World Cup Preview – Final Fight

Jules Rimet

So after a month of packed full of national team scandals, old powers returning to their glory days and Diego Maradona being Diego Maradona, we finally reach the zenith of the World Cup: The Final.

There’s also the 3rd place play-off, a game not many sides care about but often produces decent games, France 98 being the best example there.

Most people are licking their lips at the prospect of a new World Champion being crowned. The Netherlands for all their talent they’ve produced since the Total Football generation deserve it. But so do the greatest international side for approximately 10 years, maybe more. I wouldn’t mind either side winning it, mainly as finally one of them gets rid of the ‘underachiever’ tag.

I thought both semi-finals were brilliant in different ways, with the better sides coming out on top with the exertion of pressure paying off to defensive organisation.

Holland vs Uruguay was a pretty tepid first half, enhanced by the goal of the tournament from Giovanni Van Bronckhorst. He’ll bow out of the sport on the grandest stage in world football.  A fitting final match for a great left-back. His goal as rightly pointed out by Clive Tyldesley (who was flying solo on commentary as Jim Beglin was poisoned by him pre-match) was indeed a very different goal to the one the Dutch scored against Italy in Euro 2008. That’s correct Clive because all goals are different. Audacious drive is the best way to describe it.

Gio joins Bergkamp and Van Basten in the 'Dutch Wonder Goal Hall of Fame' Photo:Daily Mail

Gio rallied the Dutch troops ahead of Sunday’s showdown. He said:

The last game in my career and it’s a World Cup final. What can you say? It could not be more beautiful. I hope it will be the most beautiful game of my life. For everyone, it will be the game of their life. By quitting I can close the book on a whole part of my life. I will do everything I can to with the team and staff to bring the World Cup to the Netherlands. That would be a fantastic finish.”

Zidane probably said the same thing four years ago. But I hope for Gio’s sake he doesn’t follow in the same tradition.

Uruguay played a lot better than I thought they would minus Suarez. Their equaliser in the first half showed us that once again the Dutch defence is flawed, especially down the middle as Cavani dragged them out of position for Diego Forlan to fire in. Stekelenburg could have done better as well.

The changing point was Marwijk bringing on Rafael Van Der Vaart for the injured Demy De Zeeuw. Holland pushed forward and got their reward. The second goal was slightly controversial, but the offside was so marginal. You’d be a massive pedant to lambaste the referee for that. He and the linesmen got worse things wrong. The third goal was a superb team move as Holland finally attacked down the left.

Uruguay shouldn’t be too disheartened because they’ve been superb throughout. Diego Forlan’s finally being recognised as a superb player, but anyone outside English punditryland would know he’s been prolific for about 5 years now.

On to Germany Spain, which was in my opinion, the best game I’ve seen this World Cup. Why? Passing perfection from both sides, but Spain were unreal at times. Sergio Busquets had 97%, Xavi 94% and Alonso 91%. They just don’t relent at times. On the flip side, Germany defensively were superb to hold them at 0-0 for so long, with Metresacker, Friedrich and Khedira sticking to David Villa like they were his own bodyguards.

Pedro had a good game as well, although tainted by not passing to Torres who had a airfield’s length of space. I’d still play him over Torres against Holland. He gives them pace and other options, which should work as Villa will not be as hounded during the final. I don’t rate the Holland back two as much the German’s defence. If Nigel De Jong and Mark Van Bommel tackle well, it could be a different story.

Germany can be very proud of their campaign, and I’d take a sneaky punt on them winning Euro 2012. They are bound to get stronger with more experience. The main reason they lost is because the link-up between Klose and Podolski was eradicated due to the tremendous Sergio Busquets intercepting like crazy. Spain’s defence was tested at times and they’ll probably have a tougher task against Sneijder and Robben.

Man of the Match Xavi congratulates Carles Puyol for his bullet 'British' header. Photos Getty Images/Clive Nelson

Xavi was man of the match for me. The man’s so consistent and that wasn’t his best game he’s had, but still tremendous. Opta Joe, the Twitter stat oracle that he is tweeted that Xavi touched the ball every 46 seconds which shows you how much Spain dominated and how central he is to his plans.

