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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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Groan When You’re Winning

One more England miss, and they'll be stuck like that...

I’d like to put forth a very philosophical question that is almost Talmudic in the asking of it:

Is it right to criticize your team when it is winning?

I cheer for England.  I cheer for Canada. I cheer for Liverpool.  All three sides have taken myself and millions of others to the depths of despair… or at least, to the deep end of disappointment.  But all three have been winning lately.  So why am I seriously underwhelmed?

A fading member of England's "Golden Generation"

England pulled out the win on Tuesday and have almost booked their plane tickets to Poland/Ukraine.  But Wales could have beaten the Three Lions, as they played with purpose and aggression and without fear.  This was a different Dragons squad from six months ago, with Gary Speed giving the captain’s armband to 20-year-old Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey.  Speed also had a fit Gareth Bale on the wing… and both players ran the hell out of the English backs all game.  My mate wondered aloud what the Welsh could have done if only Craig Bellamy hadn’t been suspended, and I had to agree.

England got the win but it wasn’t pretty: it was boring.  So I thought perhaps the country of my birth would play more exciting football than its colonial fathers.

How could I have been so naïve?

In fairness to the reader, I missed the first half.  In fairness to me… I missed nothing.  I turned on the match to see a Puerto Rican pitch that was in worse condition than the field at my under-funded elementary school.  Neither team could complete a relay of more than three passes, even if their lives depended on it (which in some nations, it would.  Colombia, I’m looking at you).  Canada went on to win 3-0.  But it still irks me that the Canucks have been forced to play tiny Caribbean nations in World Cup qualifiers while Third World backwaters like Honduras flourish internationally.

On the professional side, Liverpool has emerged from the financial ashes to spend over £100M pounds on fine young talent, most of it British.  Yet only two players — Luis Suarez and Charlie Adam — have been real game changers.  The club has no debt, they have a living legend as their manager, and the team has yet to lose a competitive match in this young season.  They have even won two major trophies in the last six years.  Like Fox Mulder, I want to believe… but a drunk and bitter Jiminy Cricket sits on my shoulder, nagging at me with doubt.

The reason for my skepticism comes down to the words of the great, er, scholar Dr. Phil who espouses this idiom: “The best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour.”  All three sides have monumentally underwhelmed in the past.  Why should the near-future be any different?

Don Fabio: He no happy...

Volumes have been written about why England’s national side has not won a major tournament since the 1966 World Cup.  Spoiled players.  Too much pressure from the support and media.  Too many club fixtures.  Too many friendlies.  Yesterday, the manager added mental fragility to the list.

Meanwhile, Canada’s problem is that the players are simply not good enough.  Don’t get me wrong: they try.  They try hard.  But when you only have three players on the pitch who belong to top-flight clubs, the writing is on the wall.

DeRo keeps his World Cup dream alive

It blows my mind that Canada is one of the richest nations in the world, yet it is still not competitive in one of the biggest sports in the world.  I don’t buy the “ice hockey is everything” excuse.  Sweden, the Czech Republic, Russia and the US are all hockey powers and have all managed to find ways to build successful national soccer sides.  Sweden and Russia have thrown the “cold weather” excuse out the window as well.  The Canadian Soccer Association has a lot to answer for.

As for Liverpool, the club is only now recovering from two decades of Rip Van Winkle-itis: not paying attention to the New Business of football until it was too late.  The once-mighty club was too loyal to managers and players who did not perform, while failing to keep up with the Manchester Uniteds, Chelseas and Manchester Citehs until now.  Over the last eight months, Liverpool has spent over £100M.  Time will tell if it makes them a contender, or if it has bought more disappointment for their painfully loyal fans.

Perhaps I am being too persnickety, too willing to focus on the negatives in order to ease my mind when I am eventually let down.  But I’d like to think that I am making educated assumptions as I watch these teams play, seeing repeated errors and thinking,”this could be trouble.”

Maybe it’s just to cover my arse so when my team(s) finally lose, I can say, “I told you so.”   In the briefest of instances, I will have slid down the moral gradient from being “right” to just being “self-righteous”.

Because these days… isn’t that what being a football fan is all about?

