Daily Archives: June 11, 2014

World Cup 2014 Preview: Groups G & H

Germans arrive
The last two groups could not be more opposite in quality and reputation.  While I don’t think Group G is the Group of Death, I do think that the four nations will have their work cut out for them.  Meanwhile, the young Belgians will have a chance to strut their stuff while the other three fight their way through.

GROUP G

Miroslav Klose-ing in on World Cup history

Miroslav Klose-ing in on World Cup history

Much has been written in recent days about the injuries to Joachim Löw’s Germany.  Marco Reus tore his ankle just days before the tournament, and potential starters Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira are all either playing with knocks or coming off recent injuries.  Luckily for Löw, he suffers from an embarrassment of riches.   Half of Der Mannschaft (tee hee, Mannschaft…  still makes me giggle) plays for either of Germany’s two biggest teams: Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund.  The side also features Arsenal’s three prizes: veteran defender Per Mertesacker, as well as attacking midfielders Mesut Özil and Lukas Podolski, and Chelsea’s Andre Schürrle.  Löw’s Teutonic system (the newest rage in football, a melange of tiki-taka and counter-attacking) means all hands going forward, which explains why he only brought one striker: 36-year-old Miroslav Klose.  If Klose plays — and scores — Germany’s all-time record goal-scorer will tie Brazil’s Ronaldo for all-time World Cup goals (15).   SEMI-FINALS

Apparently, he's going to be okay...

Apparently, he’s going to be okay…

If there is one nation whose fans’ self-delusion rivals that of England’s, it’s Portugal‘s.  Every four years — two if you count the Euros — their fans believe they have what it takes to be world beaters.  But like England, they strive and fall short.  Portugal features a superstar player in Cristiano Ronaldo (just like Wayne Rooney) who is surrounded by a team of competent players that would never get a kick at the can in a side like Argentina or Brazil (just like England).  Portugal are also a nation whose FIFA ranking is absurdly high, boosted by a complicated formula (just like England).   Ronaldo has been fighting to be fit for this tournament.  If he performs like he does for Real Madrid, Portugal could go deep into quarter-final territory.  But their path is likely blocked by Belgium in the knockout stages and then Argentina.  ROUND OF 16

Bradley and USA in tough in Group G

Bradley and USA in tough in Group G

Jürgen Klinsmann says he will sing both Germany’s and the U.S.A.‘s national anthems, when the two teams square off in their very last group game.  By then, Klinsmann will have a pretty good idea whether his last three years of effort have finally elevated the USA into the elite pantheon of football nations.   A look at his side would suggest it hasn’t yet.   I don’t want to write off the Stars and Stripes: they are well organized and physical.  They feature a handful of players who are class: Tim Howard and Brad Guzan are great keepers; Clint Dempsey, Geoff Cameron and Jozy Altidore have all cut their teeth in the Premier League, and Michael Bradley — despite his strange move to MLS — will be the lynchpin of Klinsmann’s side.  It’s a pity they are in a group with Germany and Portugal.  The building continues.  THREE AND OUT

Muntari and Essien: the Black Stars' two superstars

Muntari and Essien: the Black Stars’ two superstars

Everyone’s favourite in South Africa 2010, Ghana faces the plague of other successful African nations: inflated expectations.  The Black Stars’ midfield is still credible: Milan’s Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari will bolster the back line,  with Kevin-Prince Boateng playing in front of them.  But no one will be surprised by the Ghanaians, and that’s unfortunate in a tough group like this.  THREE AND OUT

GROUP H 

Just in case you're wondering who Hazard plays for...

Just in case you’re wondering who Hazard plays for…

The return of Belgium to the biggest international stage has excited many soccer purists.  After finishing fourth at Mexico ’86, the Belgians were disappointing, bowing out early in the next three World Cups.  The country’s football association then changed the way it trained young players, and it also changed its relationship with its big clubs.  Now the the Red Devils are in their first international tournament since Japan/Korea ’02 and what a line-up.  Thibault Courtois and Simon Mignolet are two of the most sought-after young keepers in the world right now.  Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku were easily Chelsea and Everton’s best players, respectively, while Kevin Mirallas was no slouch either, and Dries Marten scored 13 goals for Rafa Benitez’ Napoli.  Marc Wilmots is bringing only one true fullback, selecting seven centre backs to play in his defence.  What’s more, that defence is expected to press high up the pitch.  Even if they don’t go far, this team will get a couple another kick at the can at the Euros in France and then Russia’s World Cup. QUARTER-FINALS

