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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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Best of the Prem: Starting XI

Arguably the Dutchman’s finest season… but can he repeat his success at the Euros?

As the Euros start swinging into full-gear, the Premier League season continues to fade in the rearview mirror.  But after such a compelling season, we can’t sign off on it without telling you about our picks for Starting XI.  I would have posted these earlier but I was in the UK for the last week, doing (ahem) research…

Here we go!

Hart: World’s best keeper?

GK: Joe Hart (MNC)
The England number one had the lowest goals-against average in the league. That’s no surprise, since he faced the fewest shots, and I’m sure the Citeh keeper is happy to have Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott in front of him.  Still, his save percentage (a stat that involves him actually touching the ball) was only second to David De Gea.   I’m tempted to pick Michel Vorm, simply because the Dutchman had more to do.  But even Hart’s fellow keepers are saying that he is close to being the best in the world.  England fans everywhere are singing, “we thank God that he’s ours”.

On the bench:  Michel Vorm (SWA), Tim Krul (NEW)

Difficult season for the Frenchman

LB: Patrice Evra (MNU)
Evra’s involvement in the Suarez racism affair has overshadowed a strong season for the Frenchman. He was the one constant on an unsettled United back line, and took the captain’s armband when Vidic blew his knee.  Evra was a tackling machine, and was almost omnipresent on SAF’s team sheet.

On the bench: Gael Clichy (MNC)

City’s defensive giants

CB: Joleon Lescott and Vincent Kompany (MNC)
The pair were instrumental — vital, even — in Citeh’s run to the title. The Citizens’ league-lowest goals-against tally had as much to do with having possession as it did with defending. But these two were monsters in the backfield, with Kompany serving as the club’s “quarterback”, while Lescott cleaned up.

On the bench: John Terry (CHE), Jonny Evans (MNU)

Ivanovic channels Al Jolson

RB: Branislav Ivanovic (CHE)
The Serbian was rough and ready, leading the league’s right backs in balls won, as well as crosses.  The fact that he scored a few goals and set up a couple more doesn’t hurt either, all while keeping his bookings down from last year.

On the bench: Danny Simpson (NEW)

A Song and a prayer helped Arsenal to a CL spot…

DM: Alex Song (ARS)
This may be a little unfair, since the Cameroonian had more of a “playmaker” role this season: 13 assists in all competitions.  But Song was also a winner when it come to breaking up opponents’ attacking runs, winning back possession deep in Arsenal’s own end and then turning the counter on a dime.  Throw out the Gunners’ horror show results against United and Blackburn early, and you see how Arsenal’s defence actually came around… and Song was a big part of that.

On the bench: Gareth Barry (MNC)

Toure led City to its first title in 44 years…

AM: Yaya Touré (MNC)
Of all the millionaires on Manchester City’s squad, Touré may have come closest to earning his £250,000 per week.  He was a menancing presence, muscling his way through the middle of the pitch to set up his teammates.  But he is not without finesse: witness his two goals against Newcastle in Citeh’s penultimate game this season, followed by a nice little tap to Zabaleta against QPR.  Man City were accused of being hired mercenaries without any fire in the belly.  But if there is a heart to this team, it lies between the “4” and “2” on Yaya Touré’s jersey.

On the bench: Mikel Arteta (ARS)

Spanish Imposition: Silva made his mark this season

LW: David Silva (MNC)
If Touré was Citeh’s heart, then Silva was their brain.  As I mentioned last week, Silva was the league’s ultimate playmaker. He led the league in assists, showing incredible control both on the ball, and with his crossing and passing.  With David Villa out of the Euros, look for Silva to move up front to lead the Spanish armada in Poland.

On the bench: Gareth Bale (TOT)

The Heart of the Mata: Spaniard has a bright future at Stamford Bridge

RW:  Juan Mata (MNC)
Another Spaniard on the wing and another speedy midfielder with the artillery to feed his teammates.   One of the players that will become a huge part of the new Chelsea.

