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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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A very Italian England

Image

In advance of their quarter-final showdown at Euro 2012 this Sunday, Azzurri midfielder Daniele De Rossi has described Roy Hodgson’s Three Lions as “a very Italian team,” Clearly, he wasn’t talking about Wayne Rooney’s hair. Or, for that matter, his dress sense.

Still, although England aren’t exactly Canali chic in their style of dress, they have been typically Italian in their style of play so far, tough to beat at the back (as our Kevin predicted) and quick to strike on the counter, as I wrote in this week’s column for Toro Magazine.

So, will it be enough to get England past Italy and into the semifinals? Or are we looking at 120 minutes of 0-0, and a penalty shootout defeat? Sadly, my money is on the latter scenario.

Ian Harrison

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England’s Unlikely Lads

“Help us, Oxlade-Chamberlain… you’re our only hope!”

For the first time in my living memory, England are not being trumpeted as a possible winner of a major tournament. No sane person, nor any insane ones, has England progressing past the quarter-finals.  In fact, most would consider it an achievement to get out of the group. So is there any way that England can possibly exceed expectations and actually win this thing?

Play like Greece

“Tell me more, tell me more, did they get very far?”

Well, yes they did. They won the whole bloody thing in 2004.

 “How?”

We’re not quite sure. But the Hellenic victory was built on a very solid defensive performance. They scraped through the group stages on goals scored, ahead of Spain. Then they scored a single goal and held on to win 1-0 against France in the quarters.  In the semis, they took the Czech Republic into extra time after a goalless 90 minutes and notched another 1-0 victory. And in the final — you guessed it — 1-0 against Portugal.

 “Er… can England do that?”

Why not, my curious friend? England’s strength is their solid defence.  Combine that with a world class goalkeeper in Joe Hart and tackling fiend Scott Parker protecting the back four, and you may have the Three Lions’ only chance.

“But weren’t Greece just lucky?”

Well yes, in a way.  But Italy have always based their game on a solid defence while nicking the odd goal, and they’ve not done too badly. Chelsea won the Champion’s League by parking the bus against Barcelona and Bayern and then riding their luck. Switzerland defeated Spain in the World Cup with a similar tactic.  So it’s not beyond reason.

Unleash the Ox

“Who is this Ox that you speak of?”

Well the Ox is a symbol of power, strength, resurrection, masculinity, fertility, fatherhood and kingship.  I know that sounds like John Terry describing a night on the town (or a tweet from Joey “I’ve swallowed Wikipedia” Barton), but in this case we are talking about Alexander Mark David Oxlade-Chamberlain.

“Is he any good?”

He has burst onto the scene similar to a young Wayne Rooney 10 years ago (yes, it was 10 years ago!).  He’s 18 years old, as strong as an… well, okay, an ox.  Plus he has electric speed and a cracking shot on him.

“He sounds great! What could go wrong?”

It’s England. We always have a player who will “win it all” for us and it never happens.  From Beckham to Owen to Rooney, we always seem to have somebody that we pin our hopes on. It’s like pinning the tail on the donkey… except that when you open your eyes, the donkeys are on the pitch.

“So how does England get the best out of him?”

It’s tempting to start him and then let him run at defences, scaring them half to death,  but I think in most people’s minds he’ll be an impact substitute. But do English fans really want to rely on the hope that AOC can change the game in the last 20 minutes? With Rooney’s absence in the first two games, it might be worth deploying the young Arsenal player from the start, using his youthful exuberance to give us a chance.  Roy Hodgson can always drag him off and put some other clueless wonder on.  Step forward, Mr. Walcott.

Wayne might be up for it

“Does Krakow have red light districts?”

Haha.. you cheeky scamp. We actually mean that, after a long season, Rooney will miss the first two games due to the red card he received against Macedonia.  After watching the sh!t show that is England stumble around for 180 minutes, Wayne will be chomping at the bit to get involved… and he just may be ready to take it out on the Ukraine and then be raring to go if we get to the knockout stage.

“Haven’t we been here before?”

Yes.  Sadly we have. Whether it’s the swish of red being shown, or a metatarsal snapping like a turkey wishbone, you can bet our hopes will be dashed upon the rocks like an Italian cruise ship. (Ed. Note: ATR takes no responsibility for this insensitive — and frankly, obvious — simile).

I’m holding out for a hero

“Is Bonny Tyler going to sing the half-time entertainment?”

No, but Martin Tyler might sing a ditty or two if we ask nicely.  What we actually mean is that we need someone to step up and grab this tournament by the scruff of the neck and drag us through to the finals.

“But who, good sir? Who can save us?”

