World Cup Preview – Semi Final Time

So much for that South American dominance. We saw it all in the quarter finals; Brazil’s total dominance in the first half followed by their complete capitulation in the second, mainly due to Felipe Melo. Surprisingly, this new Dunga version of Brazil who from now on shall be called Euro-Brazil, couldn’t defend anything in the air or from set-pieces. And of course Wesley Sneijder took full advantage of this. The Brazillian FA action in the aftermath was blunt and swift, Dunga was sacked within the amount of time it takes to get a takeaway pizza to your door. Still, Dunga should easily walk into a top European job.

The funniest post match quote was indeed from wanted man Melo who said:

“Anyway, I’ve had a good World Cup and today I had a good first half with the assist for Robinho’s goal. If we had won the World Cup, I would have given myself a 10 out of 10. We didn’t do it, so I will content myself with a six.”

Modest Melo. But really a six? A SIX? I can barely think of six things you did correctly. Even Gilberto Silva had a better tournament. Sorry, Melo my tournament view is clouded by a stamp like Rooney in 2006, well because that’s all Rooney’s done at a World Cup. He also said:

‘If I had meant to hurt Arjen Robben, he would have had a broken leg’

Felipe Melo in less hostile times for Brazil

Dead hard Felipe Melo, which is exactly the right stance to take when you have probably every Brazilian on your back for pretty much single-handedly destroying the national team’s tournament. Still, he’s got pre-season at Juventus to look forward to. Juve are a shoe-in for the losers of the World Cup award. Buffon injured, Cannavaro (who’s retired in Quatar now) and Chiellini having shocking tournaments. Only Christian Poulsen and Tiago seem safe.

I’m still not convinced by Holland. Yes, they are a much better side with Arjen Robben but they look so so poor at the back. They’ll still make the final but Germany or Spain should prosper with the attacking options at their disposal.

Next followed quite possibly the most controversial moment in the World Cup since Diego Maradona palmed it past Peter Shilton in ’86. Maybe.  I don’t want to go into this too much, but I agree with Zonal Marking (great tactical analysis site by the way) who said that the punishment of Suarez doesn’t fit the crime. He denied a certain goal, which he possibly could have headed, that sent Ghana out. Sure, any other person would have done the same thing after 120 minutes of football, but he cheated. Plain and simple. If Ghana are out, Suarez should be out for the same amount of time, not the one game he’s going to miss, like Thomas Muller will for two harsh bookings in 5 games.

People may say “Oh, he got caught, he’s been punished so he didn’t cheat”. That’s like saying a convicted murderer isn’t as bad as another murderer on the run. Fifa, please sort this out. We need the equivalent of a penalty try in rugby or even an direct free-kick on the line with no goalie plus stricter punishment. Then and only then will goal-line handballs stop.

That being said, Asamoah Gyan’s attempt at glory by smashing it through Fernando Muslera didn’t work. Ghana’s mindset was rattled and they lost on penalties. A sad end for Africa’s last team but they can be proud of their efforts, without doubt.

I have a bone to pick with ITV ‘pundit’ Marcel Desailly. You can’t support two nations. You played 116 times for France. I do realise you were born in Ghana but you made the choice Marcel.

Marcel Desailly clearly playing for France

Saturday’s games were slightly less controversial. Germany established themselves as tournament favourites after destroying yet another side with a weak defence. All credit to them, their counter-attacking football was masterful at times. A sad end for Diego Maradona but I’ll stand by original opinion that the man shouldn’t manage. I firmly believe that any manager would have got Argentina this far. Maradona has certainly exceeded my expectations, and also provided us with some superb touchline and press-conference moments.