On the bench: Antonio Valencia (MNU)

With RVP’s success, Rooney flew under the radar this season

F: Robin Van Persie (ARS), Wayne Rooney (MNU)

Let’s not beat around the bush: a forward’s job is to either score goals… or make sure someone else does.   That’s what these two players did this year.  Van Persie kept relatively injury-free to take the league’s Golden Boot with 30 markers (36 in all competitions), while Rooney was neck-and-neck for most of the season with 27 (37 in total).  The Rooney numbers are impressive, considering he was hurried into midfield for a time before Paul Scholes came out of retirement.  But RVP might have single-handedly pulled Arsenal out of its early-season nose dive.  Champions League football may keep the lanky Dutchman at the Emirates for some time yet.

On the bench: Emmanuel Adebayor (TOT), Sergio Aguero (MNC)

ATR PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Robin Van Persie
ATR YOUNG PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Sergio Aguero

Brent Lanthier

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Fergie’s Fantasy – Cleaning the sheets

No, this is not another column about Wayne Rooney (though did anyone notice it was the day after I published last week’s anti-Rooney rant that he came to his senses? I’m sure Wayne is a regular At The Rails reader). This column is about getting points without getting goals. And the way to do that is picking players on teams likely to deliver clean sheets. When your goalies and defenders don’t let the other team score you get four points, the same amount for a goal by a striker, so its worth the time to pick a strong back four and keeper.

The obvious choice here are players from Chelsea, who have seven clean sheets in nine games. Petr Cech might be your best bet here though because regular defenders like Ashley Cole and John Terry are pricey. Not to say they aren’t worth it, but defenders are where most fantasy managers save money in order to spend more on high priced strikers and midfielders.

The key is that it doesn’t matter how many goals a team concedes, but how many clean sheets they keep. For example, when Wigan are bad they seem to concede a pile of goals, but they have low priced defenders who have kept three clean sheets. That’s more than Liverpool (two) and Tottenham (one). The other surprise in this category is Sunderland, tied for second in the league with Manchester City in the clean sheets stat with four. Again a team where bargains on defence can pay off (and I recommend a particular player from the Black Cats below…).

Week in Review – Top Performers

Samir Nasri – the Arsenal midfielder was the top point getter in the league last week with a hat trick of sorts. He had a goal, an assist, and his team kept a clean sheet. Nasri is increasingly becoming a bigger part of the Gunners’ offence and is a solid choice as long as he stays healthy.

Javier Hernandez – the man who rescued Manchester United from another disappointing result. Hernandez scored both goals in a key 2-1 win over Stoke City. He then came on as a sub and notched the winner in United’s League Cup victory over wolves. He’s a great choice while Rooney’s hurt, but will probably see his playing time cut back when Wayne returns.

Liam Ridgewell – a goal plus a clean sheet meant Ridgewell was the top scoring defender last week. Birmingham play a strong defensive game and have notched three clean sheets themselves so expect Ridgewell to continue to be a safe fantasy bet.

Scott’s Subs:

Last week I told you to pick up Dimitar Berbatov, Rafael Van Der Vaart, and Florent Malouda. Berbatov disappointed but the other two scored so I’m feeling pretty proud of myself. The points per game average for my recommended players was 5.3. The league average was 4. The average for players I told you to steer clear of was 2. And that would have been lower except Andrey Arshavin proved me wrong and scored for Arsenal. Here are my suggested subs for this week:

IN

Didier Drogba – Yes he’s the most expensive player in the league in fantasy terms. But 43% of all fantasy teams are paying the price. Can you afford not to?

OUT

Fernando Torres – I’m sure Torres will be a golden boot winner in the coming years (perhaps in the Championship if Liverpool doesn’t start improving) but this just isn’t looking like his year. The talent is there, but right now you can pick up someone who will score just as many goals for half the price.

IN

Ahmed Elmohamady –Do I know a lot about Ahmed “Tickle Me” Elmohamady? Not really, other than that isn’t his nickname. But numbers don’t lie. He is third in points for defenders behind Chelsea’s Cole and Terry. He is the defender with the highest value in the league when you look at his points vs. cost. And his cost has risen the most of any defender so buy now.

OUT

Tony Hibbert – The Everton defender is priced like a starter, and often plays, but rarely for the full 90 minutes. Avoid him.