Who needs to lead England to victory? This guy…

Good question. It’s about time Captain Hollywood — and by that we mean Stevie G — stepped up and played as well in an England shirt as he has for Liverpool. It’s his last hurrah as his career seems to be on the downward slope… so there it’s now or never. We’ll take a few Roy of the Rover moments.  A 30-yard screamer into the top corner as the Germans sink to the turf will do us just fine.

“Is he our only hope?”

No. Rooney is another player with the ability to put us on his back and crash us through the European defenses.  Maybe even Jordan Hend… what’s that? No! You said I had 30 minutes on the computer. It’s MY turn. I’m not taking those pills. You can’t make me. I don’t want to go to my room. Mother? Not mother? (Sounds of a struggle ensue, as the author’s screams reach a higher pitch.  This is followed by squeals of laughter as the author is tickled into submission.  How bizarre).

Kevin Hoggard is a frequent contributor to At The Rails about his miserable experiences as an England fan.

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Best of the Prem: Swansea City to Wolverhampton

Roy Hodgson does his best George Bailey impression: “Well, I don’t have your trophy. It’s at Roman’s house… and Alex’s house… and Roberto’s house…”

Part Four takes us to a team that squandered their European dreams, another side that dropped like a stone, a third that pulled away from the edge of the precipice, and then two more that found the soft, creamy middle of the table.  Let’s have a look at their best, shall we?

The Dutchman did his part…

SWANSEA CITY
Michel Vorm (NED) – The first Welsh team in Premier League history was the mirror image of its fellow Championship graduate, Norwich.  Just like the East Anglians, the Swans’ gaffer opted for a wide-open system that had trouble on the counter.  Good thing Swansea had Michel Vorm.  The Dutchman faced a barrage of shots, but his save percentage remained in the top flight’s top five.  That’s why he will compete for the honour of being the Oranje ‘s No. 2 in the Ukraine this summer.

Ade wants to stay

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR
Emmanuel Adebayor (TOT) – I know that many Spurs fans — along with several neutral observers — will take issue with this pick. Why not Gareth Bale, or Luka Modric?  But the stats are pretty clear: more goals, more assists in the league, more possession, more clear chances on goal.  Sure the big man up front was a bit of lazy git at times, and Tottenham fans are worried that they have another Berbatov on their hands.  But the Togolese striker was lethal for the Lilywhites and, more importantly, he wants to stay.  The same might not be said for his teammates in midfield.

The Baggies’ Foster child…

WEST BROMWICH ALBION
Ben Foster (ENG) – Beware when your best player is a keeper.  WBA finished a positively decent 10th place under a positively decent manager, Uncle Woy.  Peter Odemwingie had a decent season with 10 goals in the league.  The Baggies were 12th in scoring, 14th in defence.  Foster was decent in the middle of the goalkeeper pack when it came to saves and goals against.  All of this bodes well for England, doesn’t it?… Doesn’t it?!?

NOT Gary Caldwell…

WIGAN ATHLETIC
Gary Caldwell (SCO) – Hey Wigan! Come here, you! No, go away! No, come here! No, go away! The Latics channeled the ghost of Alexei Sayle by dallying with relegation for the entire season (Editor’s Note: Alexei Sayle is not dead).  Wigan were bottom of the table as late as St. Patrick’s Day, so it was apropos that a former shamrock-wearing defender led the charge to safety.   Gary Caldwell’s team posted a record of eight wins and only two losses in their last nine matches, while only letting in seven goals.  That’s as many as the eventual champions, Manchester City.  (Ed. Note: Caldwell didna kill his brother — and former Wigan teammate — Stephen.  He’s at Birmingham City… )

Wolves say they won’t let Fletcher go…

WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS
Steven Fletcher (SCO) – One of the only above-average players on a very sub-par squad, Fletcher had more goals than Frank Lampard, Rafael van der Vaart, Chicharito and Gareth Bale.  ‘Nuff said…

Brent Lanthier

Up Next: Season’s Starting XI and ATR’s PoY!

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The Best of Times, The Blurst of Times

Do Wolves have any legs left?

Call it the Year of the Keystone Kops… a season where clubs have been stumbling over each other to fail.   So forget about Manchester United’s mediocre march to the title (and don’t tell me they’re up for the double by winning Big Ears.  If Schalke doesn’t surprise them, Real or Barca will certainly dispatch them with maximum efficiency).  Forget about Arsenal finding new and novel ways to self-destruct, sending Arsene Wenger further along the road to Nutterville. Chelsea are old.  Man Citeh’s millions couldn’t buy a team.  ‘Arry’s mighty offence petered out.  Liverpool were already falling down the hill.  And as usual, David Moyes’ Everton started too late to matter.