As for Germany, they’ve done exactly what I’d thought they do. Get down to business without any fuss. Extraordinary that they’ve done this without their best player of the decade Michael Ballack (although this could well be debated with Miroslav Klose’s goalscoring record) and first choice goalkeeper. Thomas Muller is my pick for player of the tournament. Not only exceptional on the field but very articulate off it, as this proves. He said:

“England have so many top stars in their squad that they will always be part and parcel of the international football scene. But there are so many ‘alpha males’ in their squad. It is difficult to have so many alpha males and have them row in the same direction. You don’t only need chiefs. You also need a few Indians.”

And that is why Germany will now win the World Cup. Belief, team-spirit and ultimately a well-oiled machine. Germany are that good at tournament football, they’ve got a word for it: Turniermannschaft. Hard to back against them lifting the trophy for the fourth time now.

There is nothing of note to say about Paraguay vs Spain. Except several posts were hit and several penalties were missed. David Villa scored the winner and enhances his reputation whereas the rest of the global superstars have put in forgettable performances.

After that mammoth ramble, here’s how I see the semi-finals going:

Uruguay vs The Netherlands

Cape Town, Tuesday 6th July  19:30GMT

Possible Starting Lineups

Uruguay: [ 4-3-3 ] Muslera; M. Pereira, Scotti, Victorino, A. Pereira; A. Fernandez, Arevalo, Perez, Cavani; Abreu, Forlan

Holland: [4-2-3-1] Stekelenburg, Boulahrouz Heitinga, Mathjisen, Van Bronckhorst, Van Bommel, De Zeeuw, Robben, Sneijder, Kuyt, Van Persie

  • With Luis Suarez serving that suspension, Uruguay could either press Diego Forlan further forward or bring in Sebastian ‘El Loco’ Abreu. His penalty was superb against Ghana so he might get the nod plus it would mean keeping the system that’s got them this far. Uruguay will also miss their captain Diego Lugano and left-back Jorge Fucile. Both key players at the back. Diego Perez will have to play a blinder to keep the Dutch front four at bay.
  • Holland’s second half against Brazil was magnificent, and I was really impressed by Dirk Kuyt’s workload. Wesley Sneijder has been a brilliant play maker for the Dutch. Although Holland will miss Gregory Van de Wiel and Nigel De Jong, both bringing tough tackling to the side. This means we should see Khalid Boulahrouz and Demy De Zeeuw to replace them. Neither as threatening really.
  • I think Holland have enough to see off Uruguay, especially considering the amount of injuries Uruguay have. Holland finally hit peak-form against Brazil, and once Clockwork Oranje starts, it’s hard to stop. Expect Arjen Robben to maraude and marvel.

Prediction – 1-3

Germany vs Spain

Durban, Wednesday 7th July 19:30 GMT

Possible Lineups

Germany (4-2-3-1) Neuer, Lahm, Mertesacker, Friedrich, Boateng, Khedira, Schweinstiger, Trochowski, Oezil, Podolski, Klose

Spain (4-4-2) Casillas, Ramos, Pique, Puyol, Capdevila, Iniesta, Alonso, Busquets, Xavi, Villa, Torres


  • A repeat of the Euro 2008 final, these sides remain the two heavyweights in Europe. Germany have matured since then, and have been the best team in South Africa so far. Spain have underwhelmed slightly, but that’s pretty harsh considering they were given the favourite tag likely right after that Euro 2008 victory.
  • Germany’s main weakness is the back two and goalkeeper yet they kept out Argentina. Germany’s defence is better than many think, arguably because of the assistance of Sami Khedira, an unsung hero. Bastian Schweinstiger was given free-roam against Argentina and I don’t expect that happen here as much as Xabi Alonso will be able do what Javier Mascherano couldn’t.
  • Spain need to drop Fernando Torres, they won’t but should. Spain improve in the 2nd half of nearly every game I’ve seen as they bring on Cesc Fabregas or Jesus or Pedro or Llorente or David Silva (so many options). They didn’t need two holding midfielders in the earlier games and improved dramatically when they adopted another attacking midfielder. Although here, I think Del Bosque will play it safe. but has hinted that he could drop him.
  • Will Germany struggle without Muller? Possibly. Will they sit back as several players are one booking away from missing the final? Certainly. But I really fancy Germany here, especially Klose continues his great form and also if Schweinstiger is allowed to control the game especially with Muller missing. The momentum gained from the victories over England and Argentina could give them the impetus a la Italy in 2006.

