Wednesday, June 07, 2006

World Cup Previews continued - Groups C and D

A couple of days ago I previewed Groups A and B, two that appear fairly straight forward. The action will certainly hot up into today's featured groups, particulalrly group C.

Group C – Quality everywhere you look

ARGUABLY the toughest group of the lot, the two teams that miss out from Holland, Argentina, Serbia & Montenegro and the Ivory Coast would be entitled to feel hard done. The world’s third (Holland) and ninth (Argentina) ranked teams, Europe’s best defensive team in the qualifiers (Serbia & Montenegro conceded on one goal in 10 games) and a finalist at the most recent African Nations Cup make this the most cut-throat of groups, full of quality and intrigue. For the two favourites, Holland and Argentina, they won’t have time to build themselves into the tournament, it’ll be all systems go from their opening games, against Serbia and Ivory Coast respectively. By the time they clash in a mouth-watering final group game on June 21 at Frankfurt, both could need a result to get through, and whoever tops the group will take some real confidence and form into the knock-outs. Holland, as we saw against the Socceroos are young side blessed blistering pace and excellent individual technique. Marco van Basten has done a wonderful rebuilding job, taking his team through a tough qualifying phase undefeated, no small feat in a group that featured the Czech Republic. No longer do we see veterans like Seedorf, Davids, Makaay, Stam, Bergkamp and Reiziger, replaced by a new breed, the likes of Robben, van Persie, Sneijder, van der Vaart, Kuijt and Babel. The prospect of seeing whether these players can do what their predecessors couldn’t – win the World Cup - excites, but you sense that much could depend on how the defence, together for the first time in a major champion, copes. With an attack likely to create the chances, the central defensive pair of Ooijer and Mathijsen, along with the emerging manager in van Basten, could be the keys. Argentina also have a similar template to Holland, relying on pace and width to break down defences. Just how spoilt is the astute Jose Peckerman? Messi and Tevez are two of the emerging world superstars, quick and technically superb, but the support cast isn’t bad either – Riqueleme, Saviola, Aimar, Crespo and two exciting youngsters in Rodrigo Palacio and Lucho Gonzalez. So many small and nibble players one can only expect Argentina to play an up tempo ball-on-ground style, which both Serbia and Ivory Coast will attempt to upset with a physical style of game. Serbia particularly offers major intrigue, relying on a disciplined and organised back four of Gavrancic, Krastajic, Vidic and Dragutinovic, the potency of Stankovic and Kezman in attack and the clever work of manager Ilija Petkovic. They will sit back and try and frustrate both Holland and Argentina, relying on the counterattack. Watching these sides try and break them down should be fascinating. Ivory Coast also uses a physical game, relying on the power and goals of Drogba up front and the experience of Kolo Toure at the back, but Henri Michel has moulded a team that can also play. Had they been in an easier group, an upset or two may have been possible.
Crucial clash? The final game between Holland and Argentina on June 21 could obviously decide who tops the group, but such is the quality in this group that every game is like a mini final.
Upset potential? Huge. Argentina and Holland might be favorites, but Serbia will make life very tough and could ‘do a Greece’ and defend their way deep into tournament. Ivory Coast also have the quality to spring a surprise, but a lack of experience means it’s hard to see them getting out of this group.
Most looking forward to seeing? Everything about this group. Dirk Kuijt has been scoring over 20 goals a season for the past three years for Feyenoord and is one of the most sort after strikers around, but he might have to play second fiddle to van Nistelrooy, who looks up for this. Messi and Tevez could be anything. Is this their time? Who has the patience and quality to break down the Serbian defence? Will Drogba cause headaches for the Dutch and Argentine rearguards? Or will some silly mistakes and ill discipline bring about Ivory Coast’s demise?

Group D – Portugal moving towards bigger and better things

PORTUGAL, led by Big Phil Scolari and coming off a second place at Euro 2004, appear to be the stand out and could romp through a group containing Mexico, Iran and Angola, which could then provide the confidence for a serious assault on the title. Finally the nation that has underachieved has rid itself of the so-called ‘golden generation’ from the 1991 world youth championship, which failed to ever achieve anything at senior level, other than gaining a reputation for surrounding the referee. The icebreaker was Scolari. Out went the old, in came the new, a generation of winners, many graduates of the Porto Champions League success under Mourinho. The likes of Deco, Carvalho, Ferreira, Costinha and Maniche form the backbone of a side that, when mixed with the pace and guile of Figo, Ronaldo and Simao and the finishing of Pauleta, could go one step further than ’04. Much could depend on how well they replace injured Andrade in central defence. If Meira does well, keeper Ricardo is mistake-free and Pauleta keeps bagging the goals, then don’t be surprised to find the Portuguese alive at the business end. Their biggest test should be Mexico, one the world football’s biggest improvers over the past decade, but an improving Iran will be no pushover either. This group isn’t the most physical and should suit the smaller Mexicans, who will have time to string their passes. Coach La Volpe has been under fire for leaving out Blanco, followed by a couple of recent losses, but is hoping an experienced squad containing the likes of Marquez, Borgetti, Pardo, Morales and 37 year old Claudio Suarez can pull them through. Their opening battle with Iran could prove decisive and they would do well not to underestimate a team with a strong German connection. Mahdavikia, Karimi and Daei are the veterans, supported by some emerging talents like Hashemian and Nekounam, both prominent in the qualifiers. Less in known and expected of Angola, and it appears they won’t have the quality to do to their former Portuguese rulers what Senegal did to France four years ago. At the very least they should unearth a couple of eye-catching performers.
Crucial clash? Mexico’s opening clash with Iran should decide who progresses along with Portugal.
Upset potential? With Angola not expected to win a game, Iran, well coached by Croatian Branko Ivankovic, could well spring a surprise if underestimated by seeded Mexico or Portugal.
Most looking forward to seeing? The Portuguese midfield is hot the trot, the names just flow - Figo, Deco, Ronaldo, Simao, Maniche, Tiago, Petit, Costinha, Boa Morte and Viana - but the most intriguing aspect is whether Pauleta can score regularly, particularly in the knockouts. He hasn't produced it at past tournaments, but if he gets five or six, not only will he go close to winning the golden boot, but Portugal will go a long way. Also interested is whether Mexico can continue playing their attractive and effective passing game, or whether Ivankovic has some tactical tricks up his sleeve for Iran. Expect to see a few go past Angola’s keeper Ricardo.

Stay tuned for more group previews, including Australia's Group F, and post a comment if you have any thoughts on groups C and D.


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