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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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The Falcao Final

Skittish Colombian…

Wednesday night’s Europa League final between Atlético Madrid and Athletic Bilbao was billed as an all-Spanish affair between two teams that live off the scraps of La Liga’s big dogs.  Their kits are almost identical, as are their names.  Both have Argentinian coaches and both teams have been hovering around each other in the league table for some time now.

The similarities end there.

A look at the Bilbao team sheet showed a side that was unabashedly Basque.  Even the sole player born outside Spain is named after a Basque town.  Contrast that with Atlético, who took to the pitch with only four Spaniards, only two of whom were native madrileños.  In fact, no member of the starting XI had taken part in the team’s victorious Europa League campaign two years earlier.

So even though one team was full of young giant killers playing for ethnic pride (remember that Bilbao took out a full-strength Manchester United), they faced a side of able-bodied “mercenaries”.  In particular, they were forced to defend against a man who has put a definitive stamp on European nights.  This night was no different for Radamel Falcao.   The Colombian tormented Bilbao’s back eight throughout the match, and needed just seven minutes to find the net, switching feet to find space in the box before unleashing an absolutely lovely effort .  His second came from inside, more of what we have come to expect from the man who has lifted two Europa League trophies over the last 12 months, breaking scoring records in the process.

Heroes, old and new…

It remains to be seen how long he remains at Atlético Madrid.  Despite Falcao arriving only last year from Porto, the man who turned his club’s fortunes around — coach  Diego Simeone — may have a tough time convincing the board not to cash in on the player, even if the continental giants come calling.

But tonight, Falcao remains a Rojiblanco, as yet another trophy begins another year residing in the Spanish capital.

A couple of side bars:

– Atlético captain Diego Godín must be riding high.  Not only has he won the Europa League, but he is coming off a calendar year where he won the Copa America with his native Uruguay, as well as a semi-final finish at the 2010 World Cup.  At 26, the central defender is coming into prime time.

– Chelsea will be both excited and relieved at the efforts of their goalkeeping protégé, Thibaut Courtois.  The Belgian has been on-loan to Atlético all season.  After a shaky start, Courtois — like many of his teammates — seems to have settled down with Simeone’s arrival mid-season.   He wasn’t tested much in the final because of excellent Madrid defending.  But Courtois did make some impressive saves in a major European final, despite not turning 20 until Friday.  Ladies and gentlemen, the heir apparent to Petr Cech…

Brent Lanthier

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