Brent Lanthier

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The Football Brand in America

Beckham: The Face of Football in America

This week, Bloomberg Businessweek released its Power 100 ranking of the most prominent athletes in America.  Only two football players made it: Landon Donovan came in at 40th — on the strength of his exposure from the World Cup — and David Beckham… of course.

Becks came in at 19th… which is not bad, but it’s not great.  He came ahead of Derek Jeter (Mr. Yankee himself), Venus Williams, NFL photographer Brett Favre and NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (America luuuuuvvvvvs its NASCAR!!!).

David Beckham the Brand has become bigger than David Beckham the Player ever was.  The high-profile wife, the high-profile teams, the high-profile switch to the MLS.  Becks is photogenic, scandal-free (lately) and is one of the few soccer players who will get stopped on the streets of North America.  He’s a marketers dream… which is why the MLS inked a major deal to make him the poster boy for the LA Galaxy and, by proxy, the League itself.

Becks tells Capello he still wants to play for England...

Except it hasn’t exactly worked out that way.  Becks hasn’t played nearly as much as he was supposed to, focusing more on his waning England career… and trying to get as much continental football to fight for his place on the Three Lions. That quixotic quest led him to infamously tear his Achilles tendon while playing for Milan… excluding him from the World Cup AND his MLS obligations.  He tried to earn a temporary place back in England this winter… but the Galaxy are apparently getting fed up with his wantaway ways.

Thierry Henry looks miserable in NYC

Becks’ signing with El Lay hasn’t exactly brought the intended stampede of Europeans to American airports either.  Lots of fading players give lip service to wanting to end their careers here, but that’s all it’s been… lip service.  And those who have come have become anonymous. Thierry Henry — the world’s greatest striker in his day — claims to take the New York subway to home games and practices, travelling unaccosted.

Becks’ ranking indeed shows his marketing power… and his marketing potential.  But with only one other player on the list — an American who is a regular squad member in any big European club — it goes to show you how far football/soccer still has to go in the eyes of the North American consumer.

Brent Lanthier

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Painful day for Europe’s giants

Less than two months after the World Cup final in Johannesburg — and with their club seasons in their infancy — Europe’s finest met up again for the first qualifying games for Euro 2012.  But it seems many national sides have just picked up from where they left off in June/July.

Witness England’s 4-0 demolition of lowly Bulgaria.  Even though the Three Lions impressed in front of a packed Wembley… storm clouds will continue to linger over the head of Don Fabio Capello.  The British press have been incredibly derisory towards the Italian, unwilling to forgive him for England’s performance in South Africa. Despite success against Hungary in last month’s friendly — and despite Wayne Rooney’s impressive partnership today with hat-trick scorer Jermain Defoe — it will never be good enough for several sections of St. George’s Army.

On the positive side, outstanding shot-stopping for both England and Man City — including a life rope to salvage an almost-own-goal by Glen Johnson — means 23-year-old Joe Hart may stay in net for a entire generation.  But there continues to be fitness problems… including Defoe limping off with a knock to his ankle. As well, a horrible knee injury to Michael Dawson adds to Capello’s centre-back crisis… and the rubbish play of the aformentioned Johnson means more of the same defensive headaches.  It will be interesting to see whether the stingy Swiss will allow England to run roughshod in Basel.

Those injuries mean the club vs. country debate will also continue.  The loss of Spurs starters Dawson and Defoe will likely have ‘Arry Redknapp sputtering, since he’s not allowed to wheel and deal buy replacement players after the trade deadline.  Yikes!

Les Trois Stooges

It was more humiliation for France as they lost 1-0 at home to lowly Belarus.  Midfielder Florent Malouda chided the French fans for booing… because apparently, it is the fans’ fault that Les Bleus are 1) awful, and 2) spoiled millionaires who have to be goaded into singing their own national anthem.

The World Cup hangover continues for the Italians as well.  They had to come from behind to scrape past Estonia 2-1. And the Portuguese had to battle in a tit-for-tat scrap with Cyprus. A Seleccao had to settle for a 4-4 draw after the Cypriots scored in the 89th minute.