He said:

“We dedicate this victory to Spain. If we play on Sunday like we did today, we will have a great chance.We played as we wanted to. Now it is a final against Holland, a great team playing great football with great players in midfield and up front. We will have to impose our personality and football on them.”

So on to the prediction. I’m don’t really see the point of predicting 3rd place but I’ll go for Germany 2-0, if you really care.

The Netherlands vs Spain

Soccer City, Johannesburg, 19:30GMT

Probable Line-Ups:

Netherlands [4-2-3-1)  Stekelenburg, Van der Wiel, Heitinga, Mathjisen, Van Bronckhorst, Van Bommel, De Jong, Robben, Sneijder, Kuyt, Van Persie

Spain [4-2-3-1] Casillas, Ramos, Pique, Puyol, Capdevila, Iniesta, Alonso, Busquets, Xavi, Pedro, Villa

  • Strangely enough the two great nations have never faced each other in a competitive match. Both sides have steadily improved as the tournament progressed and you can’t argue that these two are the best currently in the world.
  • I see the game being very similar to the Holland Brazil game. Spain will relentlessly attack in the opening exchanges. If they stick to the same side, and they should do, then the midfield need to keep the ball as we know they can. The Barca midfield engine is key to this. Holland’s best shot is to counter when possible and use Robben down the right. Capdevila is the weak leak, although that’s extremely harsh considering the talent around him.
  • Spain feel like a Barcelona without Messi, loads of build-up without cutting edge. Villa will need to stay central without Torres. If Holland outmark Villa anywhere near as good as Germany, they have a decent chance.
  • Wesley Sneijder is my pick for the Ballon D’or. He’s Holland’s focal point, an extraordinary playmaker. If he’s allowed time, he can punish and also feed Van Persie. Pique’s looked shaky at times and this could also be exploited
  • Overall, I think the might of the Spain midfield will come out on top, and Spain’s pressure will eventually make way for their maiden World Cup.

Prediction: 1:2 (yeah Paul you octoprick, I’m ballsy, I predict the scores. Hope you enjoy being calamari soon)

There we have it. The World Cup previews have reached a climax. It’s been a great tournament and I’ve certainly enjoyed writing about it. So many moments to cherish, especially France floundering.

I’ll be back on Monday for a World Cup Awards Ceremony, which will rival the Oscars in terms of Kate Winslet moments. Raymond Domenech, you might not want to attend. Actually, Frenchmen beware.

And another happy moment for me. Miroslav Klose didn’t beat Ronaldo’s record. I like Klose but Ronaldo was phenomenal in the 90’s. So I leave you with his 15 landmark goals.

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 H

So, we reach the final group and a look at the team considered the favourites by many. Spain have built the best squad they’ve ever had, rich in quality in pretty much every position. Their time is surely now for the European champions to amend the failures of the past.

But don’t count out the other sides in this group. Chile qualified impressively and play with some real creativity on the wings. The golden generation of the 90’s may have passed but Chile’s progression under Bielsa makes them a reasonable threat. Honduras make their World Cup debut, but have been hampered by injuries to key players, Wilson Palacios and David Suazo. Their fitness is key for them. And finally, the perennial overachievers Switzerland are back as well, with a well organised side.

SPAIN

Two years ago, Spain finally overcame the curse that had dogged for more than 40 years; no trophies in the cabinet and nothing to show for the amount of talent they’ve nurtured over the years. But in Vienna, they showed the rest of Europe that they meant business. And hopefully for them, the momentum they’ve shown since, only losing one competitive game will lead Spain to their maiden World Cup

STRENGTHS

Where to start. The back, Iker Casillas is very consistent for both club and country and has cemented his place in the top 5 keepers in the world. And the back-up in the shape of Pepe Reina and Victor Valdes prove that there’s no worries in that department, I’d be happy to have any of them and a case could be made for starting with Valdes.

