Saturday, June 10, 2006

World Cup of Soccer Predictions: Murphy

Germany – The Germans head host the World Cup with a side lacking in the quality that sent them to the final in the Far East. Untested by qualifying, it remains to be seen if they can be as buoyed as recent host sides with good outcomes. Last World Cup, the steeled composure of Oliver Kahn stole the show. His replacement, Arsenal’s Jens Lehman, is a spaz in comparison. Fresh off of deep-sixing Arsenal’s Champion’s League chances with a blatant red cards, now he’s complaining to the press about how the official World Cup football “moves a lot through the air.” New Chelsea recruit and midfield anchor Michael Ballack is an injury concern with a calf that might keep him out of the side for the first few games, joining club and country teammate Robert Huth on the sidelines. Ballack is still Germany’s ubermench, averaging an astounding goal every other game in international play. Ballack has criticized coach Jurgen Klinsmann for their defensive lapses, as evidenced in a 2-2 qualifying draw with Japan. On the plus side, Lukas Podolski is the sturm to Ballack’s drang, as the young striker has been dubbed Deuschland’s answer to Wayne Rooney. The former West Germany were three-time champions and would like nothing better to add a fourth in their unified home nation but too many questions remain around this squad.

Poland – The Poles came a close second to England in a strong qualifying campaign and could very well meet them again in the Group of 16. The only player I know well from Poland is Liverpool keeper Jerzy Dudek, who got “pole-axed” from the squad for getting too few first-team starts. Poland has a strong core of Bundesliga players, most notably Bayer Leverkusen star Jacek Krzynowek, who can nail goals from midfield. I’m interested to see who Poland go with up front. Emerging centre-forward Ebi Smolarek from Borussia Dortmund will likely figure alongside Maciej “Magic” Zurawski, who scored 16 times for Celtic this year and led the way in qualifying with seven goals. They would love to top arch-rival Germany in their showdown of Prussian proportions, but should advance regardless.

Costa Rica – With the third Concacaf spot behind perennials America and Mexico, Costa Rica’s “Los Ticos” landed in the World Cup with a shock 3-0 drubbing of the Americans. Much of the credit for that win goes to nascent starlet Carlos Hernandez who delivered a brace from midfield and is rumored to be dead ball deadly. Los Ticos are helmed by journeyman veteran Paulo Wanchope, who after spells in the Premiership, La Liga, and Quatar has returned to hometown and boyhood team Club Sport Herendiano and announced his intention to retire from international play after the World Cup. The team has recently tested a new footballing philosophy, as espoused by coach Alexandre Guimaraes: “The players should try and give themselves and the fans the impression that the game is being played on a beautiful beach. Or in other words, they should try to express joy.” Costa Rica may have followed that advice to a tee when they took an overstuffed 4-0 kolbassa whipping at the hands of Ukraine in a recent friendly. Mounted atop a 3-2 loss to tournament minnows Iran, Los Ticos will be waking up and smelling the coffee soon.

Ecuador – Qualifying out of South America in the wake of giants of Brazil and Argentina, Ecuador squeaked in over Columbia but shocked both Brazil and Argentina with home wins in qualifying, thanks in no small part to the play of 25 year old attacking midfielder Christian Lara. The veteran “Tin Man” Augustin Delgado shared the top spot in Conmebol qualifying with nine goals from his touch around the goal. With their second straight World Cup qualification, Ecuador shocked Croatia last tourney but needs to advance to show they’re for real, but should be afraid of suffering an embarrassing loss to a spirited Costa Rica. A recent friendly loss to Macedonia does not bode well.

