Sunday, June 6, 2010

World Cup Preamble - Part I

Predictions in football – ok, soccer if you need translation – are fickle, irresolute and nearly always a lose-lose proposition, no matter how you flip it. You get it wrong, and you suffer the wrath of all the other “experts” out there who were just lucky to get it right. Get it right, on the other hand, and you’re just on the “lucky” side of the proverbial fence, regardless of how much of an “educated” guess you made. So, on that introductory note, I’d like to set the stage for the ramblings below not as predictions, but as opinions (with varying degrees of factual information, guesstimates, subject matter knowledge, etcetera, etcetera) backed by a certain amount of historical data, empirical observation and a “twitchy” eye for this sort of thing. I’m well aware that I’ll be proven wrong on some of these views – there’s always a surprise team or two, and more than a fair share of surprise results – but that’s what makes the World Cup so great! That’s why we always side with David, knowing full well that the bookmakers’ money is on Goliath.

I’m sure there will be teams (and players) that will disappoint, teams (and players) that will disappoint again, others that will impress, plenty of surprises (on both counts) and a fair share of praise and critique thrown towards the coaches and referees [ok, maybe not so much praise on the latter; they’re always the culprit]. As for coaches, how many more of these overrated overpaid mercenaries [yeah, I know, hold your horses, they’re not all bad, but this is my blog, my opinion, you don’t have to agree, or like it…and, in the interest of time, I’ll agree to save some of my more opinionated remarks for later] will then join the likes of Raymond Domenech once the dust settles?…but let’s not get ahead of ourselves… here goes nothing…

Europe - UEFA

With 13 teams, Europe still has the largest representation in the World Cup…but I’d venture to say, not necessarily (or entirely) the best this time around. Yes, aside from the “regulars” there are some questionable teams lining up, in lieu of notable absences; among them, Sweden (typically omnipresent since 1990), Russia (who only 2 years ago impressed in Switzerland/Austria not only through results [blew past Holland in the quarterfinals only to be eliminated in the semis by Spain, the eventual champions] but through a direct approach to total football [clearly Hiddink’s hand there], Ireland (robbed ultimately by Henry’s “hand of &*%$”, inept refereeing, and FIFA’s stubbornness to move the game into the 21st century [yes, I’m talking about video replay and the ability to reverse decisions that could alter the game’s outcome; but that’s another story, for another day]), Turkey (another stellar performer at Euro 2008, showing amazing spirit in come-from-behind victories against the Swiss , Czech Republic, Croatia and [almost] Germany in the semifinal) and Croatia (who imploded after managing to keep England out of Euro 2008 two years ago). All that is water under the bridge, but UEFA should seriously reconsider the current qualification system where teams that had a good, consistent showing in the group stages have an “off” day in the two-leg elimination round and they miss out on the World Cup. Case in point: Russia eliminated by Slovenia on away goals (2-2 on aggregate), or Ukraine losing at home to a resilient Greece after 0-0 in Athens in the first leg. Although one could argue that Greece deserved to win (yet played the more defensive football) I’m willing to bet serious money on Russia taking 10 out of 10 from Slovenia anytime, anywhere! But I digress [yet hope you get my point]. So here they are, alphabetically, just to make it easier:

Denmark. Although it lacks individual talents of years past, it edged past Portugal and Sweden in the qualifiers with strong team play, a winning yet relaxed attitude and a homogenous, relatively young squad [yet comfortable on the big stage, with key players in Sorensen, Agger, Kroldrup, Jorgensen, Rommedahl, Tomasson and Bentner]. Old hand Morten Olsen (in charge for over 10 years now) knows how to get the best out of his players. Should make it out of the group stages easily, and even past the round of 16 (as group F, their eventual opposition in that stage, does not look too strong)

England. Perennial favorites, they always seem to stumble way ahead of the finish line (the exception being World Cup ‘66, but that was home soil and a “blind” Russian referee). Enter Capello, tasked with working on winning mentality, tactics, and all that high-end-coach mambo-jumbo…Yes, they qualified easily, in a relatively difficult group, but their game is still fairly predictable and for all the stars in their lineup, they do lack some speed in central defense (Terry and Ferdinand [latest news have him out of the tournament with damaged knee ligaments]) and tend to rely too much on Rooney up front. They should breeze through what’s likely to be the easiest group, but although they look to have an easier bracket past the group stage, they’re likely to face Brazil in the semifinal, which would mean the end of the road (unless they fall to France in the quarterfinal).