In the “Hyperbole is the Best Thing Ever!” category: World Cup champions Spain posted a massive victory over Liechtenstein, 4-0.  That’s about as impressive as me remembering to unzip before going to the loo…

In the “Why Won’t He Just P!ss Off?” category: Former Liverpool gaffer Gerrard Houllier is interviewing for the Aston Villa job.  Expect whiny washed-up French players to descend en masse on Birmingham.

More Euro news on Tuesday. Happy Labour Day weekend!

Brent Lanthier

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Capello’s Dilemma

Fabio Capello announced his team selection on Saturday, his version of England Redux for this week’s friendly against Hungary that no one seems to want. The thinking was the game would prove to be cathartic for players, fans and the gaffer himself… a chance for brave Albion to regain their dignity and confidence.

But of course, no one is happy. Capello brought in several players who didn’t make the trip to South Africa, including something we haven’t seen for years: the selection of more than one Arsenal player.  However Theo Walcott, Kieran Gibbs, and Jack Wilshire weren’t exactly starters last year. None of them played more than 16 games apiece.  It’ll be interesting to see how Capello uses them, especially after Walcott’s uninspired performance this summer.

The media had called for wholesale change after the Bombing of Bloemfontein.  But Capello was as defiant of the pundits as he was of John Terry’s “rebellion”, keeping Captain Schtupping and Co. in the side despite his insolence.  Don Fabio also tried to soothe feelings… but some players didn’t forget their World Cup snub.  Both Wes Brown and Paul Robinson said “Thank you, no”.  In this writer’s opinion, no big loss.

Capello has found out that being England manager is a thankless task… trying to appease a nation full of unrealistic expectations with a team of mediocre millionaires.  Some sections of the media already believe that Capello is a dead man walking.

O'Neill's Villa frustration boils over

Those rumours are given even more weight because his supposed successor is suddenly free of  his club obligations now that Martin O’Neill has quit Aston Villa just five days before the start of the Premier League season. The bookmakers have him at two-to-one odds that he will be next to lead the Three Lions.  But he may find Randy Lerner’s stinginess preferable to the smothering expectations of the top job in England.

Brent Lanthier

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Hello, I must be going…

News in the football world is dominated today by the international retirement of two, er, giants.

Just a day after the New York Red Bulls signed him (on Bastille Day no less), all-time French scoring leader Thierry Henry announced he would no longer play for Les Bleus. After France’s World Cup performance, saying you’re quitting is like crashing your car, and then saying you don’t want to drive it anymore. Henry will likely make his debut for New York against Tottenham Hotspur on July 22nd.  Look for our own Yid Army member — Ian Harrison — to file as he heads to the Big Apple for the second half of the Red Bulls challenge…NY vs. Man. City and Spurs vs. Sporting Lisbon.

Emile Heskey

As well, the much-maligned Emile Heskey has announced he’s retiring from the English team. The debate rages over Heskey’s value to the Three Lions. The hulking forward didn’t score a lot of goals.  But teammates like Michael Owen said they wouldn’t want to play off anyone else.

German prosecutors have expanded their probe into match-fixing.  The thing now covers more than 270 games in nine countries.  It’s reminds me of my oh-so-clever scheme to try and fix the International Rock-Paper-Scissors Tournament.  Good ol’ rock. Nothing beats rock.

If you’re Michael Ballack’s agent, you’re probably blaming gay people for the crime.

The Premier League kicks off in a month… and with Roy Hodgson up on Merseyside trying to convince his big players to stay, Fulham is looking for his replacement.  There are rumours that U.S. coach Bob Bradley will take over. I hope not. He scares me

The English FA is thinking about eliminating FA Cup replays in order to make room for a winter break.  It seems the poor poppets in England are tired.  Rich and tired.  So very, very tired…

Apparently, Manchester United’s gaffer — Sir Alex Ferguson — is sitting pretty after the World Cup.   The Red Devils are in Toronto tonight and we’ll bring you details from the presser with SAF and Man U midfielder Darren Fletcher later.

Finally one more reason to love Steve Gerrard-Gerrard.  Wow.

Brent Lanthier

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