Group winner: Germany
Runner-up: Poland

England - The inventors of the beautiful game spread it throughout the Empire but only have one World Cup victory to their name, won at home in 1966. Thirty years later the Three Lions need to capitalize before the sun sets on the best England squad in a generation. The much ado about Wayne Rooney makes it seem as if he’s England’s only hope. There’s no doubt that this is a better side with the chubby yobbo on board but its short shrift to their greatest talent – Mersysider Stephen Gerrard – who has scored some scorchers recently and takes his UEFA Champions League title experience from 2005 into this World Cup. The Three Lions have one of the best pure midfields in the world. David Beckham is not only healthy but at this point in his career everyone sees him for what he is – the greatest right foot without the pace to be dynamic from the center - rather than heaping expectations on him to be what he’s not. Frank Lampard could just as well be the star for this team, having anchored a rampant Chelsea over the past years. Calgary born Owen Hargreaves has won two Bundesliga titles with Bayern Munich as their holding midfielder and I hope he gets to prove himself to his English critics in this tournament. The question mark is up front. Including Rooney, who may be inserted into the lineup with only a week’s worth of training in the knock-out stages, there are only four strikers on the team: Peter Crouch, who is the never ending butt of jokes in the English press but has poured on the goals in recent friendlies, Michael Owen, who missed half the year with the same metatarsal injury hobbling Rooney, and Theo Wollcott, who is as unproven as they come. The 17 year old was a shock appointment to the England squad and just became the youngest player to ever don the red and white. He’s never played a Premiership game, having only just debuted for Southampton in the Championship. If England do run into difficulties, Gerrard should be encouraged to play up as an attacking midfielder. The side has great spirit and should breeze through the group. For once they have the potential to go all the way.

Sweden - The Swedes have their share of big names in Freddie Lungberg and Henrik Larsson, but they’re ageing. Juventus striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic is emerging to eclipse Larsson with seven goals in qualifying. Despite his confession that he’s out of shape (“I get the feeling Italian food is not good for me”), he has a strong incentive to play well as the vultures circling to pick over Juventus’ scandal-ridden and relegated carcass will be looking to pick him up. New Lyon midfielder Kim Kallstrom is set to draw a lot of attention in Germany with his sweet left foot and eye for goal. Their backline is somewhat suspect. Sweden can take confidence in their good record against England in the past; they need a result against them and a win over Paraguay to cement a probable advance.

Paraguay - The fourth and final qualifier from Conmebol, Paraguay is a bit of a mystery team that showed it can play with the world’s best with a draw and a victory over Argentina. They sport only a few really good players, especially centre forward and Bayern Munich hit-man Roque “Chico” Santa Cruz, who expected to recover from an injury in time for the tournament. When the fast two-footed striker scores, those in Paraguay apparently call it “Chico time.” 21 year-old Nelson Haedo Valdez may have to fill in if Chico is out, giving him the chance to shine on the world stage. Another Bayern Munich starlet, Julio Dos Santos, is an attacking midfielder who can score from the hole and is mooted as Michael Ballack’s successor given his departure to Chelsea. Paraguay need a serious cock-up by England or Sweden to make anything of their tournament.

Trinidad and Tobago – The “Soca Warriors” are just happy to be here, having qualified for their first ever World Cup with a come from behind victory against Mexico that won them a playoff with Bahrain. The island nation of 1.3 million people is the smallest to ever win their way into the World Cup finals. Captain Dwight Yorke once played for Man U, and they have West Ham’s keeper Shaka Hislop. T&T are one of the best stories of the young World Cup with their mix of music and athletic hero worship. So notorious are the steel drums that ring as fixtures at their home games that they have been banned from Germany. For all of their pluck, twin losses in friendlies to non-qualifiers Slovenia and Wales have T&T self-imploding.

Winner: England
Runner-up: Sweden

GROUP C – Group of Death
Argentina – Los Albicelestes had been written off by many after their friendly embarrassment to England last year, but successes since then have re-established their position as one of the legitimate contenders in this tournament. Star forward Messi, who missed the Champion’s League final with Barca, will still be out for the start of the tourney. The real question for Argentina balances on whether the comfort level Messi has established in the most dynamic of partnerships alongside Ronaldinho at Barca can be brought to a young Argentinean side that has had few opportunities to gel as a team. Let’s put it another way – is Messi the Scottie Pippen who relies on Ronaldinho’s Michael Jordan, or can he show himself to be the star who stands alone, a la Shaq without Kobe? Playing alongside striker Hernan Crespo, Messi will need good service to be effective. That service should come from temperamental playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme, who needs to be on for the side to succeed. Described as creative and expressive on the ball, look for his skills on the dead ball. On the defensive side, team captain and veteran Juan Pablo Sorin will helm Argentina’s backline by menacing in the air, while Man U’s Gabriel Heinze is back from injury. Qualification was never a concern, but it did feature some pitched battles with arch-rivals Brazil as they split the results over both matches. Argentina’ more tactical organization could foil European sides more than the attack-minded Brazilians. The two-time champions will look to reassert their dominance and will contend to the very end, but will be an incredible force come 2010.