IN:

Nani – Wasn’t Antonio Valencia supposed to be the one to try and replace Cristiano Ronaldo? But with his injury, the weight of scoring goals  and delivering lovely crosses from the wing has fallen on Nani, who has answered handsomely. And don’t worry, you don’t lose fantasy points for players faking injuries only to be fine moments after the ref stops the play.

OUT:

Joe Cole –I know I’ve picked on Joe Cole in the past. But not in my new Scott’s subs section! I want him to do well, I really do, but he just isn’t doing well. And you should avoid him until he starts putting some balls into the back of the net.

Scott Ferguson

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Premonitions for the Premier League

Will it be two in a row for the boys from Stamford Bridge?

By Kevin Hoggard & Brent Lanthier

It seems like only yesterday that Chelsea beat out United on the last day of the season, while Arsenal sputtered through the last six weeks without Fabregas, and Spurs squeaked into the Champions League… pushing out the other so-called “Big Four” team all the way into seventh place.  

Not much should change at the top this year. For the last seven seasons, the Blues and the Red Devils have swapped Premier League honours. Can we call them the Big Two now? The newest Manchester millionaires — City — may beg to differ.  

Here then are our picks for top eight:

Kevin’s picks Brent’s picks
1. Chelsea 1. Chelsea
2. Manchester United 2. Manchester United
3. Manchester City 3. Manchester City
4. Arsenal 4. Tottenham Hotspur
5. Everton 5. Arsenal
6. Tottenham Hotspur 6. Liverpool
7. Liverpool 7. Everton
8. Aston Villa 8. Aston Villa

Chelsea – Kevin, Brent: Champions  

Kevin: Liverpool, ManU and Arsenal just haven’t strengthened their squads to challenge Chelsea over a long season.  The Blues are old, they’ve lost Ballack… but Essien is back to full fitness. Drogba is one of the best strikers in the world in Drogba.  Lampard still puts out 20 goals a season. What other big clubs are getting that output from a midfielder? An experienced and settled squad who just know how to get the job done.  

Brent: Essien’s return will more than compensate for Michael Ballack… but the real story with Chelsea is goals. 103 of them, actually.  It was a veteran squad that broke the Premier League record for goals in a season… and it was a veteran squad who shelled West Brom this weekend. Potential problem: what to do with the squad’s stable of foreign stars under new League quotas.  

Manchester United – Kevin, Brent: Runners-Up  

Kevin: Ferguson has failed to fill a glowering hole in the centre of midfield. Scholes and Fletcher are good… but they’re far from world-class, and beyond them the cupboard is a bit bare.  The defence is creaky with perma-crock Ferdinand and lumbering Vidic (what’s the over-under on his red card count this season?).  Strength in attack with Rooney, Nani, Valencia… with Berbatov and new signing Hernandez in to give some relief.  

Brent: Scholes and Giggs showed this weekend that they’re not ready to hang up their boots just yet.  But Giggs came off the bench, and Scholes certainly won’t start every game. Which Rooney will show up this season? Valencia should shower him with crosses… and Berbatov looks like he has something to prove.  Defense is worrisome.  Last year, they were the league’s stingiest.  But Rio is hurt, Vidic is undisciplined and got caught looking several times last season.  Good… but not good enough.  

Not this year, Roberto

Manchester City – Kevin, Brent:3rd   

Kevin: The title is a step too far for Man City at this early stage. You can’t buy a complete squad and expect them to be cohesive. Another couple of years before they are truly challengers for the title but it will come, barring any financial meltdown. You can’t spend this much money and be disappointed forever. Although Amsterdam 2001 springs to mind… but I blame that on the beer.  

Brent: Not cohesive, but check out the parts of the sum. City poached other supposed “big clubs”, offering untold riches to those who came to Manchester proper.  But who will see the pitch on a regular basis… and who will see the back of Mancini’s fine Italian coif? Besides, the manager used three holding midfielders on Saturday and three forwards, begging the question: who will feeding the ball to the attack? Shades of Maradona… which worked out well for Argentina, didn’t it?  

