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World Cup 2014 Preview: Groups C & D

England weepsDespite what the Germans, Portuguese, Americans and Ghanians believe, Group D is this World Cup’s real Group of Death.   But sometimes an equally balanced group of lower-ranked nations can also make it a challenge to predict how they’ll finish.  That would be Group C.

"Er, Falcao? No lo se..."

“Er, Falcao? No lo se…”

GROUP C
The loss of Radamel Falcao is significant for Colombia… but not unexpected.  His debut season for Monaco was truncated by injury, and even in January we knew that he might not make it. His goal-scoring will be missed, but it’s not a death blow to this talented team.  AC Milan midfielder (and Manchester United target) Cristián Zapata and team captain Mario Yepes will marshal a solid backline.  Meanwhile an offence featuring James Rodríguez, Juan Cuadrado, Fredy Guarín, Carlos Bacca and Adrián Ramos is nothing to scoff at.  Throw in a tournament in their home continent, and the Colombianos could go far.  QUARTER-FINALISTS

"You think your name's long?!?"

“You think your name’s long?!?”

Greece‘s style of play is no mystery: defend, defend, defend.  But yet it is still tough to pick whether Ethniki will frustrate their way into the knockout rounds, or they will simply run out of ideas should they go down in the game.  Lots of familiar faces return, including elderly captain Giorgos Karagounis, who played a total of 14 games for Fulham this season; Kostas Mitroglu played a solitary game for the same club.  Of course, the star of the side is a defender: 25-year-old Sokratis Papastathopoulos.  But the Dortmund defender may not be sufficient to survive the pressure of a Colombia or Ivory Coast.  Even if they get everyone behind the ball and grind out three draws, it still won’t be enough.  THREE AND OUT

Last shot at love and glory for Drogba?

Last shot at love and glory for Drogba?

The Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire) is the anti-Greece, a team top-heavy with offensive talent but lacking a credible back line.  Like many other nations,  it has seen its golden generation shine and fade.  Most of the old faces are there.  Kolo Touré is back, but a forgettable season with Liverpool shows the depths of his decline.  Didier Zokora’s best days are also behind him.  Sol Bamba didn’t play a single game of competitive club football this season.  Up front shows more promise.  Cheick Tioté should provide defensive cover and Yaya Touré is coming off a blinder of a season… which may not matter if he arrives in Brazil nursing an injury.   Salomon Kalou and Gervinho will play up the wings, and the sole striker position should be filled by Les Éléphants‘ talisman, Didier Drogba.  But Wilfried Bony’s satisfying first season in the Prem may earn the Swansea City man the right to play up front instead.   This is a big physical team who will be able to push back against the stifling Greeks and the technically gifted, but smaller, Japanese side.   ROUND OF 16

Okazaki scored bunches for Mainz... can he do the same for country?

Okazaki scored bunches for Mainz… can he do the same for country?

Ah yes, the enigma that is Japan.  They made it to the knockout phase in South Africa, and lost on kicks to Paraguay, but detractors say their path was weak.  Both Keisuke Honda and Shinji Okazaki are back: Honda is fresh off his debut season in Europe, and Okazaki rewarded his new club, Mainz, with a 15 goals.  But too many questions remain on whether Japan can compete with the other nations in this group.  THREE AND OUT

Pirlo: the epitome of Italian cool... and Azzurri skill.

Pirlo: the epitome of Italian cool… and Azzurri skill.

GROUP D
Never, EVER, count Italy out… except in 2010 when they finished last in their group, drawing their first two games (in very Italian style) and then belatedly realizing that Slovenia weren’t a walk in the park.   That’s not going to happen this time.  Cesare Prandelli has built this team around Andrea Pirlo, including using Juventus-like tactics.  That includes Juve boss Antonio Conte’s favoured 3-5-2 formation, even using La Vecchia‘s three centre backs: Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci.   Daniele De Rossi will patrol the back field while PSG’s Thiago Motta will join Pirlo in the middle.  A front line could consist of new Dortmund signing Ciro Immobile, his former strike partner at Torino, Alessio Cerci, and of course, the irascible Mario Balotelli.  This isn’t your father’s Azzurri… and that’s alright.   QUARTER-FINALISTS

Whither Suarez?

Whither Suarez?

Here’s where things get tough. Anyone who says Luis Suárez didn’t have a season for the ages is lying or delusional.  Suárez is an influencer, a man whose temperament and skill can both influence matches in equal measure. He is also struggling with injury, desperately trying to get fit in time to play for Uruguay on South American soil. Despite being a semi-finalist in South Africa (albeit due to an extremely dodgy hand ball and subsequent missed penalty), this is a nation in decline, football-wise. Diego Godín is coming off a miracle season with Atlético Madrid, as is Cristían Rodriguez, and Maxi Pereira was outstanding in 2010.  But team captain Diego Lugano doesn’t even have a club (he was released by West Brom, for God’s sake), and Diego Forlán is plying his trade in the J-League.   Of course, Edinson Cavani is still in the side, and he is still a world class player.  But Suárez is Uruguay’s X-Factor.  HEALTHY SUÁREZ: ROUND OF 16; NO SUÁREZ: THREE AND OUT

England has nothing to lose... except three matches.

England has nothing to lose… except three matches.

