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The BASN 2006 World Cup Preview: Groups E-H
Group E: Italy, Ghana, USA, Czech Rep.
Codename: Group of Death II- Choose your weapon
Italy: Can a three-time World Champion fly under the radar? It seems the growing match-fixing scandal currently rocking Italy’s domestic is garnerning more attention than the Azzurri’s team’s play on the field as they look to re-establish themselves as contenders at a major championship. Like Germany’s Juregen Klinsmann, head coach Marcelo Lippi has changed the philosophy of this usually ultra-defensive minded side by introducing a more attack minded side. Their recent 4-1 demolition of Germany in an exhibition indicates they might be more suited to the task than the hosts. In Fiortina’s Luca Toni, AC Milan’s Alberto Gilardino and the old master Allesandro Del Piero they have people who can provide the goals. If AS ***image13***Roma’s Francisco Totti is fully back from a long injury layoff, Italy will be making some noise in this tournament.
But don’t get it twisted, Italy can still put you on lockdown, starting in the midfield with the agressive Gennaro Gattuso. Behind the internationally renowned Allesandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro is Gianluigi Buffon, recognized as the best GK in the world right now. If Lippi can find the right attacking combinations, the Azzurri might find themselves making a run deep into the tournament. That is if the scandal doesn’t weight too heavily on their minds.
Ghana: Four times African Champions, The Black Stars of Ghana have finally shed the tag of “Best team in Africa not to have made the World Cup” as they won their qualifying group in comfortable fashion. Ratomir Dujkovic came on board in 2004 and directed the talented side past S. Africa in a key qualifying group match and Ghana never looked back.
The strength of this team lies in its midfield with captain Stephan Appiah and Chelsea’s Michael Essien leading the way. Udinese’s Sulley Muntari is another talent who will be counted on help provide leadership in the middle of the park. Samuel Kuffour has been one of Africa’s most recognized players over the past decade and after patching up his differences with Dujkovic will be counted on to lead the backline. If the Black Stars can get some reliable goal scoring from their forwards and overcome their lack of experience at this level they might be able to make their way out of this group.
USA: The Stars and Stripes will come into this World Cup with a target squarely on their chests. They have a lofty ranking of #5 in the world that many feel is undeserved and they won’t be sneaking up on anyone as they did in 2002 when they beat Portugal & Mexico, tied hosts S. Korea and outplayed in the quarterfinals Germany before losing 1-0. If the US plays to potential, however they will continue to be difficult to beat.
Always a highly disciplined and organized side, they have a dynamic attacking player in LA Galaxy’s Landon Donovan who will be key to their offensive fortunes. He’ll need help, though, from Fulham’s Brian McBride and the US hopes that KC’s Eddie Johnson or Josh Wolff can regain their scoring touch. If PSV Eindhoven winger DaMarcus Beasley and Bobby Convey can successfully run at defenders as they’ve done in the past the US might be able to negotiate their way out of this group. Defensively Eddie Pope, playing in his third World Cup and Oguchi Onyewu will anchor the middle of a solid defense in front of veteran GK/brickwall Kasey Keller.
The US could not have been drawn into a more difficult group and it’s possible they can play better than they did in 2002 and still not advance. However, this is a very good team. If they can rediscover their attacking magic and take their chances in front of goal, they have as good a chance as anyone to advance to the Ultimate Sweet 16.
Czech Republic: Ranked 2nd in the FIFA Rankings, the Czech Republic is coming off a solid Euro2004 campgaign. A lot of hype surrounds this side as they can be breathtaking on offense through the likes of Milan Barros. Thomas Rosicki is another star player who performed well through qualifying but the undoubted star and leader of this team is ***image7***Juventus’ Pavel Neved, the 2003 European Player of Year. Nedved had retired after 2004 but came back to guide the Czechs through a playoff against Norway.
