Tuesday, June 15, 2010

2010 World Cup – Group G Preview

Group G

Brazil

North Korea

Ivory Coast

Portugal


June 15 Brazil vs. North Korea

June 15 Ivory Coast vs. Portugal

June 20 Brazil vs. Ivory Coast

June 21 Portugal vs. North Korea

June 25 North Korea vs. Ivory Coast

June 25 Portugal vs. Brazil

Favorites: Brazil and Portugal

Brazil

Key players: Julio Cesar (Inter Milan), Maicon (Inter Milan), Lucio (Inter Milan), Kaka (Real Madrid), Luis Fabiano (Sevilla)

Joga Bonito has been dead for years. The stereotype of Brazil as a bunch of fun loving, pass-happy, goal scoring machines has been wrong for the last two decades. To borrow a phrase from Rick Pitino, Pele ain't walkin' in that door…Socrates ain't walkin' in that door…Zico ain't walkin in that door…

But what a door they opened. From 1958 through 1986 the Brazilians played the equivalent of fast break soccer. They were the most skilled teams in the world, with the 1970 team revered as the greatest collection of players the game had ever seen. It seemed everyone else was playing a different game, a slower, crappier, uglier game.

Then everyone else got wise. The Dutch used Total Football to beat Brazil in 1974. Argentina piped them in 1978. The Italians famously upset them in 1982, with the French doing the same in 1986. Argentina repeated the trick in 1990.

By the time 1994 rolled around, there was an entire generation of Brazilians that had never witnessed their team win a World Cup. The game had changed, but Brazil had not changed with it. More and better tactics were being deployed. More skilled players were popping up all over the globe. The competition had advanced, but Brazil had not, still relying on their superior skill to pass teams to death.

But things had begun to change, starting in the center. Brazil began to rely more on size and strength to supplement their skill. The 1994 team was captained not by swashbuckling Romario, but hard-man Dunga. The team moved to a new system, one where the fullbacks provided the width by bombing down the wings, while the center of the team deployed two defensive midfield players to hold up the other team. Brazil had morphed into a defensive, counter-attacking squad right under everyone's noses.

And it worked. They won USA 94. They were beaten in the Finals of 1998 only through the sickness of Ronaldo and the brilliance of Zidane. In 2002 they beat Germany in the Final. The mojo was back. Only when Brazil attempted to revert back to a pretty offensive machine in 2006 was the team unsuccessful, falling once again to Zidane and France, but this time in the quarterfinals. That team, dominated by party boys and offensive flair players Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, and Adriano, was pelted with stones and fruit by disgruntled fans. Apparently Brazilians now enjoyed winning more than fancy passing.

That may be why they chose Dunga to coach this World Cup team. The centerpiece of the transition from slick passing to hard tackling Brazil in the 90s, Dunga immediately purged the team of the Adrianos, Romarios, Ronaldos and Ronaldinhos of the world. In their place stood Gilberto Silva, Lucio, and Julio Baptista. Bigger, faster, stronger, harder. Winners united in a common goal of winning a World Cup.

And win they have. Brazil won the South American qualification, including thrashing Argentina 3-1 in Buenos Aires. It won the Confederations Cup by coming back to beat a game USA team 3-2. All on the back of stifling defense and a dynamic counter-attack.

That attack is led at the top by Luis Fabiano, Sevilla's silky smooth goal scorer, but the creative engine lies behind him in Kaka, and around him in Brazil's bombing fullbacks: Maicon and Michel Bastos. They provide width for the team and spread out the other team's defense making it possible for the goals to come from Fabiano, Julio Baptista, or Robinho.

The strength of the team lies in defense. Julio Ceasar is the best goalkeeper in the world. Lucio is one of the best central defenders. Gilberto Silva provides experience, as does Juan. Brazil will soak up your pressure, and then drill you on the counter, working the ball to their freight train fullbacks and then forward to Kaka and finally, Luis Fabiano.