England, on the other hand, have no such game changer, nor do they have many expectations… despite what they say in public.  The English press and supporters famously make hand-wringing into an art form, and this time should be no different.  But despite having a squad based entirely in the Premier League (save Celtic keeper Fraser Forster), this is not a squad of superstars.  It is a roster of talented young players assembled by Roy Hodgson who barely have the burden of reputation to contend with.  Yes, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard are there.   But some of the Prem’s most exciting youngsters will get a run out; some of them will even start.   Expect The Three Lions to play like Liverpool 2.0:  pacey and pass-y going forward, but a little bit suspect at the back.  They could do really well, or they could go home after four-and-half hours.  Much will depend on how the other teams in this group react to them.   SEE ABOVE: ROUND OF 16, OR THREE AND OUT

Sing when you're winning

Sing when you’re winning

Costa Rica: No Bryan Oviedo, Bryan Ruiz had a season to forget, and young Joel Campbell spent the year on the football equivalent of a caravan trip around Europe.   Most of the other squad members ply their trade in lesser leagues in Europe and North America.   The bookies have the Ticos dead last for odds on winning the World Cup.  THREE AND OUT

Brent P. Lanthier

Up Next: Groups E & F

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Llorente Gets His Wish

Fernando-Llorente

Fernando Llorente started.  Fernando Llorente scored.  Happy now?

So much ink/cyberspace has been dedicated to the saga surrounding the Basque player’s prolonged transfer from Athletic Bilbao to Juventus.  Llorente demanded a move after the 2012 Europa League final, didn’t get it, and then paid the price with Marcelo Bielsa starting him on the bench for most of the season.

Meanwhile, Juventus fans and media types demanded that the club sign him, saying they needed more forwards.  They got their wish on July 1st.  But then the clamouring changed in tone, from “Where is Llorente?” to “Why isn’t Llorente playing?”.  Before Sunday, his only competitive appearance in the Bianconeri shirt was seeing out the clock for a couple minutes at Sampdoria.

So the inevitable reaction from the European press is that Llorente is unhappy, that he is already looking towards England in January.   But on Sunday, the Number 14 appeared on both the team-sheet and the score-sheet.  The response from the press and the fanzines? Llorente played well, but the rest of the side “needs work”.

The hype that surrounds a new arrival at big clubs almost always takes on a life of its own.   The longer the transfer is drawn out, the greater the myth that accompanies the incoming player.  In reality, Llorente needs Juventus more than Juventus needs him.

Before last season’s drama in Bilbao, Llorente was the go-to guy at his ancestral club, their top scorer for five straight seasons.  But Llorente only broke the 20-goal mark in two of those campaigns (including that Europa league final season).  He’s thrice been in La Liga’s top 10 scorers, coming in at 9th, 5th and 6th in 2010, 2011 and 2012 respectively.  If you were to find an English comparison, Llorente is the Spanish Emmanuel Adebayor: a guy who can be lethal when he wants, but not someone to build your whole team around.  Since he’s left, Bilbao have had no problem finding an adequate replacement, bringing in another Basque player (of course), Aritz Aduriz from Valencia.

arturo-vidal-juvenus-300x159

Scoring comes to Vidal so soon…

Despite the common wisdom, Juventus have been finding the back of the net.  Last season, they finished their Serie A campaign with the third-most goals in the league, only two behind high-flying Napoli.  In the Champions League, by the end of the Round of 16, only Real Madrid and Bayern Munich had scored more goals.  No one had a better plus-minus, but critics point to the quarter-final matches against Bayern Munich, when they were outscored 4-0 over two legs.  This is the same Bayern that put seven unanswered goals past mighty Barcelona in the following round.

To say that Juventus needs strikers is to misunderstand how Antonio Conte has set up his team.   The manager likes to play a 3-5-2 (closer to a 3-5-1-1), which means that the midfielders are the stars of the show.  It’s hard to argue with a group that could be the best in Europe: Andrea Pirlo quarterbacking the likes of Arturo Vidal,  Kwadwo Asamoah, Stephan Liechsteiner, and Paul Pogba through the middle.   It allows them to remain disciplined defensively, while trying to keep possession until they can open up the pitch for the forwards.

Those attacking players haven’t been idle either.  They may get outshone individually by, say, Vidal or Pirlo, but they have done their part.  If someone has the right to be miffed, it’s Claudio Marchisio and Fabio Quagliarella.  Normally slotted in the Number 10 role, the pair have been displaced by the club’s other high-profile signing, Carlos Tevez.   The energetic Argentine has already scored four in six matches, including that beauty on the weekend.

Vucinic injury opened the door for Llorente

Vucinic injury opened the door for Llorente

Conte has probably waited this long to start Llorente because the player simply hadn’t appeared that much over the last 15 months.  Conte also had no reason to displace Mirko Vucinic up front until now.  The Montenergrin injured himself on international duty and Conte is easing him back in, using him to replace Llorente in the 69th.

Llorente should be a good foot soldier for the Italian champions.  He will have to compete for his job with Vucinic, but if he gets the minutes, he should contribute to the club’s goal count as they defend their title.  What he will not be is a game changer, the way that Tevez can take control of a match.

In Bilbao, Llorente was the proverbial big-fish-in-a-smallish-pond.  But now he’s in a different league, in the metaphorical as well as the geographical sense.  So if he gets a game here and there, and happens to notch a few goals, we should all be happy for the man who finally got his wish… and for the fans and pundits who got theirs as well.

Brent P. Lanthier

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by | September 24, 2013 · 8:00 am