Prediction 2-1

See you next time where we will discuss a Uruguay Spain final, as my predictions are always wrong. I wish I was 5-0 like Paul the Octopus.

Here’s the best thing of the World Cup so far….Heinze Smash

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World Cup Preview – The Quarter Finals

Well that round certainly lived up to the hype. Many many talking points, but it seems fairly obvious to start with Germany vs England. I had a slight inkling that England were going to get a spanking but due to my blind patriotism, I decided to undermine my prediction.

As I said, the game would all come down to who was covering Ozil. In this case Gareth Barry took up that role and provided a truly underwhelming performance. He was meant to be the shield for Terry and Upson; that shield was metaphorically made out of crate paper and Germany stook 4 past the woeful defence. I felt sorry for David James as he’s played pretty well but had a pretty poor defence in front of him. I don’t even want to go into the whole Lampard goal as it would have made no difference at all to lacklustre England.

Downbeat England during Germany game

I could do a blog about everything that went wrong and how we can look to other national sides in an effort to improve the development of young players. But several respectable journalists have done this to much better effect than I could ever do, so I’d merely be reiterating them. Plus I could ramble all day about what’s wrong with the FA which is boring.

On to much less depressing issues. Paraguay and Ghana made the Quarter Finals for the first time. Ghana were brilliant against the U.S. and Kevin Prince Boateng continues to impress me. He’s made the step up to international level look effortless. Paraguay edged past Japan on penalties in quite possibly the dullest game so far, but to their credit, they provided a penalty master-class.

The heavyweights of Brazil, Argentina, Spain and Holland all came through their games, some easier than others. Brazil were relatively comfortable against Chile, and Chile can surely be proud of this campaign after bringing some flamboyance and also some hard tackling when pressing. Argentina Mexico was a great game, sealed with a terrific strike by Carlos Tevez. Unfortunately this game will be remembered for the second officiating blunder of the day, when it really should be remembered for being a terrific spectacle. Javier Hernandez scored a great goal as well, and I hope to see more of that at Old Trafford this season.

Spain and Portugal was fascinating tactically. Portugal looked the better side until Del Bosque brought on Llorente, who played well unlike Fernando Torres. Portugal capitulated and David Villa sneaked in past a lax Simao. Holland provided an efficient performance against Slovakia. Holland looked a lot better with Arjen Robben, and he scored the first in a 2-1 win.

I’ve left Uruguay last for a reason. I genuinely believe they could make the final. The front 3 have been sensational and it’s great to see Diego Forlan finally cast that lazy tabloid tag of being ‘forlorn’. Without doubt one of the best players this year.

So onward to the Quarter Final previews:

The Netherlands vs Brazil

Port Elizabeth, Friday 2nd July 15:00 GMT (BBC)

  • A reincarnated Total Football vs Dunga’s defensive policy. Maybe they’ll both cancel each other out. Ranking 4th and 1st respectively in the world, this has all the makings of a classic.
  • They last met in a World Cup in 1998, which was also a tight affair with Brazil coming out on top on penalties after Phillip Cocu and Ronald DeBoer both missed their spot kicks
  • Holland now with Robben look better with that injection of pace. Brazil have gone about their business with little effort but Luis Fabiano’s found his goalscoring boots at the right time. Juan and Lucio have done well and I think Van Persie will have to play a blinder to break them down
  • I don’t think Holland have been tested yet defensively and that will be their undoing if Robinho and Luis Fabiano play well.