The Netherlands – The Dutch have never been able to break into world football’s top tier with a championship despite twice reaching the finals in its heyday in the 1970s. After being the shock side to miss last World Cup (thanks to the Irish for a strictly on-field avenging of King William of Orange’s drubbing at the Boyne), the Oranjes are back. Their talisman Ruud van Nistelroy is dogged by speculation that he’s on the outs after using his many talents to warm bench for Man U. He may not track back like other mere mortals but he’s as good as money in the bank when the ball comes his way. He should form one of the better strike forces with Arsenal’s Robin van Persie, and adding bite to the attack will be Dirk Kuyt to the left and Arjen Robben to the right. Holland’s clubhouse has been plagued by internal bickering in recent years, provoking coach Marco van Basten to re-jig his side to include team-players over primadonnas; gone is Edgar Davids in favor of clubhouse peace. Davids will be missed in a midfield that could suffer further if creative midfielder Rafael van der Vaart misses the tournament with his injury worry. The Dutch defense doesn’t do much for me and think it could be a problem in a group of death that packs a lot of offensive punch.

Serbia & Montenegro - The Serbs come into their first ever World Cup with the astounding mark of conceding only one goal in ten qualifying matches, beating Spain to the top spot in their group in the process. They have a stern back line, with Mladin Krstajic holding the fort at the heart of their defense. S&M are led up front by Matejta Kezman, who has struggled to break into the Chelsea lineup after shining as one of football’s hottest young properties at PSV Eindhoven, but his bench warmer status for his club side hasn’t kept him from nailing goals his country in the qualifiers. Their best player is tough tackling Inter midfielder Dejan Stankovic who will figure strongly on the attack and marshal the team around him. On a geopolitical note, Montenegro just voted to leave the Serbia behind them, and Kosovo won’t soon be far behind. Their one Montenegrin player better enjoy the World Cup action while it lasts because his new microstate is set to become another doormat en route to World Cup qualifying.

Ivory Coast – In their first World Cup, this side is stacked with much of the future of African football. The long awaited African breakthrough at the World Cup could come with Ivory Coast, who have earned their continental pedigree as African Cup winners. The Elephants won’t need the magic incantations of their witch doctors to advance, which is good because the “jujumen” of yore have been banned from dousing their potions over the side. They have one of the world’s best game breakers in Didier Drogba, who has shown Chelsea just how creative he can be on the ball. Drogba joined Chelsea in their early building stages following his breakthrough in Marseilles, and has stayed in their stellar lineup thanks to a mixture of speed and size that enables him to outmuscle any opponent. Just as important to the Cote d’Ivorians is Arsenal centreback Kolo Toure, who has made a name for himself as one of the world’s best defenders; he is joined by yet another Arsenal player in fullback Emmanuel Eboue. Their place in the Group of Death could help them be one of the only African teams to advance as the other sides knock the stuffing out of each other. A recent tie with the Swiss bodes well.

Winner: Argentina
Runner-up: Ivory Coast

Portugal – Stymied at Euro by the Greeks, their loss was thought to signal the last gasp for Portugal’s golden era. After going unbeaten in qualifying, Portugal remains a vital option and can still go deep. David Beckham’s more than able replacement at Man U, Christian Ronaldo, brings passion to Portugal’s game with his fleet footed flicks and tricks, and with seven goals in qualifying has good instincts around the net. The Portuguese play a 4-5-1 around PSG’s Pauleta, who led the French league in scoring this year yet despite being Portugal’s all-time top scorer failed to dent the net at Euro. Pauleta needs to prove his mettle when it counts, otherwise front men Luis Boa Morte and Nuno Gomes deserve a place in the squad. Portugal needs to beat Mexico to reassert their potential, but I think they could be tested by the Mexicans because of a weak defense. Either way they will go through - if Group C is the group of death, then this is the group of tickles – easily the weakest group. There is a steep price to pay for coming second though – a likely face-off with Argentina in the Group of 16.

