Community Shield Preview – Chelsea vs Manchester United

At last the discussion over England’s worst World Cup in the history of all time can temporarily cease, as we prepare ourselves for the traditional curtain raiser: The Community Shield.

This will be the 88th Community Shield and the 5th contested between these two heavyweights. Chelsea of course won the double last year so United qualify as league runners-up. This is the first real opportunity to see how the two of the big sides will do this season, and more importantly for Chelsea and Manchester United to claim first blood in what is sure to be an interesting campaign.

Both have had contrasting pre-seasons. Ancelotti’s Chelsea have suffered 3 three straight defeats whilst travelling through Europe (against Ajax, Eintracht Frankfurt and Hamburg). Defeats on pre-season are never an indication of how things will turn out for a side clearly, but it was the manner of these defeats that must irk Carlo Ancelotti. Particularly against Ajax, a Chelsea fringe team were outplayed by Martin Jol’s side.

More worringly however is the fitness of goalkeeper Petr Cech who will certainly miss this game, and is in a race against time to make the Premier League day opener. He will be replaced by Hilario as Ross Turnbull who has been deputising in recent weeks hasn’t impressed.

The Bison is back

One real bonus for Ancelotti is the return of Michael Essien in midfield. Missing most of last year, he will link up well with Frank Lampard and John Obi Mikel in the midfield engine-room.

For Manchester United, pre-season has been considered a success with some impressive results against ‘All-Star’ sides. The recent 7-1 victory over the Airtricity League XI allowed United to make proverbial mince-meat of inferior opposition and turn on the style. Of course this tie won’t be so easy.

They’ve also accumulated some injuries, most notably Michael Carrick (ankle) and Ferguson’s side will certainly miss his technical attributes. He may have had a reasonably poor season last time out, but his passing in one of the best in the league in my opinion, and he is the epitome of the underrated central midfielder as highlighted by Zonal Marking recently. He also allows United to retain possession well too. I don’t see being a major issue as Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher can operate well as the two holding midfielders.

Other players missing for Manchester United are Gabriel Obertan (ankle), Anderson (knee and stunt driving), Rafael and Fabio (food poisoning) and Owen Hargreaves and Rio Ferdinand are long term injury concerns. On the subject of Anderson, I think his days are limited at Manchester United following his near-death experience. Shame, but two major injuries at a young age could curtail a promising career.

Summer savings

Neither side has really been on a pre-season splurge over the summer months. Chelsea have added Yossi Benayoun, who will fit nicely into the Joe Cole mould of squad player. Roman Abramovich has yet to break the bank with a signing but the £17m transfer of Benfica and Brazil winger Ramires is certainly imminent.

Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez - the next big thing?

Ferguson on the other hand decided to delve into the market early with the signings of Chris Smalling from Fulham and Javier Hernandez. The decision to bring in Chicharito for £7million pre-World Cup looks to be a Ferguson master-stroke after he excelled in South Africa. His positioning and off the ball running look superb and a friend likened him to a young Michael Owen. I whole-heartedly agree that this guy looks a hot prospect. The only area where Manchester United really need some strengthening is at right-back (Gary Neville and Wes Brown don’t help) and on the left side of midfield, unless Nani finally realises his potential. His inconsistency wasn’t as bad last year however.

Strikeforce options

Speaking of which, if Owen does start it will mark the first competitive game he’ll have played since the League Cup final in March. I doubt this will happen however as risking him on a Wembley pitch before the season starts could turn out disastrously. Expect Rooney and Berbatov to start, with Owen and Hernandez making 2nd half appearances possibly. Then again Ferguson could decide to play Rooney up to with 2 of Valencia/Nani/Park making up the support. This would likely match Chelsea, allowing flexibility to match their 4-3-3 formation in attack or 4-5-1/4-2-3-1 in other situations.

Rooney will need to hit the ground running again this season in a attempt to mask the performances in South Africa where he looked lethargic and uninterested. I have no doubt that this will happen.

Carlo Ancelotti has named his side this afternoon. He’s decided to leave Drogba on the bench, favouring Nicolas Anelka. He will be supported by Salomon Kalou and Florent Malouda on the flanks.