Arsenal – Kevin: 4th; Brent: 5th  

Kevin: It’s hard not to like Arsenal unless you’re a yiddo.  Their fluid attacking football is the closest thing English football has to Barcelona.  But Arsenal’s downfall is Wenger’s reluctance to open the purse strings and buy some bloody players.  He needs a decent goal keeper and a quality center-back to partner Vermaelen before they can challenge for the title. Arsenal are being fiscally sensible and and paying off debts from the new Emirates. But Arsenal fans must be tearing their hair out, knowing that until the debt is paid, they’re forever the bridesmaid and never the bride.  

Brent: Arsenal looked ordinary this weekend at Anfield. Almunia is, well, Almunia… and they lacked the flowing football they’re known for.  Their two best players — Fabregas and Van Persie — are perpetually hurt… and Fabregas doesn’t even want to be there.  Arsenal were in the title hunt last season until Fabregas picked up an injury in the last six weeks, and I don’t see his replacement yet. Wenger’s only edge may be in the new league quota rules, due to his long-standing policy of scouting young players. But I don’t think they will be playing in the Champions League next season.  

"Why won't anyone sign?!?"

Everton – Kevin: 5th; Brent: 7th  

Kevin: David Moyes might be the best manager in the Premiership.   Despite dealing with a lot of injuries and poor early form, Everton still managed to finish two points behind Liverpool.  With more luck this year, I think Everton can push on.   They have a solid settled side that are just hard to beat, and with Cahill fit they have a match winner on any given day.  

Brent: The Prem’s third-longest lasting manager, Moyes can wring the best out of his players.  After an awful start to last season, Everton were among the best after Christmas: only Chelsea and Man U had better records. But they are still a small squad and can’t seem to sign anyone.  They will fatigue and drop off, as better teams push for the finish line.  

Tottenham Hotspur – Kevin: 6th; Brent: 4th  

Kevin: I like this Spurs team a lot. They have flair, creativity and one of the best goalkeepers in the Premiership.  If they get past the Young Boys (and that’s never easy: ask my uncle!),  they’ll be fighting on four fronts and I think it will be a stretch too far.  They have a big squad — thanks to their massive spending in the last few years — but I think inexperience will tell and the Champions League will affect their league results.  

Brent: No one expects Spurs to win the Champions League.  But everyone on this North London team expects to be back in it next year. ‘Arry hasn’t signed anybody (except for Sandro?!?) but Tottenham has a solid and offensive-minded starting eleven.  If they can get some super-sub performances from Keane, Pavlyuchenko, dos Santos and Palacios — along with regular displays from Defoe, Crouch, Bale, Lennon and Huddlestone — look out. Let the kids play in the cups… these boys have gotten a taste and they like it.  

Liverpool – Kevin: 7th; Brent: 6th  

Kevin: I’m going to stick my neck out here and predict another season of struggle for Liverpool.  Unless the Chinese take-over is imminent and Roy has oodles of Yen to spend, I just can’t see them being better than last year.  I know the Scouse fans are optimistic but I just don’t like their side.  They are a Torres injury away from trouble.  He is the class act in a workmanlike team.  

Brent: Liverpool were not that bad last season.  Their defence was top-notch: only Chelsea and Man U allowed fewer goals. But off the pitch, the team was in turmoil and on the pitch, they relied too much on Torres and Gerrard.  Worse, the team only scored 15 times away from Anfield.  Hodgson has done some nifty little bits of business, bringing in Joe Cole and a cast of others. But this is not a squad of title winners… and other teams are catching up. Liverpool pride will return this season… Liverpool’s form might not.  

Aston Villa – Kevin: 8th; Brent: 8th  

Kevin: Martin O’Neill transformed Villa into perennial contenders for Europe.  They have finished 6th for the last three seasons.  But O’Neill has gone, the coffers are bare at Villa Park and Milner has to be sold before acquisitions are made. The team has a huge wage bill and must trim their ranks, but they can’t unload those players to create some wiggle room.  I think this will be Villa’s worst season in a while.  

Brent: Saturday’s 3-0 victory over West Ham must seem like a cruel joke to Villans. Wantaway Milner scored the final goal, showing why he would (will?) be missed in the Midlands.  But Villa is not known for its goal-scoring and their huge wage bill doesn’t make up for their shallow squad.  They are playing without a manager… with his replacement rumoured to be the biggest court jester in all of football.  It might be generous to pick Villa at eighth, when all is said and done.

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