Mexico – Mexico came second to the US in Concacaf qualifying only because of their head-to-head record. They poured on the goals with the most lopsided results in qualifying, pounding home an astounding 67 goals in 18 qualifying starts, albeit mainly against minnows St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Vincent/Grenadine, Dominica, Panama and Guatemala. Veteran star and Bolton Wanderer Jared “the Desert Fox” Borgetti is Mexico’s all time leading scorer and is renowned for his airplay, while Francisco Fonseca scored ten times in qualifying. For all of their offensive power, their keeper Oswaldo Sanchez is likely their best player, and is helped by Barcelona defender Rafael Marquez. The Mexicans took a lot of positives out of their narrow away loss to France in warm-ups, sporting a lot of good chances requiring some fine-tuning on their finishing. With a 2-1 friendly loss to the Dutch, they’ve had some great opposition to warm up against. They are likely to progress just on the weakness of Iran and Angola, but a win over Portugal could be a portent of greater things to come.

Angola - Angola narrowly qualified for their first ever World Cup thanks to a better head-to-head record against Nigeria while finishing level with them on points. They have a young team, led by 28 year old striker Fabrice Akwa, who will need to combine his power and accuracy into a big World Cup if the “Planacas Negras” are to get anywhere. He is joined in the strike force by Pedro Mantorras (Mantorras means “burned man,” a nickname he earned for burns suffered as a child), another player to watch. The 2001 Young African Footballer of the Year has seen his last several years curtailed by injury, but can have no better stage to mount a comeback than in Germany. The relative unknowns are not expected to be much of a shocker.

Iran – After a 3-2 squeaker over global soccer supremos Costa Rica, Iranian coach Branko Ivankovic claimed “we can beat anyone in the world,” topping whoppers laid out by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad like, “powerful Iran is the best friend of the neighboring states and the best guarantor of regional security.” Iran’s warm-up has been seen politics bleed onto the pitch, as it would appear that representing an “axis of evil” rogue state draws a red card as few countries will play Iran in a friendly. Warm-up matches scheduled with Ghana, Uruguay, Tunisia and Czech Republic have all been nixed. This might have something to do with having a President who denies the holocaust and calls for the destruction of Israel while playing in a World Cup hosted by a unified Germany where holocaust denial gets you five years in the can. International relations aside, Iran’s core is a quartet of Bundesliga players, led by Bayern Munich's "Wizard of Tehran" Ali Karimi. Striker Vahid Hashemian needs to rebound from a bad club season. After a 5-2 rout of Bosnia-Herzegovina and 2-2 tie with Croatia in recent friendlies, they could be the upsetter. If they somehow beat Mexico or Portugal and make to the second round, President Ahmadinejad has promised to visit – in which case, watch the geopolitical fireworks go off. Oh and in World Cup qualifying, Iran beat North Korea 2-0. Who’s the badass now, Kim Jong-Il!

Winner: Mexico
Runnerup: Portugal

Italy – The media would like to think that the Azurri are reeling from the scandal rocking Juventus and all of Italian soccer. The Moggi affair will give the color commentators plenty to talk about has few repercussions for the team. At worst, their keeper Buffon has been questioned for betting, which is not related to the scandal but got caught up in the frenzy. The damning linkage between appointments to the national side and the stable of players controlled by the agency owned by Moggi’s son’s is not born out to the numbers. The team’s manager, Marcello Lippi, was close to Moggi, but then again it appears few people of any stature in Italian soccer didn’t know the man. The last time Italy was embroiled in a scandal of this magnitude, in 1982, they won it all. On the pitch, Christian Vieri is out of the tournament, recovering from surgery on his knee, but he won’t be missed in a deep side. Luca Toni was the star in qualifying, and seems set to eclipse even play-maker Francesco Totti by giving Italy the consistent goal scoring they’ve lacked in the past. Totti is an injury worry, but is expected to be ready for the opener. He can afford a few games to gain match fitness. On a team deep in attacking options with a traditionally seamless Italian defense, the Azzuri are a favorite to add to their three world titles. After a shock second round loss to Korea in 2002, Italy should do far better and will top the group. I hope to see them meet Argentina in the semis.

