to ravage his way to the Golden Boot, despite being in a goal drought at the moment.

MANAGER – Dunga

A master tactician who believes in defensive strength. Not exactly popular with natives for the change in style but you can’t argue with results. Clean sheets throughout qualifying, decent front men, Dunga’s formation and line-ups is fairly spot on. Considering that Ronaldinho and Pato both failed to make the squad, for one reason or another, it shows the talent Dunga has at his disposal.

ODDS -5/1 (at best)

PREDICTION – I’ve got them down as winners. A perfect balance of style and substance.

PORTUGAL

Portugal are a perplexing side. They have some great attacking players yet struggled to find goals in qualifying. They don’t have many great defenders, unlike previous years and managed to perform fairly well in that department. After recovering from the group disaster and qualifying in a play-off against Bosnia-Herzegovina, they will have to vastly improve if they are to repeat the run of 2006 and a best finish of 4th at the World Cup. Quieroz has certainly divided opinion with his selection and tactics at times.

STRENGTHS

Cristiano Ronaldo has been one of the best attacking players in the world for a solid three years at least now. He mesmerises players with his step-overs and bamboozles keepers with his swerving shots and free-kicks. Possibly the most complete package in world football. Remains to be seen how Quieroz will utilise him. Could be on the left or right wing or even up front on his own. Personally, the further out wide he is, the more he can run infield and cause havoc.

Portugal have a decent centre-back pairing in Carvalho and Bruno Alves, with Pepe acting an intermediary like Rafael Marquez did in Mexico’s opener. All three are very strong defensively.

WEAKNESSES

Quieroz has angered players and the team may not act as a cohesive unit. They lack strikers as well, with Liedson being the best candidate, and he’s indifferent at times and doesn’t scream star quality to me.

Why Duda is ahead of the excellent Fabio Coentrao at left-back is beyond. The weakest part of the national set-up is the manager and it will have to be amended come the end of the tournament.

Injuries have hampered their preparations with Nani being the latest casualty, and they’ll miss his delivery greatly.

KEY PLAYER – Simao Sabrosa

A dynamite midfielder who can create something out of nothing. Amazing that he hasn’t found himself at a bigger club in his career but he’s one of the most effective players in Spain certainly at the moment. Fabulously good at free-kicks (although he won’t take any here) and has a fierce shot on him too.

MANAGER – Carlos Quieroz

Was a great No.2 to Sir Alex Ferguson at United, but he’s found the step-up to management tough. His spell at Real Madrid was forgettable. Only No.2 to Domenech in the Unpopularity Stakes. He could be the reason behind failure here.

ODDS – 30/1

PREDICTION – Could be the first big scalp of the tournament. (Drogba’s fitness depending)

C’OTE D’IVOIRE

Before the draw, I certainly thought that the Elephants would do very well. It is a tough task ahead of them especially with Didier Drogba possibly missing. But they have some gems deep within their squad and should provide tough opposition to the other two big teams.

STRENGTHS

The front three is absolutely superb. We all know how well Didier Drogba did this season at Chelsea, but people forget that Solomon Kalou finally found his feet as well and excelled. With those two players knowing each other so well, it could inspire the rest of the side. Keep an eye out for the right winger in their 4-3-3 system, Gervinho. Super pace and also very creative.

The defence isn’t too bad as well but could find it tough against the other two teams. Kolo Toure and Steve Gohouri are both capable of good performances.

WEAKNESSES

Having said that, other defenders are liabilities particularly Emmanuel Eboue, who would be better off further foward like at Arsenal. Sol Bamba is another example. The Drogba injury could put an end to their chances as he’s that important.

KEY PLAYER – Yaya Toure

The typical anchorman who will be called upon to get the team motoring. He’s been in and out of the Barca side this year but his quality in undeniable. Superb tackler as well, just the sort of player Arsenal need.

MANAGER – Sven Goran Eriksson

Newly installed meaning the Tinkerman has yet to gain any form or cohesion from his players. Not had time to do a lot in his tenure but he knows what the World Cup is like after taking England to the quarter-finals in 2002.

ODDS – 40/1

PREDICTION – The Drogba injury is going to cost them. Group stage exit.

I am not bothering to a North Korean preview mainly for two reasons.

1. I haven’t the absolute foggiest in regards to North Korean football. If I tried to make a half-arsed preview about a side I know nothing about at all. The football team is shrouded in secrecy much like the country itself.

2. I don’t expect them to pick up a point, so I will be merely wasting my time talking about strengths when they will be outclassed.

But what I have decided to is put this link of them visiting the zoo. And also put a picture of the most glorious dictator, Kim Jong-Il. He once claimed 9 holes in one in his first game of golf.

It's all about the confidence for this World Cup, they'll need it

I’ll let you get back to hearing the swarm of mutant bees throughout the games.

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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