The centre back pairing of Puyol and Pique is strong and effective, with the latter improving a lot this year, so much so he should be the best centre-back in the next couple of years. Add to that the full-backs of Capdevilla and Sergio Ramos, that back-four is unbelievably talented and will be a fortress to break down.

The midfield is superb as well. The delightful duo of Iniesta and Xavi will be everpresent and hopefully feeding Torres and Villa with constantly amazing balls. (Iniesta is struggling to be fit for the first game however) Xabi Alonso is also in the centre for Spain and has had a terrific season. The selling of Alonso was criminal for Liverpool and the main reason for failure this year. Finally, on the left should be Valencia’s David Silva, who’s wanted by several European heavyweights. He can be a nightmare for full-backs and also terrorise as a traditional number 10. He could be the ace in the pack.

I should also highlight Jesus Navas at Sevilla. He’s a dynamic dribbling winger, who if given time could be a great impact substitute.

Then there’s the most deadly partnership in international football in David Villa and Fernando Torres, both with superb scoring records. Expect them both to firing in regularly in the group.

Try getting the ball off this side. The Spanish Armada may just steam-roll the opposition.

WEAKNESSES

By going through every position and concluding that they aren’t weak in any department, finding any weakness is tricky. Even the bench looks superb, with Fabregas, Sergio Busquets and Pedro all in waiting. But the form of Torres is worrying, he’s so injury prone. Another concern for me is overconfidence, it can break the best of teams and it happened to Spain at the Confederations Cup last year.

Being hyper-critical here, the right-back area could be the best place for teams to attack. Sergio Ramos has strange positioning at times but this is a problem across many of the better teams at the tournament.

KEY PLAYER – David Villa

The now Barcelona frontman was prolific for Valencia and his international record is phenomenal as well. 38 in 58, he’ll want to get several here. Superb first touch, very intuitive and a killer finish. He really does have it all.

MANAGER – Vicente Del Bosque

Minus the superb bushy moustache of the past, he’s another veteran looking for one last hoorah. Likes to mix up his side and has several back-up plans say if Torres got injured. Tactically astute.

ODDS – To paraphrase John McCririck, ‘You’re odds on you are’, best odds probably about 4-1

PREDICTION – Should make the final with the side, but I reckon they might be derailed unexpectedly. We can always hope for an upset.

CHILE

This team would have been considered my ‘dark horses’ for the tournament had they not been paired up with ‘The Group of Death’ for the second round. But, Chile bring a certain ‘Crazy Gang’ factor to the tournament. The only side to operate a 3-4-3 formation. Their manager is slightly bonkers and they have some great footballers in their side. Maybe just maybe, they could provide a shock.

STRENGTHS

Free-roaming attacking football. They scored 32 goals in qualifying, aided by top scorer in the CONMEBOL, Humberto Suazo. The 3 up front were devestating in qualifying, rampaging through several defences with their youthful wingers. Former Liverpool player, Mark Gonzalez may not have had a happy time at Anfield but he prefers the free-flowing football of Spain, and is allowed to do that under Bielsa.

The manager could change the formation to allow Matias Fernandez to operate a roaming attacking midfielder which should reap dividends.

WEAKNESSES

I’m not confident of clean sheets for this side, especially with such an attacking formation. The back-three could be found out here and none of them looking particularly threatening. Chile will have to adopt the ‘we’ll score one more than you’ mentality if progression is to happen.


KEY PLAYER – Humberto Suazo

A very capable attacker at the forefront of this Chilean side. He will have to repeat his scoring feats of qualification and spur on his side. Another player struck by injury but set to start tomorrow against Honduras.

MANAGER – Marcelo Bielsa

Notoriously mental but in a good way. Nicknamed ‘El Loco’, he’s idolised in Chile after taking them to South Africa. Great tactically and masterminded a win over Argentina in qualifying. He’s apparantly a football fanatic, complete with a massive video collection in his house. Educated and erratic it seems.

He said: “”I think we have done all the necessary steps to prepare for this important competition without major difficulty, or just the normal difficulties at least. We are fine and we are ready to begin.” He’ll want to change the abiding World Cup memory of a group stage exit with Argentina in 2002.