PREDICTION – 0-2

Uruguay vs Ghana

Soccer City, Johannesburg  19.30 GMT (ITV)

  • Both sides can see the semi-final within grasp, a superb achievement for them with neither really expecting to form a run like this.
  • Uruguay front three of Diego Forlan, Luis Suarez and Diego Cavani have been the driving force behind the team, but have been well supported by the defence. Ghana on the other hand have arguably been led by Asamoah Gyan who’s scored most of their goals, his winner against the U.S. being the highlight.
  • I think the Black Stars don’t have enough at the back to keep Uruguay out, especially with some suspensions. They are also missing Ayew wh0’s been solid. Uruguay are missing key defender Diego Godin, the defensive clearance speciallist in the France game.

Prediction – 3-1

Argentina vs Germany

Cape Town, Saturday 3rd July 15:00 GMT (BBC)

  • The second titanic clash of the quarter finals. Diego’s dynamic Argentina versus ‘Yogi Love’s’ youthful Germany. Both sides have been clinical so far and have shown the best attacking football in the competition.
  • The key contest here is Messi vs Ozil. Both have been instrumental in their teams providing the foil to attack and also creating key chances. Both have exceptional off the ball movement.
  • With such great attacking players, both sides look decidedly average at the back. Germany have been flattered by poor opposition, and Manuel Neuer has looked flappable.  Also, at times whereas I still worry about Martin Demichelis but if Diego plays Burdisso, it might tighten them up a bit.
  • It’s only a matter of time until Messi scores. I see it being here. I’ve been convinced by the extrovert Diego Maradona and I think Argentina will edge a classic although I’m going to sit on the fence, and say a Germany win isn’t out of the realms of possibility if they show the camaraderie and efficiency of the England performance.

PREDICTION3-2

Paraguay vs Spain

Ellis Park, Johannesburg 19:30 GMT (BBC)

  • Paraguay have to be considered underdogs here, but their performances so far have been so inconsistent its impossible to say which Paraguay will turn up. They’ve been good defensively however and you’d have to think that’s what will be needed here. Antolin Alcaraz has been the standout centre-back at this tournament for me, which was a great move from Roberto Martinez at Wigan to sign him pre-tournament.
  • Spain have been underwhelming so far. Their tactics need fine tuning, for example I don’t think they need two defensive midfielder, so Del Bosque needs to drop Sergio Busquets or Xabi Alonso and put in either Pedro, Jesus Navas to add width and ideas.
  • Dropping Torres is also a good move in my book. He’s been terrible mainly as I don’t think he’s match fit. Del Bosque, put in Llorente or Cesc Fabregas behind Villa please.
  • Spain should win this easily but they’ve yet to show anything like they can produce (except David Villa). Paraguay have a certain gritty determination about them, and I think they’ll give it everything but fall short.

PREDICTION – 0-2

So that’s it. Let’s hope my record of prediction continues to be better than Mark Lawrenson and level with Paul the Octopus.

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 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.

World Cup Preview – Group A

The football season has ended. Some pundits will tell you this season has lacked quality, with the departure of the league’s biggest player, CR-9, it was thought that the league would struggle to compete with its Spanish and Italian counterparts. But for my money, this season has been one of the most level contests going. The gap between the supposed ‘Big Four’ and the rest closed, and Spurs sneaked in for the coveted 4th place. The relegation battle was intriguing for a while, with several sides struggling with payments, and other teams such as Wigan received several thrashings.

But anyway, that’s all done and dusted. The greatest tournament of them all is up for grabs once again, this time in South Africa. So, in a change to the blog, I’ve decided this week to preview a group each day to give you an insight into the vast array of teams that will compete for the trophy. Some hot favourites, other complete long shots, the World Cup truly unites the globe with a veritable footballing fest. And I can’t wait for it.

South Africa is ready, are you?

