World Cup Preview – The Last 16

Well, so far, the World Cup has seen many talking points, arguably most off the field. The mass hysteria over the flight of the Jabulani football and the whurring of mutant bees around the grounds courtesy of that old friend, the vuvuzela. The French threatening a mutiny and also who could forget Robbie Earle selling his 36 tickets ( he had 400 in total for the tournament) for the Holland Denmark game to some lovely Dutch ladies. This World Cup has set a precedent for outrageous moments.

We’ve had some great footballing moments in a World Cup apparently littered with terrible games if you believe the pundits. But this only makes it more fascinating, some of the ‘dull’ games have been great tactical battles, others have been exactly that: dull (England Algeria, France Uruguay being the 2 main examples). At the end of the day, if you are a pundit moaning at getting paid for being at a World Cup, then you need to re-assess how much of a prat you are.

Some sides have fascinated, others have fallen flat at the first hurdle. Underdogs have shined in South Africa as well. New Zealand were unbeaten in the group stage but faced an flight back to Auckland whilst Italy became a country for Old Men after they finished bottom of Group F. Switzerland’s tight defensive unit defeated the pre-tournament champions elect, Spain and Germany once again proved their tournament mettle with some convincing displays. And of course El Diego’s faith in Saint Martin Palermo was proved right after he scored a goal. I honestly didn’t predict that.

Half the fun of this tournament has been the off-screen stuff (such as watching Diego Maradona waltz around in a rather fetching monochrome number) but we now reach crunch-time. The Last 16.

Throughout the years, we’ve had some unbelievable ties and this year will hopefully be no different. So here’s my look at the fixtures and how I see them panning out. (Editors Note: Chris Mayer is often wrong, he thought Italy would shock people this year, but not in the way they did)

Uruguay vs South Korea

Uruguay came out as winners of Group A, after some great performances notably against hosts South Africa. The draw against France was forgettable but they improved as the group wore on and look a very good side. Diego Forlan’s form has been sensational but other players have impressed me. Luis Suarez adopted a Pippo Inzaghi role, and was constantly offside against France but grabbed the winner against Mexico. They’ve also yet to concede a goal in the groups, but as we know things get tougher from here on in. Diego Godin and Nicolas Fucile have both been impressive at the back and were responsible for several clearances in the opening game. Midfielder Egidio Arevalo has also tough tackled in the midfield. I really rate this side.

South Korea finished runners-up in Group B, with the easy win over Greece being decisive in progression. They were taken apart by the glorious attacking football of Argentina however and just about got a draw against Nigeria. They’ve looked fairly tight throughout the group, minus one incident and the midfield has done a superb job in getting South Korea here. Ji-Sung Park, Park Chu Young and Kim Sung Yeung have all put in hard graft and provide the attacking threat that saw them score 5 goals in the groups. The defence was ripped apart in the last two games really and I think that will be their undoing here.

Prediction – 2-1

USA vs Ghana

A fixture that’s bound to have split loyalties for former wonder kid Freddy Adu. The US lumbered to the group winners spot after a late goal by the perennial Landon Donovan once again showing his talent. They made hard work of Algeria and Slovenia but their performance against England was fairly solid. I fear for their defence who were excellent against England but poor against Slovenia. The stand out players so far have been Donovan and Bradley.

Ghana finished runners up in Group D but weren’t entirely convincing either. They were great against Serbia, failed to capitalise on 10 men Australia and showed promise against Germany. One thing is clear, Asamoah Gyan has got them this far. He’s a great striker and has shone on the biggest stage. Ghana’s opening game performance was brilliant and they stunned Serbia with their passing and all-round better teamwork. Kevin Prince Boateng has played a blinder as well.

Tough one to call this but I think the US will edge it.

Prediction – 1-0

Germany vs England

The Battle of Bloemfontein. Every superlative possible will be used in the build-up to this mammoth clash. Even Franz Beckenbauer has been mud-slinging in the past few days. England wouldn’t have wanted this tie as early as it has arrived and are slight underdogs for me. They haven’t performed at all well in the group and even the Slovenian performance didn’t impress me despite being a marked improvement. The team hasn’t gelled well unlike the Germans who hit the ground running against Australia. However they aren’t one of the favourites and that performance was aided by a Pim Verbeek tactical meltdown.

Germany are beatable, but not for the reasons I’ve seen (weak centre back pairing). Mesut Ozil has been a revelation, hey I tipped him to do well beforehand, but other players have excelled as well, notably Friedrich, Muller and the international men of mystery, Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose.

I could probably do a blog about this game alone now I think about it, but the key area for me is who is going to stalk Ozil. Also if service to Klose is limited then, England could win this.

I don’t see it happening on the basis of what’s come before

Prediction – 2-0 (realistic result, if you want a outrageous patriotic one then 5-1 ENGLAND 😉

Argentina vs Mexico

This match is the one I’m most looking forward to, without being incredibly tense throughout. Both sides were the group stage pioneers in terms of fluid attacking football. Argentina boast world class talent in their front-line whilst Mexico’s team built up impressively from the back.