It's not very attractive to non-soccer fans. It's certainly not the style people come to expect from Brazil. What it is is effective. A weakness? There aren't too many. The most glaring is the lack of a creative attacking player to replace Kaka should become injured (as he often is) or prove ineffective (as he was for large parts of this season in Madrid). Dunga's faith in Julio Baptista off the bench tries the patience of many Brazilians eager to see young starlets Neymar and Pato, or old masters like Adriano or Ronaldinho get a run in.

None of that will happen under Dunga. He is a team oriented, results driven coach, and Julio Baptista has delivered for him, Kaka is the last man to ever go drinking, and Lucio would head butt through a brick wall if it meant preventing a goal. If ever there was a team that resembled its coach, it is this one. What they don't resemble is everyone's fantastical idea of Pele and Socrates leading the samba line. What they do resemble is the likely tournament champion.

North Korea

Key players: Jong Tae-Se (Kawasaki Frontale), Hong-Yon Jo (FC Rostov)

In 1966, a small, isolated nation shocked the world in the World Cup. No, not England…North Korea! The DPRK went to England that year as an unknown quantity. No one knew who they were, much less what they would do. Certainly they would be going back home soon.

The first game followed the script as the Soviets destroyed the North Koreans 3-0. But in the second game, things seemed to change. North Korea tied Chile 1-1. That set up a match between the upstarts from Pyongyang and the heavily favored Italians. The Azzuri sauntered in overconfident (and likely hung over), fell behind in the first half, and couldn't breach the North Korean's defense in the second. DPR 1, Italy 0. When they went back home, the Italians met their heroes at the airport and pelted them with rotten fruit. It remains the only time they have ever been knocked out in the first round of a World Cup.

Unlike Italy, North Korea has never been knocked out in the first round of the World Cup. That's mostly because they haven't been back since 66. In 2002 they were close, but when a decision went against them in a home match versus Iran, the spectators pelted the field (and the Iranian team bus) with stones. FIFA banned them from hosting any games following that and North Korea failed to qualify.

No such stone-inspired flame outs this time around. The DPRK secured qualification on June 17, 2009 by tying Saudi Arabia and advancing on goal difference. The DPRK was back! There is no confirmation that Kim Jong-Il set off a nuclear firecracker in celebration, although there is also no confirmation that he didn't. You never know with that guy.

It may take nuclear intervention for North Korea to advance in this tournament. Despite the presence of Jong Tae-Se ("the Korean Wayne Rooney") and Hong Young-Jo (the only Korean player who plays outside of Asia), the North Koreans lack punch. That might be because they play such a defensive style. It is not uncommon for the North Koreans to play 5 at the back. Like their brothers to the South, they employ an all out style of running and pressuring their opponents. According to their head coach, they qualified not on the back of their defense, but rather due to the Great Leader's care for the team. Whatever the Great Leader was doing worked as they recorded 10 shutouts in qualifying.

There is a better chance of North Korea opening the tournament in pink tutus than them pitching 3 shutouts this time. They were drawn into the "Group of Death" with tournament favorites Brazil, the most highly regarded team in Africa in the Ivory Coast, and a team led by the best player in the world not named Lionel Messi in Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal. All three will be licking their chops at playing against the North Koreans. It's hard to gauge the power and influence of the Great Leader, so you never know…but let's face it, we do know. North Korea won't be around for long. A victory would be scoring a goal, much less winning a game.

Ivory Coast

Key players: Didier Drogba (Chelsea), Yaya Toure (Barcelona), Kolo Toure (Manchester City), Salomon Kalou (Chelsea), Didier Zakora (Sevilla)

Didier Drogba burst onto the world soccer scene for Chelsea 6 years ago. Born and raised in France to Ivorian parents, he eschewed the call of his birth nation and instead opted to play for the homeland of his ancestors. After a slow start at Chelsea, he developed under then-coach Jose Mourinho into arguably the best striker in England and an international force to be reckoned with on and off the field.