Here’s a promise, it won’t be as complicated as Alan Partridge’s World Cup Countdown to 94

GROUP A

SOUTH AFRICA

Well it makes sense to start off with the unfancied hosts. When South Africa won the bid for the World Cup, it represented more than just making money, it represented an opportunity to show the world that they had overcome the past tragedies of Apartheid. One thing is certain, Bafana Bafana will make the tournament vibrant and full of colour. The sheer effort put in to make South Africa ready to host a World Cup is astounding.

The pressure is truly on for them as well. No host nation has gone out at the group stage and it’s fair to say that they wouldn’t be in the World Cup if they weren’t hosting. The team has gone backwards since they last reached the group stage in 2002. But, to say they don’t have a chance of making it out of Group A is truly disrespectful. There are some decent players within the side, and being on home soil will enhance their chances.

STRENGTHS – The defence is fairly strong and full of Kaizer Chiefs (the clearly superior version, as opposed to the band) players. Captain Aaron Mokoena will lead the hosts out, after a turbulent year at Pompey and will want to make his side not seem like pushovers. Fulham’s Kagiso Dikgachoi will partner Mokoena in the centre in midfield. He’s used sparingly at Fulham, but given a chance here, he will hopefully prove to be a decent player.

WEAKNESSES – The attack. Only Benny McCarthy seems capable of scoring for them, and he’s been a bit part in West Ham’s poor season. Someone will need to become a hero if South Africa are to make it anywhere near the knock-out stage.

KEY PLAYER – Steven Pienaar

The Everton winger has come off the back of an impressive season, often taking games by the scruff of the neck (see Man City home) and he has finally hit good form after disappointing in Dortmund and Ajax. Whether the contract discussions and constant links to the European elites will distract him, remains to be seen.

MANAGER – Carlos Alberto Parreira

A Brazilian with massive World Cup pedigree, after lifting the World Cup with Brazil in 94. That side were hated by the Brazilians, but South Africa have taken Parreira to heart in his 2nd stint as their coach. Also managed Kuwait in 82, UAE in 90, Saudi Arabia in 98 and Brazil again in 2006. If there’s one man who knows the World Cup, it is him.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE TROPHY – 100/1 at best.

PREDICTION – I put a sneaky bet on with my housemate that South Africa would make it out of the group stage so I’m praying that they do. Realistically, it’s a long shot.

FRANCE

Never has a French side been detested so much internally and externally. After Thierry’s handball in the play-off for a place at the finals, the side, and the man himself has faced a constant barrage from the media over their side. Raymond Domenech has turned a side who were world-class into a unit that struggles. Just by looking at their qualifying campaign shows you how poor this French side is on paper.

STRENGTHS – The spine of the side is full of absolute quality players. Les Bleus midfield contains experienced players in Jeremy Toulalan and Alou Diarra  (both have had great seasons) plus adept wingers in Florent Malouda and the man to watch Franck Ribery. France are also blessed with two superb keepers. Hugo Lloris has been exceptional for Lyon, which has seen him linked with every European heavyweight going and Steve Mandanda has just won the league with Marseille.

WEAKNESSES – Age is a major factor in France’s decline, especially up front. Anelka and Henry aren’t setting the world alight anymore, and are both bit-part players at their clubs. Another problem is the lack of players coming through to replace. Karim Benzema hasn’t made the squad after a poor debut season as a Galactico, and the supporting cast don’t look up to much either. Domenech has called up forgotten man, Djibril Cisse to attempt to find a striker in some sort of form, after all he has scored 29 goals for Panathiniakos this year. I completely understand the decision to not take Benzema. In Euro 2000, France took Anelka, who at the time had been poor at Real. Result being that he didn’t play well in the tournament either.

The defence isn’t the best either with only William Gallas being the only true centre-back as he will be partnered by Eric Abidal.

Key Player – Franck Ribery

Bayern’s star player will hope to translate his club form onto the big stage. He has all the attributes to make an impact in South Africa. He will probably make mincemeat of most right-backs in the group.