Argentina destroyed the rest group pretty much with the arsenal of Messi, Tevez, Higuain and others. But they weren’t without fault. The right hand side of the defence looked very ropey, particular Jonas Gutierrez, who isn’t a right back. Martin Demichelis had his moments of absolute idleness against South Korea, and he’ll hope that it doesn’t happen again.

Mexico looked reasonably strong at the back, especially off the ball which allows Rafael Marquez to support the centre backs, making them a fortress difficult to penetrate. Gio Dos Santos has been quite good too, making me wonder whether he could hack it at Spurs.

This will come down to Veron for me. If he’s on form, Argentina will walk this game. If not they may need extra time. I’ll plumb for the former option.

Prediction – 3-1

The Netherlands vs Slovakia

Well this was a minor turn up for the books. Not for Holland, they were expected to win the group but they’ve not exactly set the world alight. It took them a while to break down all three teams, and I think without Arjen Robben they lack pace and width. The turn around against Denmark came through young winger Eljero Elia and that injection of raw energy broke the Danish stronghold on the game. If Robben is back, I think Holland will motor and it worries me that they haven’t hit their peak yet.

Slovakia have blossomed. They were woeful against New Zealand and Paraguay. But against Italy they looked a much better outfit, mainly because of the shuffling of the team allowing Marek Hamsik to do what he does best and move further forward, becoming a real threat in the process. Robert Vittek was also impressive against the aging Italian stallions.

I feel Holland have enough to see off Slovakia. It’s a question of whether the Slovakian defence can handle pace, and I don’t think they can. Still this tournament has proved a great one for them.

Prediction – 2-0

Brazil vs Chile

This mouth-watering South American clash will indeed see a clash of styles. Brazil have become a tough defensive machine under fashionista Dunga whereas Chile are clearly gung-ho under Bielsa. Bit unfair on Brazil as they can turn on the style at will but in my opinion, Lucio and Felipe Melo are the representatives of their new defensive style. No nonsense possession football. Their group was tough and they are fully prepared for the knockouts. The Ivory Coast game showed their prowess for goalscoring.

Chile are without doubt my favourite team at this World Cup. The only team to use the 3-3-1-3 formation. Fluid counter attack style football make them a menacing side. But they will need to cut out the bad tackling, which like the Spain game will be forced by them as they press the Brazillians. The best players for Chile so far have been Alexis Sanchez and Mark Gonzalez, both men terrorising their full-backs.

I have also said if Brazil are going to lose at the World Cup it will be to a South American side. Not this one though, I feel Brazil will have too much for a depleted Chile side. Although their best central midfielders (Carmona and Fernandez) will be back, it won’t be enough

Prediction – 3-0

Paraguay vs Japan

This tie surprised me. I didn’t see either team being as good as they were, and I thought this would be Italy Denmark. Still, this game is massive for both sides, as the winner will make it the furthest they’ve made it in a World Cup. Paraguay were efficient in the group and the standouts for me have been new Wigan centre-back Antolin Alcaraz and Enrique Vera. Even more impressive is they’ve done this without Oscar Cardozo most of the time, arguably their best player

Japan have also quietly gone about their business. They were good against a weak Cameroon side, narrowly beaten by the Dutch before stunning against Denmark. Keisuke Honda is the key man for them after dispatching his superb free-kick. The midfield has been outstanding for Japan. Endo, Honda and Hasebe are the driving force in midfield and they have to control the game if Japan are to win here.

Once again, two very equal sides. I fancy an upset if Japan play as well as they did against Denmark

Prediction 1-2

Spain vs Portugal

An Iberian derby to finish. This is arguably the closest game to call. Spain have proved themselves to be vulernable, after the defeat to Switzerland. Both soon after, order was restored, although they started slowly against Chile, ultimately they were the better team. The pre-tournament favourites face a tough task here, but a familiar enemy in Portugal, who’ve performed much better than I though they would (even with two 0-0’s).

Their 7-0 demolition of North Korea proved that up-front they can overpower weaker teams. Against Spain that’s not going to happen but I see them scoring. Defensively Portugal have looked immaculate, yet to concede. Fabio Coentrao has been magnificent but Raul Meireles has performed way above the levels I thought he could. Given space, he could punish the Spaniards.

If Puyol and Pique hold steady, then Spain should win this. But not comfortably.

Prediction – 2-1

So there we are, the last 16 teams left have been previewed and there some terrific ties in prospect. I leave you with my favourite match so far. Slovakia Italy. Truly remarkable game.


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World Cup Preview – The 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

World Cup Preview – Group B

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

ARGENTINA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KEY PLAYER – Lionel Messi

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

MANAGER- Diego Maradona

Diego hopes for water park facilities

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

ODDS ON LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 9/1

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

GREECE

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

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

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

KEY PLAYER – Giorgos Karagounis

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

MANAGER – Otto Rehagel

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

ODDS ON LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 100/1

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

SOUTH KOREA

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

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

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

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

KEY PLAYER – Park Ji-Sung

Park can score in big games

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

MANAGER – Huh Jung Moo

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

ODDS ON LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 250/1

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

NIGERIA

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

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

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

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

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

KEY PLAYER – John Obi Mikel

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

MANAGER – Lars Lagerback

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

ODDS ON LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 100/1

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

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

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

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