Defensively, they have an excellent shot stopper in the form Chelsea’s Peter Cech. Their biggest weaknesses? Age and inconsistency. When they’re hot then can score goals in bunches, leading all European teams in goals scored during qualification. When they’re not, they struggle to get into gear. Think Phoenix Suns. This is a team that people are touting as a potential dark horse but it remains to be seen which team shows up.
Group E outlook: A 3-time champion, a recent quarterfinalist slowly gaining respect, a talented new comer and highliy touted dark horse makes this a very intersting and competitive group. I’d count on Italy advancing but the other three, including the US, can get through if they play to potential. However, 2nd place in this group means facing Brazil in the Round of 16…
Group F: Brazil, Croatia, Austrailia, Japan
Codename: The Green and Gold Party Zone
Brazil: Well, what can you say about Brazil that hasn’t already been said? Brazil is basically everyone’s pick to win this thing again. The 5 time winners have players playing important roles at many of the biggest clubs in Europe and S. America. From the attacking genius of World Player of the Year Ronaldinho, the creativity of AC Milan’s Kaka, the deadly free kick ability of Juninho Pernambucano and tireless work of wingbacks Roberto Carlos and Cafu, the Seleï¿½ï¿½o come in looking poised to run the table again.
***image10***Brazil will be looking for Ronaldo and Adriano to regain their fitness and sharpness in front of goal and age has started creep up on the defense. Plus the favorites tag have not been kind to any one over the past few World Cups. However, given the ease of their group, they will have time to work out any difficulties before the knockout phase. Everybody’s second favorite team, the Samba Kings bring entertainment and dynamic play into every World Cup. Get ready, Germany, soccer’s version of carnivale is coming your way.
Croatia: Semifinalists in 1998, Croatia qualified for Germany at the top of their group thanks to two wins over fellow qualifiers Sweden. After failing to advance from the group stages in 2002, Croatia has regrouped behind the stellar play of Celtic’s Dado Prso and the goals of Dario Srna. The Kovac brothers, Nico and Robert bring loads of experience in the back.
***image8***Brazil’s coach Brazil coach Carlos Alberto Parreira has touted the Croats speeed as one of their strengths and they certainly bring a bit of experience into this year’s edition. They will certainly like their chances to join Brazil in the Ultimate Sweet 16.
Austrailia: The Socceroos make their return to the Big Show after 32 years and several near misses in qualifying. They beat an overconfident Uruguay in a two legged playoff in front of 83,000 people to punch their ticket. Though internationally inexperienced as a whole, they have several longtime players who have played on some of the English Premiereship’s biggest squads such as Champions League winner Harry Kewell of Liverpool, long time forward Marc Viduka of Middlesbrough & Everton midfielder Tim Cahill. But the most effective of the bunch might be Alaves’ John Aloisi.
***image14***Famed Dutch coach, Guus Hiddink took over the side before the two-legged playoff against Uruguay and will bring gained experience in guiding two different sides (S. Korea ’02, Holland ’98) to the World Cup semifinals to challenge for that 2nd spot in Group F behind Brazil. They will need their defense to be sharp and the task of leading them will fall on the shoulders of Blackburn’s Lucas Neill and Viduka’s club teammate Mark Schwarzer. The Socceroos are gunning for history and figure they’ve got absolutely nothing to lose.
Japan: The blue and white clad reigning Asian Champions will be eager to show that they don’t need the advantage of playing at home to advance to the Ultimate Sweet 16 as they did when they co-hosted the 2002 edition. Coached by Brazillian World Cup legend Zico, the Japanese suffered through some inconsistent performances early in their campaign before putting it together down the stretch to qualify for their third consecutive finals.
The midfield is the strength of this team, headlined by the supremely talented but oft-traveled Hidetoshi Nakata. His running mates Shunsuke Nakamura and Shinji Ono will drive the side forward. Naohiro Takahara and Atsushi Yanagisawa will have to overcome their inconsistency to provide the goals Japan needs to advance. An athletic and enthusiastic side that is under immense presure at home to advance.