Drogba does some fine things on the pitch as the most powerful player in the Premiership, but he does even finer things off it. The story of the stoppage of the Ivorian civil war has been told numerous times in numerous ways, but it always centers around the actions of Didier Drogba. The man in the middle of Chelsea's attack was in the middle of stopping rival political factions from attacking each other. He used the power of the national team to bring the two factions together. Soon thereafter a coalition government was formed and the violence subsided. A veritable Bono…only with actual, you know, results.

For the first time in a lifetime, a nation united will be watching the Ivory Coast this June. Unfortunately, they may not be watching much of Mr. Drogba. During their last friendly, Drogba's elbow was dislocated by a kick from a Japanese defender (a defender who was born in Brazil, one of Ivory Coast's opponents…let the conspiracy theories begin!). He immediately left the field and underwent an operation. He insists that he will be healthy and ready to play. We shall see.

While Drogba has united the country, apparently he cannot unite his team. The Ivory Coast is a notoriously fractured squad, with two distinct camps of players on the squad, neither of which likes the other. Their soccer federation isn't helping. They fired their Bosnian coach after a poor African Cup of Nations campaign and hired serial wandering manager Sven Goran Ericksson. With only a few games to evaluate his squad, the credible Ericksson may not be able to achieve the cohesion he desires.

If the Ivory Coast do decide to set aside their differences and play together, they are a formidable force going forward. Led by Drogba up front and Saloman Kalou and Gervinho alongside, the Ivory Coast favor a 4-3-3. While they have three quality strikers, none of them provide much width, and their best players in midfield (Yaya Toure and Didier Zakora) don't help much in providing width either, preferring to play through the middle. If there is any width to be had, it will come from marauding fullbacks Tiene and Eboue.

The problem with that strategy is that it will further expose the Ivory Coast's extremely vulnerable defense. Eboue is talented, but moreso going forward and with his notorious temper is a red card waiting to happen. Tiene is his mirror image on the other side. In central defense, Kolo Toure is well past his prime and was poor this season for Manchester City. Sitting in front of them is the recently benched Didier Zakora. If the Ivory Coast is to win any games, it will be by outscoring their opponents.

They must start by outscoring Portugal. This will be tricky, as Portugal has great wing players who can take advantage of the Ivory Coast's weakness on the outside. Plus, Portugal's central defender Ricardo Carvahlo has experience dealing with Drogba every day, as they both play for Chelsea. And that's a healthy Drogba, not a Drogba with only one good wing.

Wings will be key to this year's Cup. Specifically Drogba's arm and the Ivory Coast's outside defense. The Ivory Coast have the continent's best player and its most talented team. But internal strife, disorganization, a difficult group, and untimely injuries may have undone Les Elephants before the tournament even starts. If there is one man who can unite a national team, it would seem to be the man who united an entire country. If he does and the Ivorians make it out of the group, look to the entire continent to rally behind them.

Portugal

Key players: Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid), Liedson (Sporting Lisbon), Ricardo Carvalho (Chelsea), Simao (Atletico Madrid), Pepe (Real Madrid)

In 1969, Dr. Laurence Peter developed a management treatise entitled "The Peter Principle." The main theory of the book is that some members of an organization are promoted as long as they work competently. Eventually, those people are promoted to levels where they are no longer competent, and there they remain. In time, Peter states, every post in an organization will be occupied by an employee incompetent to carry out his duties.

In the Godfather, Tom Hagen was Don Vito Corleone's consigliere. He advised the family leader on legal matters and strategy for running the family business. Tom never pushed to be the #1 man, knowing that he never could take the place of Vito's three natural born sons (Tom being adopted). So he settled into a role as the #2, always there to offer good advice, but never a threat to usurp the power of the leader, as he is loyal to the end.

Carlos Queiroz arrived in Manchester in 2002, having been appointed as Sir Alex Ferguson's #2 at Old Trafford. Before that, he had been the failed manager of the Portugese national team, and the failed manager of Sporting Lisbon (by Lisbon's standards). When he arrived, Manchester United trailed Arsenal by a country mile and it appeared Arsenal would win their second Premier League title in a row at the expense of Ferguson's United. But Queiroz seemed to revitalize the Old Scot and his team. United went on a late season tear while Arsenal faltered, with United winning the title on the penultimate day of the season.