Teams

Chelsea (4-3-3) – Hilario; Paulo Ferreira, John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Ashley Cole; Michael Essien, John Obi Mikel, Frank Lampard; Salomon Kalou, Nicolas Anelka, Florent Malouda

Verdict – As expected. Near full strength. Interesting to see if Ivanovic can continue his improvement in the centre-back role alongside the increasingly outspoken and erratic John Terry.

Manchester United – TBA

Prediction

It will be tight and possibly a tense affair. I have an inkling that United will win here, mainly due to Chelsea’s pre-season form being sketchy. Ancelotti has complained that his players aren’t showing good enough fitness levels yet and that showing of his deck could prove costly. It might end with a penalty shoot-out but I think United will edge it 1-0.

Community Shield Trivia

  • The last three winners of the Community Shield went on to win the league that year. Will that trend continue this year?
  • Also the last three games have ended in a penalty shootout.
  • Andre Marriner will take charge of the game on Sunday. Not exactly one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s favourite referees after sending off Nemanja Vidic at Anfield last season.
  • A win for Ryan Giggs on Sunday would mean 8 Community Shields, the same as Everton have won.

To whet your appetite, here’s last season’s game highlights. Featuring general Nani goal.

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The Unofficial World Cup Awards Ceremony 2010

Zuma and Blatter stuck in the Spanish mosh-pit Photo: REUTERS/Jerry Lampen

So there we have it. The new World Champions are Spain after a fiery encounter with The Netherlands in Soccer City. Many people expected a classic but in the end, the contest itself was marred with several horrible tackles and neither team really living up to the hype.

You can’t really argue that Spain were overall the best side in this tournament, purely for their retention of possession and their overall belief that a goal would come if they kept with the same style. But within that, some players clearly underperformed namely Fernando Torres, who looked out of sorts and dejected when he pulled his hamstring right near the end of extra time.

The Dutch game plan, to stifle Spain worked for the most part although they can count themselves lucky to have 10 men at the end. Both holding midfielders in Van Bommel and De Jong were forced to press the midfield strangehold and since both men tend to have short fuses, some horror tackles followed. De Jong’s kung-fu kick to Xabi Alonso being the worst of the bunch. Alonso will certainly have the imprint of that Adidas F50 on his chest today. A small price to pay for being world champion.

Howard Webb, I thought did an decent job considering the circumstances. Both sets of players were intent on stopping the other side by any means. You could argue he didn’t have the bottle to send off more, but history shows us that Webb prefers to keep a full compliment of players on the field at all costs (see Nemanja Vidic in the Carling Cup Final this season). Marca disagree with me calling Webb ‘abysmal‘. Dirk Kuyt claims that he cost them the World Cup, which is very rich considering the fouls Holland committed.

Webb was forced to be ‘card happy’ because of the nature of the game. Linesmen Darren Cann and Michael Mullarkey were superb throughout and that should be commended. Maybe Webb could have been slightly better (on one occassion booking someone despite not seeing the foul) but overall he was ok. Very controversial I know but Webb kept his cool, unlike the Dutch.

Holland had their chances but they couldn’t put them away. Arjen Robben was one on one with Iker Casillas twice and couldn’t finish either chance. He looked the most threatening of the Dutch, as Sneijder had a game to forget and I still think he’s been good, but not worthy of the Silver Ball. The Golden Ball, for the tournament’s best player went to Diego Forlan, a very good choice as he led Uruguay to the semi final.

Overall, the best side eventually found the goal in extra time through Andres Iniesta, who’s had a phenomenal tournament considering he got an injury right before it. Strange that a side which is renowned for flamboyant attacking play kept a clean sheet right throughout the knockout round.

I’ve decided to compile my own list of special awards to commemorate the first World Cup in South Africa. It’s been a great World Cup, full of shocks and hopefully these awards will reward the talent but also remember the truly stupid moments as well.

The Plastic Fan Award

Bill opts for a cuppa rather than half-time Bovril. Thank god he doesn't have a vuvuzela, I've heard his sax work

Honourable Mentions – Mick Jinx Jagger who supported England against Germany, USA against Ghana and Brazil vs Chile. That’s supporting three teams in three separate continents and only one of em won.

