Monday, January 09, 2006


World Cup Fever Is Here! Part 2

Stage 1

Group 5

Czech Republic

The Italians are the most obvious pick at first glance, but a more detailed look reveals problems. They have a mass of talent up front - they'll play Totti, and can then choose from Toni, Iaquinta, Cassano and Vieri, to name but a few. It's at the back that the problems lie - if Nesta or Cannavaro get injured, Everton reject Marco Materazzi is the next best option.

The Czechs are a different kettle of fish. The time for them to be considered a surprise team is over, and while they did still slightly over-achieve in Euro 2004, they have far too good a squad to be considered a pushover. In fact, they are now Europe's leading nation according to the somewhat misleading FIFA rankings. Although they haven't proved themsleves yet on the world stage, they have one of the best goalkeepers in the world in Petr Cech, and Milan Baros and Jan Koller managed 35 between them in the qualifiers. I reckon they're the team to beat.

The USA are no joke, but have they got what it takes at this level? Manager Bruce Arena (another great name) has been in charge for a long time now in international terms, and will be hoping for a continuation of the steady improvement that they've managed so far under his leadership, but in a really tough group, they could well be catching an early flight home.

Ghana, meanwhile, are an unknown quantity, at least to me. They have an outstanding midfield, and knocked South Africa out, but beyond that I'm clueless. They'll have to be pretty darn amazing to beat the Czechs or the Italians though.

Team to watch:

I've seen the future, and it's wearing Czech.

Group 6


What to say about Brazil? It's tricky. Were I a betting man, and I am, I would put money on Brazil to win the tournament, and I have. On Radio Five Live's 'Fighting Talk' last year, Danny Kelly did something interesting - he read out a list of names, about a score in length. These names were Brazilian footballers who were regulars in sides that had got to the last sixteen of the Champions League, yet couldn't even get in the Brazilian squad, let alone the first team. No other side on the planet has even half of that strength in depth, and identifying weak points in their side is near impossible. The only problem player is Roque Junior, who showed during his loan spell at Leeds that his age has caught up with him to the point that he simply can't keep up with fast-paced football. Nonetheless, they are an absolutely formiddable outfit.

The other three sides in the group are minnows by comparison. Japan are probably the best of the rest, and could give Brazil a good fight, given that Zico will want to motivate his men to highest level. With the substantial Brazilian population in Japan, this one could be a hard-fought tussle.

The other two sides in the group have their own cultural war - three of the probable Croatian squad are Australian born, and at least two of the Australian squad are of Croatian descent. This match should be a real cracker, but unfortunately for the sides concerned, I don't think they'll trouble the later stages.

Team to watch:

The probable champions.

Group 7

South Korea

This is a group that only a mother could love. The French are the seeded side, and should proceed through, but it is completely clear now, if it wasn't four years ago, that their 1998 victory was based far more on home advantage than the quality of the side. The same is also true of the South Koreans, who arrive at the tournament somewhat of an unknown quantity, given that they are currently on their third manager since Hiddink left after 2002. At least with Togo, we will get a chance to look at their qualities and frailties in the forthcoming African Cup Of Nations. Frankly, if the wartorn West Africans are ever going to have a good shot at progressing, it's this year, and this group. That only leaves the Swiss, the perennial first-hurdle fallers, whose weak qualifying performances show little sign of breaking that trend. This was one of the hardest groups to pick a team to watch, but:

Togo could well be the side who catch everyone by surprise, particularly given the relative weakness of the group.

Group 8

Saudi Arabia

If Group 7 was the group that only a mother could love, Group 8 is the group that the mother would leave in a dustbin wrapped in newspaper. Spain are the seeded side, despite their cackhanded attempts at qualifying, which saw them limp home behind the unmighty Serbia & Montenegro. The ultimate tournament underachievers in the past, this is the best ever chance they have of correcting that, even though Raul is a fitness doubt and their other options are surprisingly weak. They'll get through, in all likelihood, but they won't go far.

Of the rest, there's little to cheer. The Ukraine were the first qualifiers in Europe, and from a theoretically difficult group, but in reality they rely far too much on Shevchenko, and their brand of militantly defensive football isn't enough to get them far against the top attacks that are congregating in Germany. Tunisia have come a long way since being the afterthought in England's 1998 group, when we beat them 3-0. They have a decent coach in Roger Lemerre, and some fair attacking options, but they concede too many to threaten the top sides. The Saudis, meanwhile, are going to be looking to atone for that 8-0 thrashing Germany gave them four years ago, a game which was an embarassing lesson for the 'Sons Of The Desert.' They have a few decent players, but can be expected to finish bottom of the group, maybe with no points.

Team to watch:

Ideally none of them, but if you must, then watch Tunisia, because I reckon they could be a quality outfit in four years time.

Pah! We're a certainty for the last four, I tell ya! Get your hard-earned on Straya.
Well, it's more likely than the Trinidad & Tobago line I was being peddled . . .
I reckon Australia will do alright as well, to be honest. And Ukraine, who I think along with Serbia will be the dark horses of the championship.

En-gur-land to totally underperform against Sweden, scrape a draw and then finally wake up in the knockout stages. But lose to Brazil. Again.
"Well, it's more likely than the Trinidad & Tobago line I was being peddled"

Aw c'mon, I'm a Scotland and Partick Thistle fan. Someone needs to dream for these guys..........right?
I just hope the yanks bomb out. Because the manage to beat plonker teams in an easy group, they think they're better than they are. While us?!? Well, we managed to beat the Solomon Islands and Fiji.
Paul - There are worse bets for the dark horses. The Ukraine do at least have a strong defence, and a good squad setup. I'm not sure about Serbia, who were quite lucky in a fairly simple qualifying group, with the notable exception of lame Spain, who I'm convinced will crash and burn.

Ill Man - Even from the chilly lochs and draughty castles north of the border, where the national team are going to have a quiet decade, surely even then Trinidad don't look that good . . .

I mean, yes, they do have a few good players - Marvin Andrews is a good player, and Stern John and Dwight Yorke could score goals conceivably, but they have one of the weakest overall squads in the competition. It isn't inconceivable that they could progress, in the highly unlikely event of all the other three teams taking points off each other, but I just can't see it.

Tony - Yes, that 9-0 win over the Solomon Islands must have been a really troubling encounter . . .
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