Encourages attacking football and rookies to make their mark. I love the fella.

ODDS – 50/1

PREDICTION – Will get out of the group but run into Brazil unfortunately. Should be entertaining nonetheless.

HONDURAS

A country full of political disrest, this World Cup could unite the nation. Although clearly seen as a rank outsider, they could upset some big teams here. Qualified 3rd in their group, they are the weakest team from Central America. Still beat Mexico in qualifying however, so they aren’t that bad.

STRENGTHS

The Wigan scouting network plucked some gems from Honduras, most notably Wilson Palacios. Had the pleasure of seeing him playing for Spurs against Preston in the League Cup this season, and he controlled the game. His presence was unrivalled and he’s a gritty midfielder not afraid of hard tackles. A delight in the modern game really. Although that game was merely a walk in the park compared to facing Spain.

Maynor Figueroa is another great player, capable of scoring from his own half. Doubt that’ll happen again but he’s a decent enough defender.  Hendry Thomas took over from Palacios at Wigan, and is of a similar mould. Tad bit slow though.

They also have a player called Georgie Welcome, this year’s prestigious winner of the Footballer Name of the Year. Used to player for Arsenal…..in Honduras

WEAKNESSES

The rest of the team doesn’t look strong enough to mount a challenge or even a reasonable threat in the group. They are incredibly defensively minded, and I don’t see David Suazo getting enough support. Could be thrashed if they let their heads drop.

KEY PLAYER – David Suazo

The Inter Milan forward was loaned out to Genoa last year. Bags of pace but has been average this year. Has the talent but not the execution.

MANAGER – Reinaldo Rueda

The only manager who’s never played professional football. Hints that he lacks the knowledge to suceed but to get this side to the World Cup is a pretty impressive feat.

ODDS – 700/1

PREDICTION – Bottom of the group

SWITZERLAND

Switzerland made it to South Africa in pretty uneventful circumstances. They only scored more than two goals once in qualfiying, and that was against Luxembourg (3-0). A pretty mediocre group with Greece the only challengers. No testing teams there and since qualifying, they’ve lost every single one of their friendlies and then bizarrely pulled off a 1-1 against Italy. Hardly great preparation really.

STRENGTHS

No one can argue the strength of their manager but we’ll get onto him in a minute. His organisation of this side is superb, operating a fairly basic 4-4-2 to great effect, meaning they could be tough to break down.

The midfield also looks fairly industrious with some good young players within it. Tranquillo Barnetta can play almost anywhere across the midfield, and is fairly adept as a holding midfielder. Likewise Gokhan Inler will help the Swiss maintain possession.

WEAKNESSES

Saying the defence could be a great unit is dependant on a lot of things, mainly Phillippe Senderos actually playing to his potential. He’s had to my knowledge one good season in football, for Arsenal quite a few years ago. He’s sluggish and makes a lot of mistakes.

I’m very worried by the strikeforce, or the apparent lack of one. Alexander Frei isn’t what he used to be and the qualifying stages proved that Switzerland couldn’t score, and it’s only tougher from here on in.

KEY PLAYER – Gokhan Inler

The diligent Udinese midfielder doesn’t get a lot of  goals, but he’ll be key to possession which could be the swinger against the other lesser sides in the group. Fairly creative as well.

MANAGER – Ottmar Hitzfeld

One of only three managers to win the Champions League with two different teams (Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund). A former mathematics teacher, who can frustrate teams with his superb tactics. Has a very full trophy cabinet over the years, one of Europe’s best.

Claims they can beat Spain. He said: “We could be one of the teams that could make one of the favourites tumble. The probability is there.”Every player of the Swiss team has an opportunity to showcase his talent. At one point we are going to beat Spain and why not now!” Hopelessly optimistic, I like it.

ODDS – 200/1

PREDICTION – Not enough firepower to get them out of the group.

With that I’ve previewed each World Cup side. Stay tuned for more World Cup related blogs once I’ve finalised a genuine idea.

I’ll leave you with my favourite moment of the World Cup so far. Cue Ghanian fan with a cauldron on his head.