Winner – Marcel Desailly for his love of Ghana, despite leaving the country as a teen to play for France, a side he played for over 100 times. To be fair, after the whole French debacle, I don’t really blame him.  Kofi Annan is the true winner of the Ghanian Diplomat award.

The Jose Mourinho Award for Most Entertaining Manager

Watching Diego has been a highlight in itself at this World Cup

Honourable Mentions – Marcelo Bielsa for services to 3-3-1-3, Fabio Capello for being irate throughout and Raymond Domenech for a spectacular balls-up, and refusing to shake Carlos Alberto Perreira’s hand after South Africa beat his side 2-0. Nothing like a bizarre Frenchmen

Winner – Diego Maradona has to win this award. He exceeded my expectations just about, although don’t ask him to employ a defensive strategy. It still annoys me that Veron was left out against Germany. He looked very dapper in his chrome suit and his antics during games were a joy to behold. Off the field, he provided the funniest press-conference in recent memory. Diego Corner is a wonderful place.

“Just look at his face”

Greatest Spectator Award – Ghanian Pot Man wins this award by a landslide. He was seen at every Ghana game, complete with his famous cauldron sat firmly on his noggin. What puzzles me slightly is what’s brewing in his cauldron. I’d like to think it’s some oxtail soup but more likely is just plain firewood. Passionate man.

Best ‘British’ Goal scored – Wesley Sneijder vs Brazil

This award is to commemorate the stupidest phrase coined by the amateurish ITV commentary team, narrowly beating Mark Lawrenson’s ‘Hollywood pass’. I should probably blog about that alone, considering the ITV production over the month was so poor. Interesting to read that their final only got 3.8 million viewers compared to 18 million at the BBC, an indication of their quality perhaps. Anyway, any bullet header was given the moniker ‘British goal’ because as we know no other league can score a header from a set-piece.

The Jaap Stam Man of Steel Award – Xabi Alonso

See above video for reason. He’d have to be made of steel with that impact from Jong Kong Phooey (credit to David Stubbings for that superb pun he likely read in the Daily Star)

Das Wunderkind Award – Thomas Muller and Mesut Ozil

Honourable mentions to Ghana’s Andre Ayew and Kevin Prince Boateng but it’s clearly these two. It’s hard to separate the two of them, so I haven’t. Both were key to Germany’s path to third place, and Joachim Loew should be praised for giving some under 21’s into the side. And boy did they grasp the opportunity. I wasn’t a big fan of Thomas Muller before the tournament but he worked brilliantly in Germany’s 4-2-3-1 formation, nabbing 5 goals and 3 assists on his way to the Golden Boot. Mesut Ozil was the spark of the front four and his positioning off the ball is absolutely superb. He’s not too bad on it either. If Bayern sign Ozil, they could have a magnificent side.

Ronny Rosenthal Award – Yakubu

Yakubu may well claim he was offside or that he wanted to destroy the Evian water bottle (other brands of water are available) but it’s a tremendous miss that kickstarted a national ban inadvertently. Chris Iwelumo claimed it was worse than his. Firstly, no it wasn’t. Secondly, having arguments about worse misses is ludicrous and lastly, Yakubu may well be remembered for something else in his career.

Most Patriotic – North Korea Jong Tae-Se for crying during his national anthem against Brazil. It was a wonderful moment that’s been ridiculed since. But playing for such a small (but most glorious) nation like North Korea on that stage must be emotional.

Least Patriotic – Any member of the French national squad. This also wins the Funniest Moment of the World Cup as France decided to revolt against their manager. They refused to train, Anelka packed his bags and sulked back to his West London flat and then they crashed out of the group stage. This tournament will be repressed from the memories of Frenchmen but savoured in crystal clear fashion by everyone else, especially for the Irish.

The Golden Zizou – Felipe Melo wins this award for a good player going into meltdown at a key moment. He was pretty much single-handledly responsible for Brazil’s exit, after scoring an own-goal (it was a own goal not Sneijder’s) and then stomping a mudhole into Arjen Robben. Dunga must be angry with him after he lost his job because of it. The best part about this was Brazil legend Ronaldo telling him not to return to Brazil in a tweet. Modern technology eh?