So with the exception of the FA Cup final — whose implications for Europe require an engineering degree to calculate — I’m watching the relegation battle that potentially involves half the league.

Two points separate seven teams: Newcastle, Aston Villa, West Brom, Fulham, Stoke City, Sunderland and Birmingham.  All sit relatively safe.  Next are Blackburn and Wigan in the two spots above the relegation zone that currently contains Blackpool, West Ham and Wolves.  Newcastle and Villa (at 10th and 11th, respectively) have reached the so-called magic number of 40 points.  For the others, the next 5-6 games are critical.

Wide-eyed Woy widing high at WBA

I’m going to go out on a limb and say West Bromwich Albion are safe.  Saturday’s loss to Chelsea was their first under Roy Hodgson, and no club has scored more since his reign began. 

Hodgson’s legacy of going for the draw seems to be lingering at Fulham under Mark Hughes.  The Cottagers’ next two games are at bottom Wolves before they host Bolton, who are woeful on the road.  They should hit the 40-point mark no problem.

Stoke City and Birmingham are the Premier League’s little European embarrassments.  Birmingham is already in the Europa League, via their Carling Cup win… but whether Stoke qualifies is still up in the air.  If they win the FA Cup final, they are in.  If they lose but Citeh qualifies for the Champions League, they are in.  Otherwise the spot goes to the sixth-placed team… I think… carry the one…

Either way, both have not been playing well as of late, with each team only winning two games in their last eight.   The bad news for Stoke is that they must face three other relegation battlers — Blackpool, Wolves and Wigan — plus Arsenal and the aforementioned Citeh.  Birmingham must also face teams fighting for a spot in Europe.  I think they will both stay up… only because there are teams playing worse.  But if they drop, it means two of England’s three Europa clubs won’t be playing in the top-flight at home.

That leaves six teams fighting it out for three spots above the drop.  Wolverhampton Wanderers are 20th, but they will leapfrog Wigan into 17th if they win that game in hand against Stoke.  Many pundits say Wolves are too good to go down… and they took some serious scalps this season.  But despite their recent form, every single one of their remaining games is against a struggling club.  It could be tough going for Mick McCarthy’s men.

Bruce wonders where it went wrong

At the beginning of the season, I picked Wigan Athletic to drop, partly because they barely missed it last year… but mostly because I was irritated that such a small, unsupported club was taking up a Premier League spot.  They also have to play several games against strugglers… as well as a surging Everton.

West Ham United sit 19th.  I thought with the addition of Demba Ba, they might have a fighting shot at making it out alive.  But they remain ensconced in the drop zone due to their inability to go for the jugular.

It’s the three remaining clubs that have the most to worry about.  Blackburn Rovers, Blackpool and Sunderland have been dropping like stones.  Blackburn have performed poorly since the departure of Big Sam Allardyce.  Blackpool and Sunderland seem to be on opposite sides of a mirror.  The Black Cats haven’t been the same since they lost their best player in Darren Bent; the Tangerines have suffered without cashing in on Charlie Adam.  Out of the three clubs, only Blackpool has won a game since the end of January.

In such a topsy-turvy season, I still think we are in for some surprises on the final day of the season… on both ends of the table.  It’s either the best season in years… or English football is at it’s most mediocre.

By the way, here are my picks for the drop: Wigan, Blackpool, West Ham.

Brent Lanthier

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Weekend 10: The Misery of Others

Ow ow ow ow ow ow ow

My Mum always taught me not to revel in the misfortune of others, that it could be me getting the bad end of the stick.  Then my French-Canadian father taught me the age-old tradition of dancing gleefully on your enemies’ missteps.  Vive le Schadenfreude!!

1) Manchester United’s Unconvincing season of Invincibility has come to an end, after the Mancs lost 2-1 at Molineux to the league’s last-place team.  United has had this annoying habit of grasping points from the jaws of defeat…. instead they were left grasping their ankles on the weekend.  The loss meant the title race would have been broken wide open except…

2) Arsenal blew a 4-0 lead at Newcastle United.  The Magpies were supposed to be distraught over the loss of Prince Andrew, and probably were after conceding three goals in the first 10 minutes.  But then they remembered that Arsenal’s defence is pants, and let Joey Barton chew at the Gooners’ ankles.  But Arsenal were not alone in their misery because…

3) Chelsea thought they were making a massive move of football irony, playing newly-acquired Fernando Torres against his former club.  But the aging — and fading — champions were bereft of ideas against Liverpool’s back five, losing 1-0.  Three centrebacks! Two wingbacks! One of them is Glen Johnson! And he’s cut his hair AND he’s playing on the left!  It must have been confusing for the old buggers.