A rare smile from Capello

A rare smile from Capello

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has struggled to rebuild itself to the former power of her predecessor (that’s because most of the USSR’s great players were Ukrainian.  Shhh).  Save for a third place finish in Euro 2008, they’ve failed to make it out of the group stage.  However, Euro 2012 was a good showcase for them.  Too bad this is a different side with a different manager.  Capello has made this team more defensive, as is his way.  Captain Roman Shirokov had to bow out to injury, and exciting young Alan Dzagoev is in the Italian gaffer’s bad books.  Still, this is a weak group, and they should be able to get through… unless they can’t stand the heat.  Literally.  ROUND OF 16

Slimani sees who's waiting if they finish second...

Slimani sees who’s waiting if they finish second…

Algeria are currently the highest-ranked team in Africa right now, due in part to a new philosophy brought in by manager,Vahid Halilhodžić.  Most of his players are young men who were born in France but chose to play in the country of their parents’ birth, and most of them are bench players in the Spanish, French and English leagues.  One exception is Islam Slimani, who scored 10 goals in 31 appearances for Sporting Lisbon; another is Sofiane Feghouli who regularly starts for Valencia.  Anything has to be an improvement over the boooring football played in South Africa (ask England fans), but Algeria still have to grow.  THREE AND OUT

Hong Myung-Bo: the man, the myth, the manager

Hong Myung-Bo: the man, the myth, the manager

South Korea have also done a 180 with their tactics, after Korean legend Hong Myung-Bo made them more technical, with less kick-and-run and more passing.   British football fans will be familiar with Ki Sung-yeung, who was bought from Celtic by Swansea City, in a move that broke the Welsh team’s transfer record; he then spent this season on loan at Sunderland.   Bayer Leverkusen’s Son Heung-min is probably S. Korea’s best player, which leaves a smattering of bit players in the Bundesliga, Prem and Asian leagues.   You want the Koreans to replicate the success they had at their own World Cup in 2002, but they won’t.  THREE AND OUT

 Brent P. Lanthier

Up Next: The Bracket

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World Cup 2014 Preview: Groups E & F

Argentina v Mexico: 2010 FIFA World Cup - Round of SixteenThese two groups offer one sure thing — Argentina will go through on top — and then a bunch of questions.  Are Switzerland really sixth in the world? Have France overcome their attitude problems*?  Can Ecuador/Honduras/Iran/Nigeria push away the perception biases against their continents and actually challenge the European/South American powers?

Albanian blood, Swiss heats

Albanian blood, Swiss hearts

GROUP E
Switzerland’s football team is a reflection of the country itself: a multicultural nation whose style is cold and boring. That is, of course, unkind (the bit about being cold and boring) but you can’t argue that Switzerland is a very defensive team. That’s because the Swiss play to their strengths.  Goalkeeper Diego Benaglio and LB Ricardo Rodríguez both had decent seasons with Wolfsburg, likewise RB Stephan Lichtsteiner with Juventus.   Napoli midfielders Gökhan Inler, Velon Behrami and Blerim Džemaili join Bundesliga wunderkinds Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri.  This is a team marshaled by the great Ottmar Hitzfeld, a man whose club pedigree is as great as any manager in the tournament.   This team made it into the World Cup because they won a weak group.  That doesn’t mean they’ll be pushovers.  ROUND OF 16

Deschamps seems to have cleared out the rot in the French team

Deschamps seems to have cleared out the rot

Over the last six years, France‘s national side has been the very opposite of disciplined.  The side revolted against its manager, Raymond Domenech in South Africa, and the team failed to get out of the group stage.  Then in Euro 2012, a dressing room bust-up after losing 2-0 to Sweden in the final group game resulted in the firing of French legend Laurent Blanc.  That era appears to be over.  Didier Deschamps has put together a very competent team that is short on star power, but no less flashy.  The biggest name here is Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema, after Franck Ribery was ruled out through injury.   From that infamous Sweden match, only four players remain: captain Hugo Lloris, Mathieu Debuchy, Benzema, and Olivier Giroud.   This year’s World Cup Squad only features five other players who even travelled to Ukraine.   The problems are gone, the pedigree remains.  QUARTER-FINALISTS