Group F outlook: Brazil should stroll right through this group with 3 wins but after that it will be an absolute free for all.
Group G: France, Switzerland, S. Korea, Togo
Codename: France’s last stand
France: The 1998 champions came into the 2002 edition with the co-favorite tags and a boastful attitude. Said Marcel Dasailly, “We’re waiting for the knockout phase to bring our families over.” How bad did things turn out? Zinedine Zidane was injured and missed the first two games and the mighty Les Bleus didn’t score a single goal in three games. Let’s put this into perspective: Jeff Agoos figured in the scoresheet more often than the entire France side. Let’s say the French are…motivated.
However, questions will still be asked of this aging side that didn’t exactly set their qualifying group on fire. Zidane, Claude Makalele and longtime defender Lillian Thuram had retired. Arsenal’s Thierry Henry for all of his superlative skills & Patrick Vieira were unable to convincingly lead the side until ZZ and the others returned to help spark France to the top of their group and earn a berth to the Big Show. This is still a good side, however. Henry is the best striker in the world on any given day who can combine with either Manchester United’s Louis Saha or Lyon’s Sylvan Wiltord. Vieira has been rejuvenated since moving to Juventus. His teammate there, David Trezuguet has recaptured his form in front of goal and Les Bleus have two excellent goal keepers to choose from in 1998 hero Fabien Barthez and the popular choice, Lyon’s Greogry Coupet. This is an experienced side but age may catch up with them before they can make a deep impact in the tournament.
Switzerland: Back in the Big Show after missing Frane’98 and Japan/Korea’02 editions, Switzerland will figure their chances to advance are solid. They went undefeated through their group, including two draws with France then survived a pulsating two-legged playoff (and a near brawl) with Turkey to reclaim their place in the Big Show. Johan Vogel is the leader of this side. An experienced midfielder currently with AC Milan and experience with PSV Eindhoven, he’ll be expected to inspire the side and provide service for the likes of Alexander Frei who’s scored 25 times for his country.
Defensively, Arsenal’s Phillippe Senderos will be one of the important figures in the back and the Swiss will rely heavily on the vast experience of Patrick Mueller who appeared on all of the qualifying matches for Switzerland. This is a very solid team that is looking to re-establish itself on the world stage.
South Korea-Was there anything as awe-inspiring as the fever which overtook S. Korea as they hosted the 2002 World Cup? The passions of the red clad fans that were inside and outside the stadia in which the hosts played were matched by dramatic wins over Portugal, Italy and Spain as they became the first Asian side to advance to the semifinals of a World Cup, losing 1-0 Germany to end their run.
***image16***The S. Koreans are back, with another Dutch coach in Dick Advocaat who replaced Jo Bonfrere after a rather inconsistent qualifying campaign. They will be looking toward Man. United player Park Ji-Sung to provide the spark offensively and hope that Ahn Jung-Hwan can repeat his heroics of four years earlier. They have an expereinced defense with Lee Woon-Jae in goal and Lee Young-Pyo at left back. That experience cold help them get through to the next round
Togo: Togo came out of nowhere to top its qualifying group which included 2002 World Cup quarterfinalists Senegal and claim its first invitation to the Big Show. This is a side that had barely made an impression at the African Cup of Nations so for them to now qualify for the World Cup had to suprise even them. Emmanuel Adebayor is the one player of note on this side. The former Monaco player now on the books at Arsenal established himself early in qualification as the main offensive threat with his speed and ability.
GK Kossi Agassa is the leader in the back and will have to marshall this side. The Hawks come into the this tournament with some pre-tourament drama, however. Former Nigerian international Stephen Keshi who coached the side during their magical qualifying run was dismissed after Togo failed to impress at the 2006 African Cup of Nations where he and Adebayor had a falling out. The players have also threatened to boycott the Big Show over a match bonus dispute. Not exactly the type of distractions a team that no one expects to do anything needs in the run-up to the Big Show. Nevertheless, they will play loose because they have absolutely nothing to lose.