France. Based on the start of the qualifying campaign, they should not even be here. More so after making it through following a blatant hand ball from Henry against the irate Irish! Yet for all their individual talent, they never seem to gel. They have hit the top after winning the World Cup on home turf in ‘98, then plunged four years later in Korea without making it out of the group stage. Another for years on, they were back on top, this time in the final against Italy (which they only lost after penalties against a very inspired Buffon). So if the see-saw of recent years continues, they’ll have a down year again [defeat to China the other day seems to point us in that direction]. For the life of me, I just don’t understand why it took the FFF so long to finally replace Domenech. In comes Laurent Blanc [albeit, after the World Cup is over] who’s had a great season with Bordeaux and won Manager of the Year in France. I just wish they made the switch earlier and allowed Blanc to have a shot at a Worl Cup final (if you recall, he missed the ‘98 final through suspension after Bilic faked an elbow to the head in the semifinal against Croatia and got him ejected [jeez…I wonder what kind of real useful information I could fit in my head if it weren’t full with all this “nonsense”]). The verdict: they should make it out of another easy group, but beyond that, they’ll have to find someone to run the show from the midfield, and I just don’t think they can do it, without a Zidane [Gourcuff is promising, but has not matured yet, and Ribery – although a fantastic player – is often limited to playing on the wings]. Without proper support from the middle, Anelka & Co. would find themselves isolated. PS - another stab at Domenech before I’m done with France: how do you leave out a player like Benzema?

Germany. I remember Romania beating them badly a few years ago [5-1 in April, 2004]. Earlier, England trashed them by the same score in Munich [September, 2001]. That must have been a couple of icy-cold shower for the Fußballnationalmannschaft. Rudy Voller was brought in to revive the team and managed a 3rd place medal on home soil in the 2006 World Cup (beaten only by Italy in overtime in the semifinal). His assistant – Joachim Low – has maintained the spirit of that team and they flew through the qualifiers. For the big stage, however, they lack the solid defense (goalkeeper in particular) that we’ve been used to in German teams in the past. The midfield will miss Ballack’s iconic / influential figure, but frankly, I think they’re better off without him. He’s now a pale shadow of the young dynamo that made the breakthrough years ago at Leverkusen. Others should be warned, though…they always step it up on the big stage. Everyone wrote them off in 2002, yet they managed to play in the final [of the most low-quality tournament in recent years]. Verdict? Will probably lose to Argentina in the quarterfinals.

Greece. I call them the “one-hit-wonder” for their victory at Euro 2004, but although they still have Otto Rehhagel at the helm, they’re a pale shadow of the team that won the trophy 6 years ago [granted, all they did back then was defend, defend some more, defend again, and take advantage of set pieces and the occasional counter]. They should consider themselves lucky to be here, but won’t make it past the group stage. One telling statistic: 10 of the 20 field players included in the squad are defensive players. I rest my case!

Italy. The world champions have the benefit of what looks like the easiest group, but I’ll be surprised if they make it past the round of 16. Lippi is back in charge, and hoping to repeat the experience from the last World Cup, but the squad lacks depth, some players [Cannavaro] should have retired while on top (like Panucci, Del Piero, Materazzi, Totti, etc.) and the ones that made the team are not of the caliber we’re used to in Italian teams. Two years ago, in Switzerland, they were lucky to scrape through from their qualifying group after being trashed by Holland and nearly beaten by Romania (had Mutu been more inspired from the penalty spot). The current team, although it qualified comfortably, does not have what it takes. And inexplicably (although I can see the disciplinary reasons for it) is missing some of the most talented players in the Italian league, notably Miccoli, Cassano and Ballotelli [tremendous talent, in my opinion, despite his controversial personality]. In their place, some figures that are mediocre at best (Boriello, Quagliarrella, Iaquinta, Gilardino) or had a poor season, and they’re only “in” because of past performance (Gatusso, Camoranesi, Zambrotta, Chiellini). The Azzurri do not look good on paper and I doubt they’ll look good on the field either…

Netherlands. I always loved their style and looks like if they can get some consistency in their game, they can make it far. However, there’s a high probability that they’ll meet Brazil in the quarterfinals if they win their group (which they should, comfortably). My advice: take the second place in group E and pick the lesser of the two evils at that stage: Spain. Regardless of how they get to that point, Oranje is likely to impress in the manner they did at Euro 2008. Their midfield is a finely tuned machine, with van Bommel providing staunch support behind the creativity and finesse of the Sneijder/van der Vaart dynamic duo. Up front, is hard to pick between Kuyt, van Persie, Robben [fiery hot lately] and Huntelaar. Where they lack presence, though, is the defensive compartment, which is relatively fine, when having so much attacking prowess; they’ll just have to score that many more goals. In the modern game, however, the teams that make it far in these tournaments have all the areas consistently covered. And when not losing seems to matter more than winning, a strong defense is what the doctor orders. We saw that all too well recently, when Inter “parked the bus” in front of the goal on the Camp Nou and although it wasn’t pretty, they got the result. Let’s just hope those type of tactics will not be employed at the World Cup [says the optimist in me, but who am I kidding?]

