Wednesday, June 16, 2010

2010 World Cup: Group H Preview

Group H

Spain

Switzerland

Honduras

Chile


June 16 Spain vs. Switzerland

June 16 Honduras vs. Chile

June 21 Spain vs. Honduras

June 21 Chile vs. Switzerland

June 25 Switzerland vs. Honduras

June 25 Chile vs. Spain


Spain

Key players: Fernando Torres (Liverpool), Xavi (Barcelona), Andres Iniesta (Barcelona), David Villa (Valencia), Gerard Pique (Barcelona)

Sometimes it takes the Spanish a little while to figure things out. In 1588 they had the biggest, baddest fleet in all of Christendom, the Spanish Armada. Itching for a fight, Phillip II decided to open this can of naval whoop ass on the island nation of England. After all, that saucy little tart Elizabeth I had the audacity to worship God the wrong way!

Off they went for God and country. 130 very big, very powerful ships arrayed against a bunch of tiny English schooners. In the summer they met off the coast of France. The Spanish were confident, but the English were faster. They whipped past the slower moving Spanish fleet, peppering it with cannon shot before the Spaniards had a chance to maneuver in the tight confines of the English Channel. The English went on to naval supremacy for the next 500 years, the Spanish went on to the bottom of the sea. The lesson for Spain? Sometimes small and speedy wins the race.

500 years later Spain figured it out. After decades of being soccer's biggest underachievers, the Spanish football team finally won a major tournament: the European Championships. They then followed that up by a 35 game unbeaten streak and the ranking as the world's #1 team.

That team is built on little speedy fellas who maintain possession. With all due respect to Leo Messi, the engine that makes Barcelona tick are Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez, two diminutive, speedy central midfielders who pass the ball as accurately as Tom Brady to a wide open Randy Moss. They do the same for Spain. Behind them will sit Xabi Alonso, nicking passes from the other team and sending diagonal balls to Spain's attacking winger David Silva. To top it off, Spain have David Villa up front as one of the most in-form strikers on the planet, and pair him with Fernando Torres, one of the biggest, most talented strikers in the world. Spain is so loaded offensively, their biggest challenge is which superstar to leave on the bench, with Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas seemingly the odd little man out.

Defensively Spain is also impressive. Gerard Pique has grown from Manchester United misfit to Barcelona stalwart. He will marshall the defense along with captain Carlos Puyol, he of the long flowing blonde locks. The Spanish National Team's Bon Jovi look-a-like is the heart of the team, but a little slow. The fullbacks are good going forward, but a little suspect going back. It could be an issue. But if Spain gets in trouble, they have an excellent keeper, Iker Casillas.

There aren't too many weaknesses to Spain's team, as demonstrated by their stunning ability not to lose games. They were unbeaten in 35 before a plucky United States team parked the bus and hit them on the counter attack for a 2-0 win at the last Confederations Cup. Since then Spain has reeled off another 13 game winning streak. They are the favorites in the tournament and appear unbeatable.

It took Spain 500 years to grasp the concept that small and speedy sometimes beats big and powerful. It remains to be seen if they've learned the other lesson from the Armada: overconfidence can be a killer. Spain sauntered into the US match like it knew it was better and would play the Americans off the park, then they got complacent and by the time they realized they were in a game, it was too late. If they are to lose in this World Cup, it will likely be to a team like the US that is well organized and who the Spanish take lightly. Like the Swiss…


Switzerland

Key players: Philippe Senderos (Arsenal), Alexander Frei (FC Basel), Tranquillo Barnetta (Bayer Leverkusen)

Ever since the 1500s, the Swiss have been hiring themselves out as mercenaries. From the French Kings to the Holy Roman Empire to the Pope, they all called upon the Swiss to defend them from the various renegades and barbarians lining up to take their stuff. The Swiss were quick to oblige. If the price was right, they would hire themselves out to any tyrant, despot or Pope (redundant, I know). They even put on funny uniforms.