Queiroz was hailed as a genius, and off to Real Madrid he went. After 10 months as their head coach he was fired and it was back to Manchester United in 2004. Back in England, Jose Mourinho had taken over at Chelsea and usurped United's position in the League. Chelsea won back to back titles and seemed poised to take another. Queiroz is credited for securing United's back line and developing its 4-5-1 formation that saw it win the Champions League for the first time in almost a decade and three straight Premier League crowns. Once again, his service as a #2 was invaluable.

Once again he was promoted to a #1, this time as manager for the Portuguese national team. He took over a team led by one of the most dynamic wingers on the planet in Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese were in a bit of a transition following the retirement of some of their "golden" generation, but they still possess some of the best talent in the world in attack and defense.

Queiroz immediately began to run them into the ground. Placed in a World Cup qualifying group with Denmark and Sweden, the Portuguese were seen as the overwhelming favorite. They immediately lost at home to Denmark, conceding 3 goals in 3 minutes. Then, the unthinkable happened as the tied lowly Albania…at home. A late flurry saw them qualify for the playoffs by beating Hungary and Malta while the Swedes faltered. In the home and home series they drew Bosnia and defeated them 1-0 over both legs.

Portugal was saved. Barely. Then they drew the Group of Death with the Ivory Coast and Brazil. Almost as worrying for the Portuguese will be a North Korea team that parks the bus in front of goal. After a recent 0-0 draw with Cape Verde, anything is possible with this squad.

But what a squad it is. Led by Cristiano Ronaldo on the outside, the do it all winger is one of the fastest players on earth in addition to being one of the best free kick takers this side of David Beckham. He is good with his head as well as his feet, and is only one season removed from one of the greatest goal scoring seasons in Manchester United history.

With such a dynamic player, why do the Portuguese struggle to score? Because they play him in a position that makes it easier to mark him and more difficult for him to get the ball. Queiroz refuses to put Ronaldo up front, instead relying upon Brazilian import Leidson to do the scoring. Ronaldo remains on the wing, sending crosses into a player that has trouble converting them. Leidson, meanwhile has taken over the typical role of a Portuguese striker: 1) he's from Brazil, and 2) he can't score.

The rest of the team is excellent. Ricardo Carvalho is getting older, but is still a talented center back, as is his partner Bruno Alves. Pepe is coming off of knee surgery, but when healthy, he provides a center back's height and strength with a midfielder's agility as he roams in front of the central defense.

The problem is not keeping other teams from scoring, it's scoring themselves (ironic that a team with noted playboy Cristiano Ronaldo has trouble scoring). Even without the injured Nani, the Portuguese should be scoring goals for fun, but the defensive Queiroz refuses to alter his plans, refuses to adapt to his team's talent to counter its weaknesses. It is well within the realm of possibility to see the Portuguese go through against a divided Ivory Coast and an impotent North Korea (it also would not be surprising to see a 0-0 draw with North Korea). It is even possible to see them getting past Spain.

But it is not likely with Queiroz in charge. A man promoted for competence as a #2 has proved incapable of success as a #1. The ultimate consigliere has shown himself to be incapable as a capo. Portugal has the talent to beat anyone and is a legitimate dark horse, but given the man in charge, they're likely to be swimming with the fishes not too long after the group stage.

Group G Predictions sure to go wrong:

June 15 Brazil 4 vs. 0 North Korea

June 15 Ivory Coast 1 vs. 2 Portugal

June 20 Brazil 3 vs. 2 Ivory Coast

June 21 Portugal 0 vs. 0 North Korea

June 25 North Korea 0 vs. 3 Ivory Coast

June 25 Portugal 1 vs. 2 Brazil

Brazil 9

Portugal 4

Ivory Coast 3

North Korea 1

Brazil and Portugal advance

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