United States – I still can’t figure how this team is ranked #4 in the world. They were legitimately robbed in the quarterfinals last World Cup by Oliver Kahn, and now their high ranking is more of a curse as they are less likely to be underestimated. Add that to their injury problems and a tough group and I see them hitting the wall. Los Angeles Galaxy’s midfield speedster Landon Donovan is their star, often feeding Fulham’s Brian McBride who rules the box from the air. Another player to watch is Oguchi “Gooch” Onyewu, a big strong defender in front of Borussia Monchengladbach’s (is that a Klingon team?) keeper Kasey Keller. The player to follow for the Americans will be 23 year-old forward DaMarcus Beasley, product of the Dutch striker factory PSV Eindhoven that produced Ronaldo and Romario. Fast and lethal, if the Yanks progress, Beasley could be one of the stars of this tournament. The most maddening thing about this team though will be the indifference of their homeland while the rest of the world is rapt in attention. As John Stewart of the Daily Show put it, "To me, soccer is probably more like Nutella. The rest of the world clearly loves it and puts it on almost everything, but here in America we're like, `I don't know, man, it tastes like almonds.'"

Czech Republic - The Czechs boast one of football’s best keepers in Chelsea’s Petr Cech, whose consistency could cast him in the role of this tournament’s Oliver Kahn if he helps his team go deep. Juventus midfielder and veteran Pavel Nedved, former European Player of the Year, has regained his fitness after sitting out most of the qualifiers. Not fancy but never wrong with boundless energy, Nedved’s inclusion could make all the difference to a side that made it to the semis of Euro only to lose to the Greeks. Striker Vladimir Smicer is out, placing pressure on Euro 2004’s top scorer Milan Baros as perhaps the only striker in a 4-5-1 formation to keep up the blistering goal scoring pace that saw them net 37 times in qualification, tops for European squads. Hopefully 6’6” giant Jan Koller will be back from injury to join him. The Czechs have a lot of good things going for them and have to be favored to advance in tough group, but if they come second they will almost certainly face Brazil in the group of 16.

Ghana - Chelsea’s breakthrough defensive midfield star Michael Essien is far and away their best player, and arguably the best African footballer, in the same rank as Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o. Essien will have to be at the top of his game if he is to help the Black Stars get anywhere. He is joined in midfield by 22 year-old Sulley Muntari, an up and coming star who has earned a place in Serie A side Udinese. The Black Stars Cruised through qualifying to become first time World Cup finalists, finishing five points clear at the top of their group, allowing only four goals in ten qualifying matches. Ghana beat South Korea in a convincing 3-1 warm-up friendly. Their strikers aren’t awe inspiring to say the least but their punch from midfield could make up for it, but this group will prove to be just too tough for them.

Winner: Italy
Runner-up: Czech Republic

Brazil – More than anywhere on earth, football is a national obsession in Brazil. Suffusing their culture, you will see an on-field product representing the peak of an entire nation’s productive powers. The rarefied moments of athletic awe that make football my favorite sport are never more in evidence than when watching Brazilian football, as they puts the playful into the game with a fluid grace that can suddenly shock and devastate. A well-hewn team of individual stars, they are heavily favored to take home an astounding sixth championship. Going against Brazil is the tradition that they struggle in Europe – more likely because European sides struggle in the heat elsewhere, as England did when Brazil knocked them out in Shizuoka. Rewriting tradition will be two-time world footballer of the year Ronaldinho, who just added a UEFA Champions League medal to his pedigree, showing how his skill and vision can elevate the team around him as he rips defenses to shreds. Ronaldo is out with blisters, giving youngster Robinho a shot in the “magic quartet” up front along with Ronaldino, Kaka and Adriano. On the downside, Barcelona midfielder Edmilson had to go home after a bizarre training ground clash with Adriano that added insult to the fresh injury by spilling into a locker-room fracas; this is more of a sign of Brazil’s underlying passion than a trouble sign like the low morale in the French side. Edmilson’s holding role will missed, although Ze Roberto and Emerson are also defensive midfielders. I do wonder about their defense; Cafu and Roberto Carlos are a little long in the tooth. Brazil should win it all and the icing on the cake for them would be to take down arch-rivals Argentina on the way to the top.

