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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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 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 – Group F

Once again, we have a scenario of severe overdog versus three other teams scrapping away for the coveted second spot. Holders Italy come into this tournament with accusations of their team being full of veterans and lacking a creative spark. Slovakia make their first appearance at World Cup mainly due to one player shining in their squad. New Zealand reappear amongst footballing elite for the first time since 1982 (where they were destroyed) and hope to upset the big teams. But the most interesting and also harrowing back story belongs to Paraguay.

ITALY

The current World Champions weren’t fancied last time in Germany, and this time they have even less backers at the bookmakers. The main reason for this is Lippi’s reluctance to change his squad. He tried at the Confederations Cup The squad remains largely unchanged from the winning side in Berlin, with hardly any younger players breaking through into the team. On one hand, this means that this side are very well acquainted with each other. But, with an average age of 28.2, it’s clearly a problem. Strangely this is lower than both England and Brazil.

STRENGTHS

As mentioned squad unity couldn’t be any better. This side have played with each other for roughly 4 years, and know their manager’s tactics well. The Donadoni experiment didn’t work out too well, but Lippi knows how to get the best out his team.

Italy have a superb player in every department. Gigi Buffon is still one of the best goalkeepers in the world and the best pair of safehands between the sticks you could want. In defence, Giorgio Chiellini has managed to become of the best centre-backs in the world. The midfield general Andrea Pirlo has the ability to change games when given license to roam. Up front, Lippi has several options to lead the Azzuri. Alberto Gilardino, Gianpaolo Pazzini and Vincenzo Iaquinta are all superb strikers. Antonio Di Natale has also had a superb year in Serie A and should be given a chance as well.

WEAKNESSES

The lack of creativity in midfield never seemed to be a problem in recent years. But with several of Italy’s midfielder not getting enough playing time this season, especially renowned hardman Gennaro Gattuso, they could struggle to keep the ball. Daniel De Rossi could be the man to hold things together now Pirlo has been ruled out of the first two games. The midfield will have to be strong and powerful if Italy are to go far. With Totti now retired, it makes you wonder where an attacking midfielder will emerge from, Di Natale being the best candidate.

The form of Fabio Cannavaro is also worrying. The 2006 Balon D’or winner has been on a career downward spiral since the last World Cup and it will be interesting to see if the Italian captain can lead his side to glory again.

KEY PLAYER – Andrea Pirlo

I bought a Pirlo shirt for this World Cup. I am constantly astounded by the man; his passing technique is beyond belief at times, a free-kick master and all-round superb player. Nicknames L’Architetto (the architect in Italian), he can play as deep-lying playmaker or an attacking role just behind the frontmen. He will be sorely missed against Paraguay and New Zealand.

MANAGER -Marcello Lippi

One of the best managers in the world and of course has won the Jules Rimet trophy. Slight criticism at his loyal support of Juventus players, when their season wasn’t brilliant. Tactically brilliant but lack of Plan B could prove fatal.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 12/1

PREDICTION – I really think they could surprise some people. If Pirlo’s fighting fit by the time they should meet Spain in the 1/4finals, they could shock the world again

SLOVAKIA

Their first major tournament could be a rude awakening for them. But this side deserve their tag amongst the stable of ‘dark horses’. They qualified with a team of talented youth players  and experienced leaders. They are another team who’ve adopted the 4-2-3-1 system (seems to be an international favourite) and they play that formation exceptionally well. Qualifying saw them gain away wins off Northern Ireland, Czech Republic and Poland. Travelling to South Africa could see that trend continue.

STRENGTHS

If Slovakia are to get anywhere in South Africa, their hopes seem to rest on one man, Marek Hamsik. The Napoli man is hot property and shows flashes of brilliance regularly. Other quality players include Liverpool’s Martin Skrtel, who’s figthing to be fit for the tournament and former Chelsea and FC Twente player Miroslav Stoch. Skrtel’s well known for his aggressive tackling and he will have to be at his best if Slovakia. Stoch on the other hand has been superb for Schteve McClaren’s side who won the league.

