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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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Fergie’s Fantasy: The Dream Team

Lamps' hernia operation means no fantasy points

We are only five weeks into the season, but many fantasy managers are already thinking about using their “wild card” to start again from scratch (unless you’re like me, and you’ve already used it).

How else can you make up for mistakes, like thinking poor World Cup play by Wayne Rooney and Fernando Torres wouldn’t carry over into the Premier league? Did you really think this is the year Cesc Fabregas stays healthy? How could you guess that Frank Lampard wouldn’t even rate as one of the three Chelsea players you should have in your line-up?

To help you in your search for the “best of the best”, here’s the top scoring players at each position so far. Without regard for the rules of the fantasy game — you can only have three players from any given club, and your salary cap wouldn’t allow you to afford all of the players below — I bring you the dream starting 11… (if you had to play by all the rules, it would be a “dream” team now would it?)

FORWARDS

Didier Drogba – Chelsea

As I mentioned, two of the most threatening strikers in the league — Rooney and Torres — are off to very slow starts. But last year’s Golden Boot winner Didier Drogba has picked up exactly where he left off, and thus is the Premier League’s most valuable fantasy point getter. He’s also the most expensive player in the league but I suggest you suck it up, pay his price, and make him your captain every week until he starts to slow down. Drogba is not only scoring goals, he’s also setting them up and taking the corners while Lampard has been injured. That makes him even more valuable.

Berba finally starts flying...

Dimitar Berbatov – Manchester United

On a team with Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen, and new signing Javier Hernandez, Manchester United’s Bulgarian striker had to show some spark early on and he’s done just that. Witness how he single-handedly took apart Liverpool last week with a hat trick,  including a bicycle kick goal that will be a contender for goal of the year. With play like this, it will be impossible for Sir Alex Ferguson to keep him out of the lineup.

Carlos Tevez – Manchester City

This Argentinian bulldog is technically tied with Newcastle’s Andrew Carroll at this point… but I expect Carroll to fade and Tevez to come on even stronger. Man City have a wealth of striker options but Tevez seems to be the only one with any consistency right now. The fact that he’s regularly outperforming Rooney couldn’t be more annoying for United fans.

MIDFIELDERS

Florent Malouda – Chelsea

Here’s a player who has overcome his World Cup woes after playing for France. Malouda has shown an impressive scoring touch so far, and an obviously improved chemistry with his teammates after taking the bulk of last year getting used to life in the Premier League. I see no reason why his form would dip. A must-have purchase for all fantasy managers, as his price keeps going up.

Kalou on top... but for how long?

Salomon Kalou – Chelsea

Kalou is reaching the potential Chelsea thought he would have when they signed him. His four goals in five games is all the more impressive when you consider he only started two of those games. He could be a risky long-term prospect as I’m not sure he’ll start as often when Lampard comes back… if the rest of team stays healthy. But he’s on fire right now at a good price: he could be a strong short-term pick-up.

Nani – Manchester United

You are likely smarter than me anyway, but you are definitely smarter than me if you took Nani at the beginning of the season. With Valencia rounding into form at the end of last year, it appeared Nani might be a useful substitute. However, he’s now proving to be an indispensible supplier of crosses into the box for United and has the ability to score, given the chance. If another player brushes up against him, he goes down like he received an uppercut to the face, but there’s no fantasy deductions for that!

Theo Walcott – Arsenal

Gooners were ecstatic to see Walcott get off to a flying start with four goals in the first three games… especially since he’s never scored more than four in a whole season! His pace gives him the ability to score almost every time he gets the ball and some space to work in and now he’s playing with a lot of confidence. The only problem? He’s injured and it’s likely he’s won’t be back until sometime in October. Keep an eye on him when he returns as he could be worth a transfer into your squad if he keeps it up.

Defenders

Ashley Cole – Chelsea

The quantity of Chelsea players on this list is a bit annoying, but there’s nothing bad you can say about Cole’s performance this year. He’s made great runs down the left side for years, but now it seems those crosses always get to someone in blue who will put them in the back of the net. Cole is pricey, but he’s the top scoring defender in the league right now, so you get what you pay for.

Captain Schtupping has yet to face serious opposition

John Terry – Chelsea

I wouldn’t necessarily introduce him to my girlfriend, but it’s hard to do better in selecting a defender. Again, he’s expensive but you get what you pay for. Chelsea are likely to continue racking up clean sheets and Terry is virtually a constant presence on their back four.

Micah Richards – Manchester City

Richards has played every moment so far for Manchester City and has helped them keep two clean sheets, along with the occasional assist. You could also look at Nemanja Vidic from Man United or Alex from Chelsea, but Richards is a lot cheaper and is sure to play in every game.

Goalkeeper

Hart has only allowed two goal so far

Joe Hart – Manchester City

A big part of the reason Micah Richards is on this list is the amazing play of Joe Hart. He’s showing that he should have been the man for England in South Africa (i.e. he has yet to throw a ball into his own net). Hart has a bright future and his fantasy value is also only going to go up.

Scott Ferguson

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