Manager – Raymond DomenechRay-Dom adopts Wenger approach 'He did not see it'

Alistair Darling impersonator, with even less popularity. He made the final last time out, but that was with better players; players he chose to ignore this time, such as Patrick Vieira. His PR man has a massive job ahead of him to avoid Ray becoming Public Enemy 1,2 and 3. Well known for his proposal to TV girlfriend, live on air, after crashing out of Euro 2008.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE TROPHY – 12/1

PREDICTION – Should walk the group but tension within the ranks may prove costly to Le Bleus

MEXICO

A massive turnaround was needed in qualifying for the Mexicans. Sven came and Sven left, with a side on the verge of failure to qualify from CONCACAF. But under Javier Aguirre, Mexico improved and continue their run of World Cups since 1994.

They are full of some decent youth players, namely Arsenal’s Carlos Vela, who has huge potential, yet it hasn’t had the chance to be unlocked under Arsene Wenger. West Ham and Manchester United are also represented by strikers Guillermo Franco and Javier Hernandez.

STRENGTHS – Counter attacking. With some many young players, the speed of the team is key, especially when Mexico are under the kosh. They also have experience in Barca’s Rafael Marquez.

WEAKNESSES – Not enough quality throughout the side, to mount a serious challenge for the trophy. They are also known as a dirty side, which is backed up by of course, Rafael Marquez.

KEY PLAYER – Carlos Vela

The 21 year-old front-man hasn’t shown a lot at Arsenal, but in Mexico, he’s the linchpin of the Mexican front-line. Arsenal fans should see more of his quality here than at the Emirates.

MANAGER – Javier Aguirre

The former Atletico Madrid manager found a side lacking confidence and points in their qualifying campaign. after Sven’s defensive play didn’t suit ‘El Tri’. Focuses on counter-attacking flowing play which is sorely needed in this group

ODDS ON LIFTING THE TROPHY – 50/1

PREDICTION – Lack enough quality to go far, so will fall at the first hurdle.

URUGUAY

The first team to lift the World Cup and 2 time winners. Uruguay certainly thrive on the big stage, but their recent record in the competition isn’t as glittering. They missed out in 2006 and will be looking for a marked improvement from Japan/South Korea 2002 after being knocked out in the groups (along with France).

STRENGTHS

The frontline. Diego Forlan is now a veteran in this side, and after leading Atletico Madrid to Europa League success, he’ll want another medal in his trophy cabinet. Alongside him , should be Ajax’s Luis Suarez, who is a terrific player, who will provide the foil for Forlan to pop up for important goals. Like he does regularly.

There is also a decent defence, with Juve’s Martin Caceres being the most talented. He’s made the squad but has been injured for most of the season, meaning his quality will have to outweight his lack of form.

WEAKNESSES

Inconsistency. In qualifying they beat Peru 6-0 but got destroyed by Brazil 4-0. Suggests that they don’t have what it takes to hang with the best countries in the competition.  But this group is wide open, with all teams in for shout of qualifying. They shouldn’t fear France, that’s for sure.

KEY PLAYER – Diego Forlan

He comes from Uruguay. he makes the English cry. The fox in the box who didn’t live up to the billing in Manchester. Coming off the back of a great season, including goals against Fulham and Liverpool in the final rounds of the Europa League, could this be Forlan’s finest performance yet?

Manager – Oscar Washington Tabarez

Great name and an even great following in Uruguay after he took them to Italia 90. Has also managed AC Milan and Boca Juniors throughout his career, so he clearly knows pressure.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE TROPHY – 80/1


PREDICTION – Going to be close, but I think 2nd in the group, thanks to Diego Forlan’s form.

So to go through, France and Uruguay. Both won’t go far. Join me next time for Group B  and to discuss Maradona in general

Ciao. I leave you with one of my favourite goals from World Cup 98.

Adrian Ilie, please stand up

Odds courtesy of bet.fourfourtwo.com