Why the Swiss when the Germans were right there! If any country wanted a bunch of lunatics who would follow orders no matter what, you would think they would naturally turn to the Germans. No, instead they took "Germany lite." The Swiss, like the Germans, are organized, defensive, follow orders, and never give up. Only they cost less and have nicer uniforms. Sometimes sartorial splendor goes a long way.

The Swiss like the Germans so much they hired Ottmar Hitzfeld as their head coach. Not a bad choice. Hitzfeld is one of the most successful managers in the world, and is two time world manager of the year. A German math teacher by trade, Hitzfeld has won 18 trophies in his time managing football teams. He is known as a great organizer and defensive specialist and brings those skills to the Swiss national team.

He will need all his formidable skills to get this team out of the group stages. This particular Swiss team is not heavy on talent. Phillipe Senderos has been talked up by the Swiss since his days in youth football, but he has never been able to make it on the big stage. Ever since he was picked up by Arsenal as a young defender off of his performances at FIFA youth tournaments, the eyes of Switzerland have been upon the young defender. But he has failed at every step, with particularly embarrassing moments at the hand of Didier Drogba. He's recently been shipped out on loan.

While Senderos represents the failure of the Swiss to develop young elite talent, Alexander Frei represents the old guard of failed Swiss talent. Always good, but never great, and never good enough. Frei is still a competent player, but never lived up to the potential of a world class striker.

Now both represent what Switzerland has become: solid, but not spectacular, organized to a fault. The Swiss never overwhelm you with skill, but they underwhelm you with boredom. It's what they have to do to win. They simply don't have the talent to compete with the Spains and Italys of the world. What they do have is an organized 4-4-2 that will stifle your attack while presenting a textbook attack of their own.

That textbook attack comes from wingers crossing the ball into strikers. Frei and Blaise Nkufo lead the line with Nkufo holding up the ball and Frei playing slightly off of him. Wingers Padalino and Barnetta stretch the outside and provide width for balls into the strikers, who score the goals. Very textbook, very organized, very Swiss.

The defense is even more textbook. Four defenders at the back with two strong center backs and two fullbacks who get forward to supplement the wingers by launching balls forward into the danger area. A veritable treatise on how to operate the 4-4-2.

And it works. The only way the Swiss compete is by out-organizing their opponents. Flash and dash don't rule the day in Geneva, no, it is sheer competence that makes them tick. It's like the Swiss guards all over again. Always in the right place, always doing their duty, never running away from danger. That's the Swiss team in a nutshell.

Of course, the if you look back at the history of the Swiss guard, you'll see numerous examples of them being massacred at the hands of invaders or usurpers. The French revolutionaries put 600 of them to the sword. Italian insurrectionists did the same. Look for this particular brand of Swiss defenders to hold out as long as they can, but to eventually meet the same fate as their forebears. Only without the really cool looking uniforms.


Honduras

Key players: Wilson Palacios (Tottenham), David Suazo (Genoa), Maynor Figueroa (Wigan)

The United States owes Honduras. The turn of the 20th century saw a series of American invasions into Honduras in order to protect American fruit business interests. It seems the Hondurans working on the farms owned by American companies had become a little uppity, demanding outrageous things like a "living wage" or "water." How dare they?

In went the Marines. And then they went again. And again. The US invaded Honduras seven times in the first quarter of the 20th century, all to keep the price of bananas low. Bananas, the oil of the 1900s. Who knew?

Hondurans knew. They never forgot the occupation by the gringos; the repeated depredations, the housing of the murderous Contras in Honduras during the 1980s, the support of the dictatorial United Fruit Company in its never ending quest to keep Honduran citizens from earning more than a dime a day. It all added up to a multi-generational hatred of their neighbors to the north.

