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 – 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.

World Cup Preview – Group B

One of the toughest groups to predict as teams from four different continents look for global dominance. Argentina have world class talent at disposal, Greece are former European champions, South Korea are capable of causing a shock and Nigeria have vast experience at playing at World Cups. This group should be sensational.

ARGENTINA

The two time winners are back, and eager to avenge recent failures at World Cups. They were put down as favourites in 06, but failed to live up the hype. Now, several players have fulfilled their star-potential and with Lionel Messi showing brilliance on almost a daily basis, surely now is the time to finally answer their critics.

Well, maybe not. Diego Maradona may well be an Argentian deity to the public but after being given the job back in 2008, he has failed to live up to his glorious reputation. The Argentines just about qualified from the South American qualifying group, thanks to Martin Palermo scoring very late on against Peru.

STRENGTHS – Lionel Messi for one. 47 goals in all competitions, the boy wonder has hit the form of his life just at the right time. But for Messi to be truly recognised as a legend, he must emulate his manager’s performances at World Cups. The side can also boast a very strong spine.

The ever-reliable Gabriel Heinze, Martin Demichelis and Walter Samuel have all been impressive this year. Add to that Javier Mascherano as a holding midfielder, and you have a very decent defence.

Obviously, the Argentines can dazzle up front as well. Higuain has potential to be a great front man, and Diego can call upon Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero as replacements up front. The Argentine bench scares me.

WEAKNESSES – Diego Maradona, but we’ll talk about him later. Some players in the side are way past their prime, namely Juan Sebas Veron, who is now 35 and Martin Palermo is 36. Palermo’s goal which cued Diego’s celebrations (see below) may have sent them to South Africa, but he isn’t anywhere near the quality of the other strikers. Veron was sensational at World Cup 98, but he hasn’t been as good since.

There is also some concern over Maradona’s selection. He decided to pick Newcastle’s Fabricio Coloccini and Jonas Gutierrez ( the latter certain to start). Both are good enough but the decision to leave Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti behind baffles me. Both have experience at this level in abundance and have played in the Champions League this season. Coloccini and Jonas haven’t.

KEY PLAYER – Lionel Messi

Who else. The best player in the world right now. The fact that he was scored 34 Barca goals in the league underlines his quality. No player since Ronaldo (96/97) has done that. He clinched a domestic title last night as well, so will be wanting to add another winners medal to the already full cabinet. He can change a game within an instant. It could be argued that he is only as good as when Xavi and Iniesta are supplying him, but no one can deny how much of a talent Lionel Messi is.

MANAGER- Diego Maradona

Diego hopes for water park facilities

The Hand of God will have to strike again if Diego wants to lift the World Cup as a manager. This is his competition. He was part of the most controversial moment of World Cup history (the aforementioned Hand of God) and also scored the best World Cup goal in the same game. Management wise, he doesn’t have much experience. At any level. Tactically things could go awry. No matter what happens, he will still be an idol in Argentina come July.

ODDS ON LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 9/1

PREDICTION – Semi finals at best. One man or manager doesn’t make a World Cup winning side. Argentina don’t like having the tag of favourites, which this time, they do not.

GREECE

It’s been 6 long years since Greece against all odds lifted the European Championship against hosts Portugal. They haven’t qualified for a tournament since and this is their first World Cup since 1994. The Greeks will be hoping for a miracle performance once again, but it’s fair to say that their squad isn’t as good as the 04 one. Don’t expect style but expect a lot of gritty determination

STRENGTHS – The increasingly good performances of Sotirios Kyrgiakos at Liverpool will hopefully be instrumental to Greece keeping other teams out. The side is also full of strong strikers, such as Euro 2004 hero Angelos Charisteas and top-scorer in qualfying, Theofanis Gekas, means that the Greeks can willing muscle their way to victory. Giorgos Karagounis also has the experience to boss the midfield, if needs be. Ten players are from Panathiniakos so the team bond isn’t in question.

WEAKENESSES – No star quality player that other nations possess is a key flaw in this Bolton-like Greek side. The bench doesn’t look very good either, so inspiration from there looks unlikely. Also akin to Bolton, they are an aging nation and it remains to be seen whether the squad can keep up with fitness past the group stage. Celtic’s Georgios Samaras may only be a bit part player in South Africa, but playing in Scotland for a few years shows you that Greece can’t call upon top leagues for their players, and have to rely on their own.

KEY PLAYER – Giorgos Karagounis

The Greek captain will have to do something sensational to lift his team. But this side play well when no one has any expectations of them, which is exactly what happened in 2004. Karagounis is now a veteran of European football having plied his trade at Inter Milan and Benfica before returning to Panathinaikos in 2007. He is the Greek playmaker and will also help his team from set-pieces.

