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.


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World Cup Preview – Group E

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

DENMARK

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

STRENGTHS

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

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

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

WEAKNESSES

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

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

KEY PLAYER – Niklas Bendtner

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

MANAGER – Morten Olsen

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

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 80/1

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

JAPAN

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

STRENGTHS

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

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

WEAKNESSES

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

KEY PLAYER – Keisuke Honda

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

MANAGER – Takeshi Okada

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

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 200/1

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

CAMEROON

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

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

STRENGTHS

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

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

WEAKNESSES

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

KEY PLAYER – Alex Song

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

MANAGER – Paul Le Guen

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

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 80/1

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

World Cup Preview – Clockwork Oranje

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oranje is the colour for these passionate fans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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