Portugal. A less-than stellar qualification campaign and a style of play over-centered around Ronaldo does not bode well for the Lusitans. Yes, Nani is in form, and can provide an additional spark on the right flank, but the rest of the squad is “thin”. Deco has barely seen any playing time since moving to Chelsea and Carvalho alone can’t hold up the defense [Pepe – Real Madrid – will surely be missed]. I doubt they’ll make it out of group G (Ivory Coast more likely to do that if they can hold it together) but even if they do, they’ll fall immediately to Spain in the round of 16.

Serbia. The Serbs, qualifying for the first time “solo” (no more Serbia-Montenegro) topped their group ahead of France with a strong all around team and key individual players in all areas. Vidici [Man United] and Iovanovici [Chelsea] provide safety at the back, Stankovic [Inter] anchors the midfield, and although they don’t have one particular go-to player up front, they have managed to score [on average] over 2.2 goals per game during the qualifiers. They’re not doing too well in preparation matches so far [lost to New Zeeland, drew with Poland] but that’s never an indication of what’s to come once the tournament begins. I’m sure Radomir Antic, indubitably a good tactician, will have them hitting all the right notes come June 13 against Ghana. Though group, though…with a close fight for second place against Ghana and Australia.

Slovakia. World Cup debutants came first in a group that did not count any of Europe’s “powerhouses”. Slovenia, who actually beat Slovakia home and away, finished second, while Czech Republic finished a disappointing third. They will fight with Paraguay for second place in a relatively easy group F, but their accomplishment will be limited to physical presence, I’m afraid [given the missing European teams I mentioned up top, that should be a big accomplishment already]. The main purpose for players in this squad (and others falling in the same “happy-just-to-be-here” category: impress the scouts and the clubs looking for fresh talent.

Slovenia. I just mentioned them above…Although inconsistent during the qualifiers, they “showed up” when it mattered and eliminated Russia [who had an excellent presence at Euro 2008 and only lost to Germany in their own qualifying group]. The only other time they made it to a World Cup [in 2002] they did it in similar fashion, destroying the dreams of millions of Romanians and the coaching career of Gheorge Hagi! Their record at the 2002 World Cup: oh for three! I doubt they’ll improve much on that this time around, although they have a decent shot at second place against the United States. No offense – I realize they’re completely different countries – and this will alienate Slov(***)an fans, but from a football perspective, “…akia” or “…enia” is all the same for me. If I had a “save” option [like Randy, Kara, Ellen and Simon] I would have picked Russia and Croatia (to keep the Eastern-European balance in check)

Spain. I mentioned earlier that teams that are strong in all compartments can make it all the way. In my opinion, Spain is one of them. Brazil is the other. And – at least on paper – there is a strong possibility that they will face off on July 11. For all their glory and prodigious past (particularly at club level) Spain has never [ever] made it past the quarterfinals in a World Cup [ok, there’s a strong argument for 2002, when the referee decided that South Korea will go through no matter how many valid goals Spain would score]. Ditto for the European Championship [if you go back far enough (1964) they actually won what was then called the ‘European Nations Cup’ but the format was different; it was not really a tournament, but home-and-away games played all over Europe, with the semifinals and final held in Spain; UEFA did not start the one-country-tournament-style events until 1980 (in Italy)]. Phew…all these side-bar notes are distracting…So the point is, until two years ago, Spain has not won anything at the senior level. Yes, they had value, they had a considerable number of star players over time, but seemed like they always stumbled on their own shoelaces when the pressure was on. Then came a world-record-tying 35 games unbeaten run [Brazil also had one between ’93 and ‘96] which started after a defeat to Romania [0-1 in November ‘06] and ended with the surprise defeat against the U.S. in the Confederations cup in South Africa [June ‘09]. In the middle of that run, they were crowned European Champions [with David Villa top galscorer and Xavi player of the tournament] but more importantly, gained that confidence that allowed them to collect 30 points [out of 30 possible] during the qualifiers. So, with all that said, the World Cup is theirs to lose [or at least presence in the final]. Yes, there are a couple of question marks: would Torres, Fabregas and Iniesta be 100%? Will they crumble again under pressure? [this time a different kind of pressure] What I’m hoping is that they’ll prove Euro 2008 was not an isolated event, and Puyol will lift the World Cup trophy as well. PS - in case you’re wondering, yes España is my favorite, for two reasons: they play exciting, attacking football…and they have 8 Barça players in the squad (9, if they can persuade Fabregas to transfer).

Switzerland. Building on their experience on home soil two years ago, the Swiss topped another ‘non-powerhouse’ qualifying group [by that, I mean no top spot was automatically taken by the likes of Germany, Spain, England, etc.]. They fought off Greece and Latvia for the top spot and even have a decent shot at progressing from group H if they can overcome Chile. I just hope Alexander Frei gets to play this time around [he only had a few minutes in the inaugural game of Euro 2008 before being stretchered off with damaged knee ligaments]

… well…I’m gonna stop here, before this blog turns into a novel. Promise to be back soon with part 2: coverage of the other teams.

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