WEAKNESSES

Not a lot of the first team are given enough chances at their respective clubs. A good example of this is Manchester City Vladimir Weiss Jr who always gets a free pass into the side because of Pop. He’s been on loan at Bolton and failed to impressive.

This may sound fairly obvious but if Hamsik doesn’t turn up, then neither will Slovakia. He’s the link-up man and is the catalyst in their play

Could Marek frustrate the Italian old guard?

KEY PLAYER – Marek Hamsik

Marek Hamsik is a world class player. That’s according to manager Vladimir Weiss. He’s been targeted by Man City and Chelsea, the latter surely interested now they’ve released Michael Ballack. Constantly threatening and creating, he’s one of my players to watch this tournament

MANAGER – Vladimir Weiss Snr

Possibly the most popular coach at the World Cup after bringing this small nation to it. He’s also the youngest coach, meaning he has little experience. Should be commended for bringing the best out of a set of substitutes.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 200/1

PREDICTION – Group stage exit unfortunately. Too many players aren’t match fit.

PARAGUAY

To say the Paraguayans have had a nightmare 2010 is a bit of an understatement. Star player Salvador Cabanas was shot in the head (the bullet still lodged in his skull) in a Mexican bar in January. He’ll miss the tournament but the other players will hopefully strive on in honour of their team-mate.  Cabanas was almost a Wayne Rooney type player in their team, so manager Gerardo Martino has been at work frantically trying to find a new system.

STRENGTHS

Up front may be missing Cabanas, but the back up option aren’t too shabby. Bench-warmer Roque Santa Cruz is a accomplished finisher but will be put on the right wing in the 4-3-3 formation. In the centre will be Borussia Dortmund’s Valdez who might be familiar to England fans after he was impressive in 2006 against them.

The defence was key to them progressing out of the South American qualifying group. The centre backs, Paulo Da Silva and Caceres were very strong and didn’t ship many goals. They even got a draw away against Argentina and were narrowly beaten by Brazil.

WEAKNESSES

The midfield doesn’t look great, with no real player standing out. First choice goalkeeper Justo Villar certainly has had practice at Valladolid this season, but does he have enough quality to stop the Italians. I don’t think so.

Fitness concerns run rife through the media especially over key wing-man Oscar Cardozo.

KEY PLAYER – Oscar Cardozo

An absolute goal machine for Benfica. A prize asset for them although his goal scoring record for country isn’t as stunning. If he performs well, expect interest from all over the Premier League. He is a major doubt however.

MANAGER – Gerardo Martino

Great tactician and a believer in attacking football. He also gets the best out of young players.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 50/1

PREDICTION – Should make it out of the groups, but will run into the well-oiled machine known as the Netherlands.

NEW ZEALAND

For a small nation devoted to rugby, making this year’s World Cup was a tremendous achievement. Aided by Australia’s defection to the Asian zone, New Zealand’s route to the World Cup included facing the footballing heavyweights of Fiji and New Caledonia. The friendlies recently have been the best indication of what  ‘The All Whites’ can offer this summer, and with a 1-0 win over Serbia, they have a reason to be optimistic of an upset. On the flipside, their Confederations Cup exploits last year were terrible after being smashed 5-0 by Spain. Tournament football can be  a cruel mistress at times.

STRENGTHS

  • Organised well in defence, considering their talent pool isn’t great (mostly A-League players).
  • Captain Ryan Nelsen is a tough brute of a centre-back.
  • Have little expectations placed upon you could take you far.

WEAKNESSES

  • Erm, no real potency up front. Only scored one goal in the playoff against Bahrain. Their best striker is Rory Fallon who plays for recently relegated Championship side Plymouth
  • Or midfield creativity

KEY PLAYER – Ryan Nelsen

Blackburn’s instinctive centre-back led his nation this far. Will have to be at the top of his game against far superior sides. His experience in the Premier League is vital to a team full of lower league players.

MANAGER – Ricki Herbert

Ricki Herbert unveils disappointing puppet show

We’re ready. I can’t wait for the opening game. The battle cry from Herbert ahead of the kick-off. Typical Antipodean, all talk little substance.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 2000/1

PREDICTION – Small fish in a big pond. Predators will take the All Whites apart.