It hurts right heeeeeerrreeee...

4) Torres looked like a high school freshman who couldn’t find his first class.   This particular John Hughes movie saw Jamie Carragher starring as the school bully, taking the ball — and lunch money — away from the Spaniard, who thought he was joining the gifted programme, but instead accidentally showed up at remedial gym class.

5) Speaking of audacious debuts, El-Hadji Diouf appeared in his first Old Firm game, less than a week after joining Rangers on loan.  Never a favourite with the green side of Glasgow, The Human Camel was the subject of constant taunting by the Bhoys. Celtic captain Scott Brown received a yellow card for his efforts, calling it “the best booking I’ve had in my life.”

6) Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley says he will freeze ticket prices for the next 10 years.  A club spokesperson says, “We know these are tough times for everyone so we’re trying to do all we can for the fans. Mike is fully on board with this… it is a good way of showing commitment back to the fans… ”

In the words of Homer Simpson, “It takes two to lie: one to lie and one to listen…”

Um, doctor, it's my, er...

7) Schteve McClaren has lost his job at VfL Wolfsburg, after the Bundesliga team only won one match in the last 12.  But rumours abounded that McClaren was really turfed by a faux pas.  Ever the cunning linguist, McClaren was keen to show off what he learned from his German Made Easy cassettes, but then answered a question auf Deutsch about squad formation by mistakenly threatening the “annexation” of the owner’s wife…

8 ) Fabio Capello’s policy follows his predecessors: pick a player for their badge rather than their form.  A hugely slumping Wayne Rooney is getting a game against Denmark, as is Carlton Cole.  Of course, players like Blackpool’s DJ Campbell and Bolton’s Kevin Davies have more goals than them this season, but England managers have never been ones to let success get in the way…

9) West Brom fired manager Roberto Di Matteo after a run of bad results.  No doubt the newly-promoted team will replace him with a gaffer comparable to their other talismanic figures, like Bryan Robson and Gary Megson.  Hey, Roy Hodgson’s available!

10) Cristiano Ronaldo is still a horse’s arse… and I’m not the only one who thinks so

Brent Lanthier

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The Weekend 10: “Isms”

Hey Gerard, why the long face?

1) Pessimism: Is there something about being an ex-Liverpool manager that makes you whingy? Is it advanced age? My God, will someone tell Gerard HoullierRafa Benitez, and Roy Hodgson to stop thinking the football world is out to get them?

2) Alcoholism: Getting up to watching Premier League games on Saturday/Sunday is getting harder as my liver gets older… less Ales, more Rails, methinks… Maybe I’ll just start hanging out with Dennis Bergkamp

3) Racism: Fiorentina must have missed their Sunday morning caffe as they drew to Paolo DiCanio con Lecce.  I wonder how DiCanio and Fiorentina boss Sinisa Mihajlovic greeted each other after the match. Of course, Mihajlovic isn’t racist: everyone else is

4) Antagonism: Maybe the sputtering Viola are missing bad boy striker Adrian Mutu. The Romanian has been banned from the team after an alleged training ground confrontation.  Mutu denies it was with manager Mihajlovic, asking how he could he fight a man twice his size. Ummm… this is how

5) Sexism: And not even the clever kind!  The “Wait a second, the mics were on?!?!” kind…

6) Skepticism: Manchester Citeh are willing to let Shaun Wright-Phillips go for free, because they can’t find anyone who’ll pay to take on his 65-thousand-quid-a-week salary.  His agent say five teams are interested in SWP joining their team. If his negotating skills are anything like SWP’s game, he’ll probably just run all over England without actually making contact with any teams…

7) Dwarfism: ‘Arry Redknapp was robbed in Madrid when a gang of six men started pulling on his pant legs and availing themselves of the contents of his pockets.  However, Jermain Defoe managed to stay lodged against ‘Arry’s thigh, fast asleep…

8 ) Fallibilism: Speaking of Madrid, Real manager Lord Valdemorte has refused to commit his future to the club.  Ahhhh. Mourinho leaves Inter for Real… and then departs after a season. Benitez leaves Liverpool for Inter… and then he’s out after half-a-season.  Hodgson leaves Fulham for Liverpool… and then, well… Grass is greener and all that…

9) Infantilism: Cristiano Ronaldo says that of course, he changes diapers.  I had to read further into this article to find out they weren’t his own….

Hey Ruud, why the… oh never mind…

10)  Equestrianism: Hamburg have rejected a Real Madrid request to bring Ruud Van Nistlerooy back to the Bernabeu.  It appears Der Rothosen will ride out the Dutchman’s contract before putting him out to pasture….

Brent Lanthier

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