The Dennis Bergkamp Wondergoal Award

Honourable Mentions Gio Van Bronckhorst’s thunderbolt effort from 35 yards and David Villa’s solo run against Honduras.

Winner – Fabio Quagliarella’s wonderfully pointless deft chip against Slovakia. Brilliant goal that left Jan Mucha knowingly lobbed. He played in one game and did that, maybe Lippi should have shown more faith in the Napoli man. I’ll guess we’ll never know.

The Dimitar Berbatov Award – This is a special award for the front man who didn’t turn up. Honourable mention to Fernando Torres but he became a World Cup winner. Therefore Wayne Rooney wins it. Never really threatened the goal and provided a lacklustre performance. Let’s hope for better things in 2014 from him, it’ll probably be his last chance.

Unsung Hero Award – Antolin Alcaraz for being Paraguay’s rock in defence which saw them reach the quarter finals, narrowly losing to Spain 1-0 in the end. Paraguay didn’t exactly set the world alight, but were solid throughout. Roberto Martinez’s decision to sign him pre-tournament from Club Brugge could be a masterstroke.

Quick, lock him in there

Unwanted Hero Award – Paul the Octopus. Unanimous winner, he’s nothing special. Just because swims to the right hand side box every time and the whole media goes crazy. I don’t condone death-threats to cephalopods but I’m glad to see the back of an animal who didn’t even bet on his predictions. Has he not seen Ray Winstone’s massive disturbing face telling him of all the markets? Come on Paul you could have bought a nice new tank with that.

The Harlem Globetrotters Award – Germany easily win this award for entertaining team. Pure counter attacking football with loads of goals. ‘What more do you want?’ as Lawro would say.

Now for the big one – The Johan Cruyff Award. The award that is presented to the overall best player of the tournament (although unlike Cruyff now has a World Cup medal).

It has to go to Xavi. This is also a recognition of his talents over the past 5 years in general really, there’s no one who’s better at passing in the world or holding onto the ball, and ultimately this is what won the World Cup. Along with Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta, the Barca trio looked phenomenal.

So, those are the awards, I’ll see you in 2014 if the world hasn’t ended. My tip is Brazil as it’s in Brazil


World Cup Preview – 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 – 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 – England

44 years of hurt now and it’s made England the laughing stock of world football. Several world-class teams and managers have passed by. But now under Fabio Capello, the ingrained pre-tournament hype has resurfaced again:England will do it this time.

Same again boys please (Photo courtesy of Colin Palmer)

Many believe this is the best chance since Italia 90 and with the squad that Capello has picked, that assertion seems well placed.But I can’t help but have a sense of forboding about the Three Lions. I mean, its only natural. They were one of the favourites for 2006, but ultimately Sven’s squad stuttered and never really hit top gear. Also, as we all know, England lack the winning mentality that rivals Germany always seem to pluck out of nowhere. Efficency and an ability to take penalities.

So, let’s take an in-depth look into England’s chances for South Africa.

ATTACK

After several years, England can finally call upon a truly world-class forward in Wayne Rooney. The supporting cast is also very promising. Up front, England can call upon several strikers for a tactical change if needed. Peter Crouch is menacing against smaller nations due to his size. Emile Heskey, whose inclusion surprised many, provides the perfect support for Rooney by holding up the ball. Plus Jermain Defoe proved earlier this season that he can prove to be an able hitman. If Darren Bent avoids the cut, his form could prove to be useful from the bench if England need to nick a goal.

The only issue I see up front is the fact that other than Rooney and Bent, the others don’t score enough. Crouch’s international record is sensational, but his chances of finding the net against tournament contenders is unlikely. Ditto Heskey, who might be a scapegoat in waiting (joining David Batty and Gareth Southgate) if England fail.

MIDFIELD

England’s engine room is now at full capacity, with several options throughout the squad. The key player within this system should be Frank Lampard, who has been sensational this season for champions, Chelsea. He never seems to replicate his club form on the international stage. But with over 20 goals in the league, he is a proven goal threat. In contrast, Steven Gerrard has arguably had one of his worst seasons with Liverpool, but is often reliable in the England set-up.