Ecuador has Valencia... and not much else

Ecuador has Valencia… and not much else

When Ecuador played England, many outlets wrote about how the South Americans gave England a good run, and how the heat makes a difference, and blah blah blah blah.  Here are the facts: 1) Ecuador won seven of their eight home qualifying matches (plus they drew Argentina) because they play in Quito, a city sitting at almost 2900m.  But away from home, they managed only an 0-3-5 record.  That’s basically saying they advanced because their opponents couldn’t breathe.  2) They perpetuate old stereotypes about South American teams that don’t score, but kick the hell out of their opponents.  3) They only have one player who regularly started in a major European league, Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia. This side snuck in because they had a better defensive record than Uruguay. That won’t help them here. THREE AND OUT

This is his face when it's just a friendly...

This is his face when it’s just a friendly…

More of the same from Honduras.  Only Maynor Figueroa and Wilson Palacios have any big league experience (and let’s please not muddy the waters by countering that MLS or the Scottish Premier is big league).  They will be strong on the ball (why physicality is so prized in the Western Hemisphere, I’ll never know) but their fate will be the same as fellow CONCACAF qualifiers, Costa Rica.  THREE AND OUT

GROUP F

Could this be King Leo's year?

Could this be King Leo’s year?

Argentina will perform well at this World Cup for many of the same reasons as the hosts: a well-rounded squad (though not as good as Brazil), a tournament based in South America, and a fairly easy progression into the knockout stage.  One thing that Alejandro Sabella’s men won’t have to contend with is pressure… not on the scale of Brazil’s pressure anyway.  But Argentina haven’t won a trophy in almost 30 years, and they must think they can pull an Uruguay, circa 1950 against their old foes.  La Albiceleste boasts the scariest offence in this tournament: Gonzalo Higuaín, Sergio Agüero… and of course, Lionel Messi.  The three share an understanding… and just behind them is Ángel Di María looping in and out from the right wing.   A dream final between Brazil and Argentina is possible in a tournament promising several tasty end-scenarios.  SEMI-FINALISTS

"Uh, question? Why am I the only striker?"

“Uh, question? Why am I the only striker?”

The  build-up to Bosnia-Herzegovina‘s maiden World Cup appearance was fun to watch, as Safet Sušić built a team to attack.  The Bosnians tore through a relatively weak group, scoring at least three goals in six of their 10 qualifiers.  But this is not qualifying and now it appears the coach has had a rethink in World Cup warm-ups, adding an extra defensive midfielder and playing with a solitary striker.  In fact, he’s only bringing two out-and-out strikers: Eden Džeko and Stuttgart’s leading scorer, Vedad Ibišević.   Roma’s Miralem Pjanic will likely play just behind Džeko, but what about the rest of the side? This is a team that should be proud of its accomplishments, 20 years after a devastating war.   But the party is over.  THREE AND OUT

Hey it's... that guy... and... yeah...

Hey it’s… that guy… and… yeah…

It’s not a good sign when the biggest name on the team is the manager.  Former Portugal and Real Madrid manager, Carlos Queiroz has taken Iran to Brazil.   This is a side that is reportedly ill-prepared for the tournament (the government is a police state and the team doesn’t have a lot of resources).  The assumption is that Queiroz will make them very defensive… and no one wants to see that.  They won’t make it to the 60-minute mark, let alone the knockout round.  THREE AND OUT

Moses, Emenike, Mikel... get used to hearing that combination.

Moses, Emenike, Mikel: get used to hearing that combination.

Pride has been restored to the one of Africa’s biggest footballing nations.  Nigeria took the 2013 African Cup of Nations, winning it for the first time since 1994.  That was the same year the Super Eagles won the group at USA ’94, where they took Italy to extra-time in the Round of 16.  In France ’98, the same thing: winning the group by beating Raúl’s Spain and Stoichkov’s Bulgaria.  Since then, they have qualified for two more World Cups and finished dead last in their groups.  This tournament’s squad features a quality mix of young forwards: Victor Moses and Ahmed Musa are both only 21, while Emmanuel Eminike is the veteran at the ripe old age of 27.   Stephen Keshi is bringing six strikers to Brazil.  What does that tell you? They came to play.  ROUND OF 16

 Brent P. Lanthier

*The team, not the nation;  changes, not miracles.

Up Next: Groups G & H

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