Australia – Perennial injury risk Liverpool striker Harry Kewell will be recovered from a groin injury in time for the start of the tourney, ready to join captain Mark Viduka up front. Newcastle defender Craig Moore is also working to regain fitness to anchor the defense in front of Middlesborough keeper Mark Schwarzter. With a tight five man midfield, Australia will play compact football to close down their opponents. Everton midfielder Tim Cahill buried seven goals during qualifying, and just added an equalizing marker against Holland in a warm-up. The Socceroos are capable of beating Japan and Croatia and can only hope for a result against Brazil.

Croatia - Star striker Dado Prso has been vomiting his guts out with a virus but vows to be ready to face Brazil in the opener. Feeding him will be right-winger Darijo Srna, who has been labeled his country’s answer to David Beckham, delivering pin-point crosses into the box and sending opposing defenses into fits from creative dead ball plays. He also plays a strong defensive role to support Croatia’s preferred wing-backs. Attacking midfielder Niko Kranjcar is the future of Croatian football, making plays from the center of a five man midfield. They should dream of drawing Brazil and expect to beat Japan. The big match in this group will be Croatia-Australia.

Japan – The Rising Sons looking landed after a warm-up friendly loss to Bulgaria, a draw with Scotland, and barely squeaking past Malta with a 1-0 win, leading seasoned right-sided midfielder Hideoshi Nakata and to lambaste his teammates for lacking heart and spirit. More heartening was an earlier 2-2 draw with the Germans. Celtic star Shunuke Nakamura is Japan’s new Nakata, commanding the midfield unit from the opposite side of the pitch and placing perfect free kicks. Coached by Brazilian tactician Zico, Japan has changed to an attacking side, but are sweating the fitness of both top strikers, opening the possibility that young talent Masashi Oguru could step into the breach. Oguru scored big goals against Greece and Brazil in the Confederations Cup and led the Japanese League in goals. If they don’t get a good result in their first game against Australia, they’re done with Brazil waiting at the back of the group.

Winner: Brazil
Runner-up: Croatia

France – After the most miserable World Cup in 2002, in which they failed to score a single goal, France can be expected to bounce back, but there are some worrying signs for the les Bleus. This is an old team, with Lilliam Thuram and Claude Makelele coming out of international retirement to join Zenidine Zidane to succor a suffering qualification run. With 100 caps for France, Zidane is now in swan song mode for the Roosters, but he isn’t playing his best football at the moment. The geezers got France into the tournament but at the price of making way for fresh blood, especially the chance for Franck “Scarface” Ribery, a 23 year-old midfielder, to make an impression. Expect the rampant Thierry Henry to finally step his international game up with his ability to score from anywhere, although he will be without Djbril Cisse who led the squad with four markers in qualifying. Perhaps the best part of the French side is their defense. The back four is made up of champions from four leagues - Eric Abidal (Lyon), Willy Sagnol (Bayern Munich), Lilian Thuram (Juventus) and William Gallas (Chelsea). The French have been plagued by reports of low morale; they still have the talent to top the group but without l’esprit I see them bottoming out to Italy in the quarterfinals.

South Korea – Korea splashed onto the international scene with a shock final four finish as co-host in 2002, but backed into qualifying for their sixth successive World Cup with two losses to Iran. The recognition gained by a number of Korea’s players in the last World Cup has translated into burgeoning club careers, led by Man U’s dribbling speedster Park Ji-Sung at midfield and Tottenham defender Lee-Young Pyo. Park Chu-young is a starlet striker who could similarly gain a name for himself in this tournament after finding the net several times in his few international starts. A recently 3-1 friendly loss to Ghana does not bode well. They won’t have the home pitch advantage that helped them last time.

Switzerland - The Swiss are a deceptively strong team, not just for sobering the Irish by knocking them out of both Euro 2004 and World Cup qualifying, but playing France to a draw twice in the latter as well. A 1-1 warm-up draw with Italy shows that team can keep up. They emerged out of European qualifying’s group of death to oust Turkey in a tight playoff and can only be better for the experience. The Swiss are strong at the back thanks in no small part to Philippe Senderos, who at only 21 helped Arsenal set the record for UEFA Champion’s league clean sheets at the centre of their defense. Lazio midfielder Valon Behrami is also sure to clog up the pitch. The loss of star striker Johan Vonlanthen with a hamstring tear is a last minute blow.