MANAGER – Otto Rehagel

Named ‘Greek of the Year’ (despite being German) in 2004 for the exceptional triumph in Portugal, the 71-year old will be wanting his last moment on the stage to be glory. Also won the Bundesliga in 1998 with Kaiserlautern. His experience tactically could be key for the Greeks getting out of Group B

ODDS ON LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 100/1

PREDICTION – Not enough quality to get out of the group. Will have to play very direct football against the others in the group, to stand a chance.

SOUTH KOREA

It wouldn’t be a World Cup without them, this will be their 7th consecutive World Cup. Only problem here is that South Korea have never won a World Cup game abroad. Their run in 2002 was the main highlight of that World Cup as they dumped out Spain and Italy in the knockout stages and finished 4th overall. They were undefeated in qualifying in AFC Group 2, so they clearly have some pedigree too.

STRENGTHS – A decent attack, which is bolstered by some great midfielders behind it. Captain Park Ji-Sung, who has finally become an important member of his club side, will be pivotal to success for the Korea Republic. Pro Evolution Soccer sensational buy, Park Chu-young can often be in blistering form and contributes a lot to the side Lee Chung-young has been a revelation for Bolton this season, and expect him to weigh in with a few goals too.

The fact that the Korean and Japanese leagues are fairly unknown to many outside Asia, makes them an unknown entity, which could also benefit them.

WEAKNESSES – Their defence without question. Only Lee Young-pyo is recognised at having played at a top club level, when he was left-back for Spurs. But he now plays in Saudi Arabia. The defence weren’t troubled much in qualifying but on the big stage, many will have to be in superb form if they are to make it out of the group.

KEY PLAYER – Park Ji-Sung

Park can score in big games

The Manchester United midfielder is an A-list celebrity back in his homeland and the key to South Korea’s form in qualifying. This season, Park has finally shaken off the tag of only being bought to boost shirt sales and put in some genuinely brilliant performances. Notably against AC Milan in the 2nd leg of the Champions League 1st knockout round. His goalscoring record isn’t too bad either. In 86 appearances for Korea, he has amassed 11 goals. This may not seem like a lot, but for someone who sits back often, it’s not too bad at all.

MANAGER – Huh Jung Moo

Now in his third spell as national boss, he has had to emulate the sensational performance of Guus Hiddink in 2002, so fans took a while to get used to his style of football. His use of youth talent has impressed the natives as well. He hasn’t lost a game since he began his tenure in 2007: that run may well end here.

ODDS ON LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 250/1

PREDICTION – Out at the group stage. Could very well lose all 3 games and an early flight home.

NIGERIA

The biggest nation in Africa, and also the most powerful of African teams. Renowned for strength and crunching tackles, Nigeria missed out on the 2006 World Cup. Failure at the African Nations this year saw Swede Lars Lagerback take over a lumbering side, who might just shock people in South Africa.

STRENGTHS –Stature. Players like Yakubu, Joseph Yobo and Daniel Shittu are well built and will probably provide a culture shock to Argentina. They are robust and supported by a very defensive midfield including Chelsea’s John-Obi Mikel, who will provide the link up play. Nigeria never have been flashy, but have relied on pure strength and sticking to what they know best, could see them progress far.

If Yakubu brings back some form that he showed back in his early games for Boro, then Nigeria will also have a large frontman capable of finishing. Peter Odemwingie is also key to Nigeria, as the winger will look to terrorise left-backs.

Another plus is the amount of fans that the Nigerians will bring to South Africa. Passion is merely an understatement for Nigerian fans

WEAKNESSES – Strength and speed don’t go hand in hand, and the fact that only the first choice left-back Marseille’s Taye Taiwo can bomb forward on the wings suggest that Nigeria only have one game-plan under Lagerback, keep it direct and down the middle. This could prove to be their downfall if they don’t find goals from somewhere.

KEY PLAYER – John Obi Mikel

Chelsea’s holding midfielder will be looking to protect his defence from onslaughts from bigger nations, and it’s pretty clear that Mikel has improved in this season under Ancelotti. Decent passer and tackler, although often makes stupid fouls. Less of that, and the World Cup should prove to be successful for Mikel.

MANAGER – Lars Lagerback

Swedish manager for 9 years and took them to 5 consecutive tournaments. Failure to qualify for 2010, saw him join the Nigerian set-up. It’s a completely different challenge here for Lagerback, and it certainly won’t be easy, but he can call upon his CV for vital experience in this competition.

ODDS ON LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 100/1

PREDICTION – Might make the knockout phase, but not much more than that.

I think that Argentina will win the group. The other place is heavily contested but I feel Nigeria look best on paper, and will be helped by their supporters. The Argies will make the semi-finals, Nigeria out straight after the groups

Until next time where I look at England’s prospects, here’s my favourite goal from Japan/South Korea 2002

Enjoy very muchly. Dario Rodriguez, take a bow son.