And also that wonderful goal that started off proceedings, which was then followed by a drought. Ah well, I’m still enjoying the World Cup, hope you are as well.

Tot siens.


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.

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.

World Cup Preview – The rest of Group D

Group D certainly is a tough group to call. Germany and Ghana are both missing arguably their best players from the heart of midfield. Meanwhile the other two teams, Serbia and Australia are really starting to push forward as solid international sides. This could go either way.

AUSTRALIA

It has taken several years, but Australia have finally gained the respect of the elite nations  The turning point was on a cold wintry night at Upton Park in February 2003, where Australia dismantled a full strength England side. It made the global press sit up and take notice.

That game also marked the international debut of Wayne Rooney and also Sven Goran Eriksson’s worst night in charge of England, where he lived up to his tinkering nature and gave 22 players caps (including Francis Jeffers)

It was last time out in Germany 2006, where they made a big impact under super coach Guus Hiddink. Placed in a group with the footballing behemoth, Brazil, they came out runners up. The match with Croatia is often remembered for refereeing mistakes rather than the convincing show they put on. They were cruelly eliminated in the first knock-out stage by the champions elect, Italy, after Fabio Grosso dove in the last minute for a penalty, which Francesco Totti duly converted. Within that tournament, Australia felt the highs and lows of World Cup football. This tournament, Australia hope to erase the memories of that World Cup exit, and certainly hope progression is on the cards.

STRENGTHS

Several players ply their trade at some top European clubs, most notably Tim Cahill at Everton and Mark Bresciano at Palermo. Australia didn’t lose during their qualifying campaign (which saw them play in the Asian Confederation, as this gave them a better chance of qualifying, rather than playing off against an South American team) although the sides on show here will be a much tougher challenge. Their goalkeeper, Fulham’s Mark Schwarzer has become more consistent in both the league and European competition (and in my opinion is one of the best keepers of the Premier League) and has excelled under the tutelage of Roy Hodgson.

The Australian midfield looks like the best part of the side, assuming Pim Verbeek plays the 4-2-3-1 formation he used in qualifying. Both Vince Grella and Brett Emerton (Blackburn) have improved with age and will provide a tough obstacle to overcome. Jason Culina, who plays at Gold Coast, should also help this experienced side keep the ball in midfield.

WEAKNESSES

The Australians don’t have a quality front line. Often whoever is left up top is isolated. I expect Josh Kennedy to lead the line and the majority of you may be asking who he is. Kennedy is a journeyman of mediocre European teams, most notably Wolfsburg, Nurnberg and Karlsruhe. Finding Europe a tough nut to crack, he know plays for Nagoya Grampus (the side managed by Arsene Wenger before Arsenal). I don’t seem him scoring many goals, so Tim Cahill will be key to them progressing.

Question marks also surround the form and fitness of Harry Kewell who hasn’t been on the radar since 2005. Verbeek only picked 3 strikers, this risk may prove costly.

Australia's answer to Rocky Balboa

KEY PLAYER – Tim Cahill

Time and time again, Tim Cahill pops up with important headers for club and country. He’s certainly one of Everton’s best players, and ultimately Moyes’s best buy as manager. His leap is superb for his size, and Australia could be very dangerous from set-pieces. However, the Serbians and Germans both have strong centre-backs which should be told to keep Cahill out of the game. He is that dangerous at times.

MANAGER – Pim Verbeek

A veteran manager, who will make his 3rd successive appearance at the World Cup, having assisted Guus Hiddink in 2002 and Dick Advocaat in 2006. Unlike Hiddink, he opts for cautious attacking play which could be a good strategy. An unbeaten qualifying campaign proves he’s got national support as well.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 125/1

PREDICTION – If Australia adopt the team spirit they had in 2006, they’ll make it out of the group. I don’t see it happening this time.

SERBIA

Serbia undoubtedly have the most talented side they’ve ever had. In 2006, they entered the tournament with a sensational defensive record in qualifying (one goal conceded in ten games) but the experience is largely remembered for them buckling in that tournament’s ‘Group of Death’, including a 6-0 defeat to Argentina. In South Africa, the squad is largely unchanged but importantly, the majority of that side has gained experience at top European sides.