It took a man named Jonathan Bornstein to bridge the gap. On October 14, 2009, Honduras needed a miracle. It had defeated rival El Salvador 1-0, but required Costa Rica to lose to bitter rival the United States in order to advance to the World Cup. But the US trailed the Ticos 2-1 late in the game. The Americans were through to the World Cup no matter what, so their motivation was minimal…yet they kept advancing, kept seeking that tying goal. The game went into extra time and the minutes ticked down; Honduran hopes were rapidly fading when, out of the blue, American defender Jonathan Bornstein turned the ball into the back of the Costa Rican net. Honduras exploded. Los Gringos may not have made up for 100+ years of oppression, but they did leave a nice party gift on the way out this time. Bornstein need not worry about buying another drink in Tegucigalpa ever again.

Unfortunately for Honduras, there aren't likely to be too many Jonathan Bornstein inspired miracles in South Africa this year. Honduras are without much talent or tactical nous. They have two world class players in Wilson Palacios and David Suazo, but both are past their best and cannot be expected to make up for the lack of talent in the rest of the squad. Plus, Palacios is an injury concern.

If healthy, Palacios will roam the middle of Honduras' expected 4-4-2/4-5-1 as the designated hard man, with Suazo up front to stretch the opposing defense and take the occasional chance at goal. The rest of the team is simply not that talented. Recent friendlies have seen them drop a game to Romania while tying Belarus and Azerbaijan. Not exactly awe inspiring stuff.

Honduras is the only nation to go to war over a football match. It famously fought El Salvador in a three day war after it defeated them in a playoff to qualify for the 1970 World Cup. This time around, Honduras will be very lucky to still be fighting after its three days in the South African limelight. Expect an early exit from this bunch.


Chile

Key players: Humberto Suazo (Real Zaragoza), Alexis Sanchez (Udinese), Matias Fernandez (Sporting Lisbon), Mark Gonzalez (CSKA Moscow)

Like most South American countries, Chile was colonized by the Spanish and repeatedly used a battleground for the imperial ambitions of the European powers. Spain, the Netherlands, and the British repeatedly battled off the coast of Chile for the right to control the region's rich agricultural lands. While the foreign influence was eventually excised with the decline of Spain, it is still evident in recent Chilean history through such events as US backed coups (A US backed coup in South America? Go figure…).

Today the Chilean soccer team is under foreign influence. An Argentinean named Marcelo Bielsa became head coach with the mission of leading the Chileans back to the World Cup for the first time since 1998. He has done so by installing an attacking mentality and mixing that with tactical flexibility. That combined with a rich vein of young talent make Chile one of the dark horses in this tournament.

Bielsa's story is one of redemption. In 2002 he was in charge of a heavily favored Argentina squad many picked to win the World Cup. Instead, they floundered, going out in the group stages and even losing a game to England. Bielsa was vilified and quickly dismissed, his only opportunity came in taking over South America's worst team: Chile. In 2006 they had improved from dead last to seventh, but 2010 they were second only to Brazil.

They did it through Bielsa's 3-3-1-3 formation, which stretches the field and deploys wingers as marauders up the pitch, attempting to outnumber opposition fullbacks by combining with a wide striker to create 2 on 1's. It has worked. Chile is exciting and led by wingers Gonzalez and Fernandez ripping apart opposing defenses, and a defense that sits high up the field and dares you to go over its top.

Chile is in a group that will challenge those tactics. Any country that challenges Spain to a wide open game is asking for trouble, and Chile may revert to a more defensive style against the Spanish. Switzerland will park the bus and dare Chile to break it down. Honduras should be a non-factor and an easy 3 points. The key will be the Swiss game, with the Spanish a bridge too far, and the Hondurans a bridge too easy for everyone else in the group.

If Chile advances out of the group, it will be their best result since the 1960s. If they are to achieve that, it will be once again because of foreign influence. This time of the Argentinean variety.


Group H Predictions sure to go wrong:

June 16 Spain 1 vs. 1 Switzerland

June 16 Honduras 0 vs. 3 Chile

June 21 Spain 3 vs. 1 Honduras

June 21 Chile 1 vs. 1 Switzerland

June 25 Switzerland 2 vs. 0 Honduras

June 25 Chile 2 vs. 3 Spain


Spain 7

Switzerland 5

Chile 4

Honduras 0

Spain and Switzerland advance

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