Group G outlook: S. Korea rode an incredible home crowd and some fortuitous calls to the semifinals but they’ll be hard pressed to repeat that run. France is cream of the crop in this group and Switzerland will be hungry to show they are to be taken seriously. I fear Togo won’t make much of an impression.
Group H: Spain, Ukraine, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia-
Codename: On the QT
Spain-If you look in the dictionary under the term “perennial underchiever”, you’ll see a picture the Spanish national team. In a country that boasts the best domestic league on the planet, la selecciï¿½n has not advanced past the quarterfinals of any major tournament since winning the 1964 European Championships on home soil. Their lackluster stroll through a weak qualifying group saw them relegated to a playoff where they finally woke up and ripped Slovakia over a two legged final to earn another appearance at the Big Show
It is not that Spain lacks talent. In Real Madrid’s Iker Casillas, they have one of the great goal keepers on the planet and the defense is solid through Barcelona’s Carlos Puyol. The midfield will feature the stylish Xabi Alonso and Cesc Fabregas of Liverpool and Arsenal, respectively. Real Madrid striker Raul is their all-time leading goal scorer but has seen a severe dip in form and players like Jose Antonio Reyes & Luis Garcia will be counted on to do their part in front of goal. With the attention on other European sides, Spain will hope to quietly gain confidence that will allow them to overcome the “disappointing” tag they always seem to end up wearing at the end of a big tournament.
Ukraine- Let’s be serious, if any non-Ukranian tunes in to watch this former Soviet Republic side play it’s because of one man: Andriy Shevchenko. The long time Dynamo Kiev and AC Milan star will enter this season on Chelsea’s books finally having played in the World Cup. Sheva, as he is known, is simply world class and will be sure to cement his greatness with a solid outing at the World Cup.
***image12***However, one man does not a football team make and if the Ukraine are going to achieve anything Sheva will need help from running mates Sergei Rebrov and Andriy Vorobey. He’ll also need the midfield to come true through their most experienced players in Andri Gusin and Anatoliy Tymoschuk. However they are rather untested againt big time competition and the Ukraine’s chances of making an impact may depend on their play.
Tunisia- Champions of the 2004 African Cup of Nations, the Carthage Eagles of Tunisia left their qualification to almost the last minute, getting a 69th minute equalizer against arch-rivals Morocco to be the only African side from 2002 to make a return trip to the Big Show. Tunisia also hold the historical distinction of being the first African side to record a win on the World’s Biggest Sporting Stage. Unfortunately, they haven’t won a match since.
***image15***It’s not as if Tunisia doesn’t boast of any talent. Their back line contains long time Ajax player Hatem Trabelsi on the left and current Bolton defender, Rahdi Jaidi anchoring the middle. Riadh Bouazizi is a rock in the midfield behind Kaies Ghodhbane. Brazillian born Santos and Zied Jaziri have been a sucessful scoring duo in African competition and if Tunisia want to advance, they’ll have to get it done at the Big Show
Saudi Arabia- The Saudis are another side that have been itching to get back to the Big Show and erase some bitter memories of 2002. That’s when they gave up eight goals to Germany in their opening round match (ocho, huit, 8, VIII, ok you get the picture) and failed to score in their final two matches. The 4-time Asian champions crusied through qualifying this time around and are eager to match their 2nd round of appearance of 1994.
***image11***The main man for the Saudis is Sami Al Jaber who has spent half his life representing the national team. He will be appearing in his fourth World Cup. The Saudis also have Hamad Al Montashari marshalling the defense. Though this team has been playing together for awhile, very few have ever played in Europe which will either hinder them as they the competition jumps up a notch or leave them not in awe of their compeition.
Group outlook: OK, I’ll admit, this is the group I will be paying very little attention to. But by the end of the round I expect Spain to come through with another uninspired performance and expect Ukraine to ride Sheva into the next round. But I certainly would like to see the other two teams win a game…and not against each other.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the 2006 World Cup. Let the party begin.