The main issue for England is where to place these two. My suggestion would be Gerrard on the left, with Lampard and Gareth Barry (if fit in time) joining him. If Barry is injured, then England would have to use the upcoming friendlies to attempt to find another defensive midfielder, as the importance of Barry is underestimated.

The more interesting scenario is who to put on the right. With D-Beck on the sidelines, attentions turn to Theo Walcott, who has undoubtedly matured and improved since his surprise inclusion in 2006. His crossing has improved and he isn’t all about pace, like he used to be. I’m still not 100% convinced however. Aaron Lennon has just come back from injury and would be a decent choice. Shaun Wright Phillips has the experience plus James Milner can play across the midfield to a fairly high standard.  Adam Johnson’s transfer to Man City in January propelled him into the squad and he would probably be useful in the groups.

My choice would be Milner, mainly as he would be the best crosser for Rooney.

DEFENCE

What was once considered the strongest area of the side now seems the most shaky. The once rock solid partnership of Rio Ferdinand and John Terry seems under threat. Rio has been constantly injured this season whereas the revelations about John Terry have seen the no nonsense centre-back become very erratic. Both clearly on their day are world-class but their faults have been shown often this season.

The other defenders are also prone to problems.  Ledley King is often touted as ‘the best centre back in the world when match fit’. But the key word here is when match fit. Which is never. King has managed to play more than a game a week, but at the World Cup, fixtures come thick and fast. Michael Dawson, for my money the most improved player in the Premier League this season, is theoretically the player in form. But he’s never played at this level before, so Fabio will probably stick to his guns.

One in, one out (Photos by Nigel Wilson)

The full-backs, especially on the right, seem the weakest part of the back four. Ashley Cole is fairly certain of his place as left-back, and will probably be backed-up by Leighton Baines. Both are capable, and Cole is one of the best left-backs in the world, no question. The right-back position is an issue. There are no quality English right-backs in the league, with Glen Johnson being the best candidate. Jamie Carragher has come out of retirement to aid the cause. One issue, Jamie Carragher has also had a bad season for Liverpool. He seems likely to make the cut as well, as he can ‘play’ centre-back. Bizarre

Also, if Johnson was picked, both him and Ashley Cole would often bomb forward to aid the wingers, which could leave England exposed.

GOALKEEPER

This selection is no-brainer for me. Robert Green hasn’t been great at West Ham this season and David James is often prone to mistakes. James has been pretty good for Pompey, but Joe Hart has been outstanding on loan at Birmingham. His only problem is the one international cap to his name, meaning a lack of experience. I say give him a shot, he deserves it.

KEY PLAYER – Wayne Rooney

After bursting onto the international stage at Euro 2004, ‘the next big thing’ never looked back and has established his place in the top 5 players worldwide this season. With Cristiano Ronaldo leaving Manchester United, Rooney managed to become the focal point of United’s attack, and if England want success in South Africa, they must use him as the spearhead of any attack. 34 goals this season in all competitions gave his best haul in his career, plus ability for super strikes. I think it’s time for Young Wayne to become a national hero.

MANAGER – Fabio Capello

England’s best manager since Sir Bobby Robson. The Italian has won several league titles in many countries so his calibre can’t be underestimated. He’s managed to transform a side with no confidence in Dutchman Schteve McClaren to a team of possible world-beaters.The side has quality and the most astute tactician. It must be destiny.

IMPORTANT THINGS TO NOTE

  • Since its a Winter world cup, the weather should favour Europeans. It won’t be cold, it won’t be scolding, but pretty warm, meaning memories of scorching days back in Mexico 86 won’t rear their ugly heads.
  • England, like many other teams, will play a game at high altitude. The game in Rustenberg against the US will be like playing on top of Ben Nevis. so Fabio has taken the lads to Austia for altitude training. Unfortunately several other teams have followed suit, meaning this shouldn’t be an advantage.
  • On paper this group looks easy. It isn’t. All teams are in the top 32 clubs in the world, according to FIFA Rankings. The U.S. have some good players in Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. The Algerians made the African Cup of Nations final. The Slovenians might be a tight unit to break down. It won’t be a cakewalk that’s for sure.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 11/2

PREDICTION – Semi final tragedy. Again.

To hopefully inspire here is the best world cup advert this year and the best world cup song. Join me next time for a preview of the rest of Group C.