Togo – Rocked by the news that their coach Otto Pfister has walked out just before the tournament over a row with their national football federation, Togo’s unlikely accession has become even more distant. Keep an eye on new Arsenal signing Emmanuel Adebayor, who scored 11 goals in qualifying to lead all African players. Unfortunately promising youngster Emmanuel Mathias at centre back at only 20 has been left out of the squad altogether in favor of two defenders with German experience, Guede and Assimiou. After a failed effort to stack the side with foreign nationals, this coachless team has had their morale rocked and have to be one of the longest shots in the tournament.

Winner: France
Runner-up: Switzerland

Spain - The story for Spain is the changing of the guard up front, where 22 year-old Fernando Torres is the man to watch. The Atletico Madrid striker is one of football’s hottest new properties, linked with swoops from the likes of Chelsea, Milan, Arsenal and Man U (Newcastle can keep dreaming). He bagged seven goals in Spain’s qualifying campaign. Joining him in the strike force and effectively pushing Raul and Fernando Morientes out of the way is another relative newcomer in David Villa, who heaped on the goals for Valencia this year after two solid seasons with Real Zaragoza in La Liga and came on strong late in qualifying. Villa deserves to be rewarded for his timely goals on a side that, despite being unbeaten in qualifying, lacked scoring punch by drawing five of their ten matches and had to beat Slovakia in a playoff. This means Raul, who has never reproduced his club success on the international stage, will be benched after a terrible season in which he was hobbled by a knee-tear; although he returned in February he still hasn’t recaptured his form. Spain is set to underachieve again if only because winning the Group means Brazil will almost certainly wait in the quarterfinals. Their young team will be a force to be reckoned with – in 2010.

Ukraine - All eyes will be on Andriy Shevchenko, the AC Milan star and 2004 European player of the year who only days ago became Chelsea’s most recent high profile swoop. Shevchenko could be reunited with Serhiy Rebrov, his old strike force partner from Dynamo Kiev, or will play alongside Bayer Leverkusen’s Andriy Voronin; either way with support from Ruslan Rotan, who scored some big goals in qualifying, they will do some damage. In a relatively shallow group, Ukraine should get through the group stages without much difficulty, but I doubt they go much deeper in their first ever World Cup.

Tunisia – The North Africans squeaked into the World Cup over rivals Morocco by coming from behind against them twice. They play a well-organized, hard-running, European style of football, led by Ajax fullback Hatem Trabelsi who likes to play up the wing. Brazilian born striker Silva dos Santos led the team in qualifying with six goals. Also look for young midfielder Hamed Namouchi to add to the recognition he has gained at Rangers. The Tunisians will face a showdown with Ukraine to advance in the group.

Saudi Arabia – With losses to Turkey and Croatia in warm up qualifying, the Arabian Knights seem to have lost the mojo that had them go twelve straight unbeaten in qualifying, taking a scimitar to the necks of the likes of Indonesia, Kuwait, Turkmenistan, Sri Lanka, Uzbekistan, and twice beating South Korea. Sami Al Jabr is the only player on the squad to boast European club experience with a short stay at Wolverhampton. With a stunning 150 international caps, if the Saudis are scoring goals Al Jabr is likely to figure. Young Forward Yasser Al Khatani scored timely goals in qualifying and could attract attention at this World Cup.

Winner: Spain
Runner-up: Ukraine

Group of 16 Predictions
Germany v. Sweden: Sweden
Argentina v. Portugal: Argentina
Italy v. Croatia: Italy
France v. Ukraine: France
England v. Poland: England
Mexico v. Ivory Coast: Ivory Coast
Brazil v. Czech Republic: Brazil
Spain v. Switzerland: Spain

Quarterfinal Predictions
Sweden v. Argentina: Argentina
Italy v. France: Italy
England v. Ivory Coast: England
Brazil v. Spain: Brazil

Semifinal Predictions
Argentina v. Italy: Argentina
England v. Brazil: England

World Cup Final Prediction
Argentina v. England: England
The English settle their most famous grudge match once and for all. God Save the Queen.


At 1:23 AM, Blogger Andy Grabia said...

Group E is the Group of Death, in my mind.

Good to see Togo's coach has quit already.


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