STRENGTHS

This side is littered with high-calibre players and the right balance between strength and speed. Nemanja Vidic has excelled at Manchester United since 2006 and is often considered one of the best no-nonsense centre backs in Europe. Branislav Ivanovic has become a regular at Chelsea, and was undoubtedly the best right-back in the league.

Champions League winner, Dejan Stankovic is the captain of this side and also their playmaker, creating great moves from the centre. Milos Krasic (who has an eerie similarity to Raiden from Metal Gear Solid 2) has burst onto the scene at CSKA Moscow and provided a superb performance against Manchester United earlier this season. He can be a real handful on the wing and expect him to show his flair in South Africa.

Up front is Birmingham’s new signing, Nikola Zigic. Think Peter Crouch, but taller and twice as potent.

WEAKNESSES

It doesn’t really matter the amount of talent at your disposal if the man between the sticks isn’t up to the job. Vladimir Stojkovic was loaned out to Wigan this season and made 4 appearances. A goalkeeper with a lack of matches doesn’t bode well for them. Serbia have also been very dodgy in preparation for the tournament, losing t0 outsider New Zealand and drawing against Poland.

KEY PLAYER – Dejan Stankovic

The Serbia captain will hope to be the gel in this youthful side. He is renowned for accurate passing and starting moves in the attack. He can also deftly place from long range as this goal proves. His opportunities have been limited this season as Wesley Sneijder’s form was superb, but there’s no doubt ‘Deki’ is the instigator in Serbia’s strong and flowing play

That goal. The preceding pitch invasion haunts me

MANAGER – Raddy Antic

Fondly remembered for sending Manchester City down in 1983 with a late goal. It also sent David Pleat galloping on the Maine Road pitch in his beige suit, a sight etched into the memories of fans for many years to come. A sight I don’t want to relive. Antic’s policy of involving younger players could prove astute especially against older teams. He’s got the balance spot on.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 66/1

PREDICTION – The potential is there. The pressure is mounting. Should make it out of the groups at least.

GHANA

The Ghanaians will have been rocked by Michael Essien’s withdrawal from the side, after a massive injury lay-off this season. It will be interesting to see how they cope, and also if any younger players, especially in defence, manage to make some headway on the biggest stage.

STRENGTHS

Despite missing Essien, the midfield is still full of good players. Inter Milan’s Sulley Muntari will be given the role of creator and he will hope to provide the drive forward. Captain Stephen Appiah will hope to avoid constant fitness criticism and deputise where Essien played. He is clearly talented, a former Juventus player after all but he’ll need to rekindle that form.

Kevin Prince Boateng has already made a impact at the World Cup even before it started, after his rash tackle on Germany captain Michael Ballack. A decent season at Pompey might see him make his debut at the tournament.

WEAKNESSES

The strong defence of the African Cup of Nations, which was held together brilliantly by 20 year old Sammy Inkoom, looked terrible against tougher opposition. They lost  a recent friendly to Holland 4-1. Hardly an indication of how things will play out, but its clear that their defence might well struggle to hold teams with great strikers.

Also, Wigan keeper Richard Kingson has never impressed me at his spell at the Latics. And he will be first choice. I expect Ghana to get hammered once in the group stage, most probably by Serbia.

The frontman is profilic for Ghana

KEY PLAYER – Asamoah Gyan

A perfect lone striker that bagged several goals at the African Cup on Nations. It remains to be seen in the supporting cast can help Gyan hit the net here.

MANAGER – Milovan Rajevac

Unknown Serbian that took over 2008, but has turned this side into a very tactically aware unit. Can also be complemented for giving all 23 members of the squad time to prove their worth.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP –  100/1

PREDICTION – No Essien = No progression

Join my next time where I preview the Dutch, a team often backed to end their trophy draught. Are they realistic favourites after a superb qualifying campaign?

I leave you with my favourite World Cup song this year. Simple but effective is always the best way I’m told.

And also the  funniest moment in World Cup History