Monday, June 14, 2010

World Cup 2010 - Group F Preview

Group F

Italy
Paraguay
New Zealand
Slovakia

June 14 Italy vs. Paraguay
June 15 New Zealand vs. Slovakia
June 20 Italy vs. New Zealand
June 20 Slovakia vs. Paraguay
June 24 Paraguay vs. New Zealand
June 24 Slovakia vs. Italy

Favorites: Italy and Paraguay

Italy

Key players: Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Andrea Pirlo (AC Milan), Daniele De Rossi (Roma), Giorgio Chellini (Juventus), Alberto Gilardino (Fiorentina)

You know you’ve made it in the world when your name becomes an adjective. Niccolo Machiavelli made it in 16th century Italy and is still making it today. Back then, Machiavelli wrote a tight little treatise called The Prince, wherein he advised a young monarch-to-be to act ruthlessly and practically in ruling his territory. The ruler should cajole where necessary, kill if he has to, but above all, must never lose sight of the ultimate goal: victory. Machiavelli has never had a more devoted follower than the Italian national soccer team.

The marriage of Machiavellian political thought with soccer strategy has been very successful. The Italians have won as many World Cups as Germany, and trail only Brazil in the race for the most victorious nation. How they do it is…well…Machiavellian. If you’re losing and need a hand ball from the other team to get a penalty, well…you shoot the ball at their hand. If you’re losing and you need to remove the other team’s best player from the game…well…you call his sister a whore and wait for him to head butt you. If you’re having trouble scoring a goal…well…you flop around like a fish and wait for the referee to grant you a penalty.

The single-minded pursuit of victory led the Italians to popularize catenaccio, a defensive system that locks the opponent down and waits for them to make a mistake. Then, once the mistake is made, the Italians capitalize, break at full speed, and take their chance at goal. It isn’t very pretty, but it is effective. The Italians don’t really care what you think about how they get to the goal, just as long as they get it.

Machiavelli was born in 1469, which makes him slightly younger than much of this Italian team. After a disappointing European Championship campaign in 2008, Italy decided to sack its young coach Roberto Donadoni and re-hire the man who led them to the World Cup in 2006: Marcello Lippi. Lippi immediately decided to get the band back together. Out went any suggestion of new blood. Giuseppi Rossi, Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano need not apply. Why mess with success? If you weren’t on the 2006 team, you might as well not even bother to try out.

Instead Italy brought back Fabio Cannavaro, the player of the year in 2006, but who hasn’t been close to world class since. Mauro Camorenesi, Gennaro Gattuso, and Gianluca Zambrotta are all warriors of a bygone age, well over 30 and past their primes. Yet, they all have prominent places in this Italian squad.

It is a squad that will find it difficult to play against younger, faster teams. Mexico passed them off the park in a recent friendly. It is also a squad already devastated by injury. Andrea Pirlo is the man who makes Italy go offensively. He sits in front of the defense and sprays passes around the field. He’s so good, the position he plays has been named “the Pirlo role.” Take that Machiavelli.

But Pirlo is already injured, and without him Italy will find it more difficult to score. If they are to get to the goal, it is likely to come from a broken play, a set piece, or a mistake by the other team. Then the professional poachers up front in Gilardino and Iaquinta can bang in a cross or a well played pass.

A bigger problem lies in defense. Four years ago Fabio Cannavaro was a good but overrated central defender who played a vital role in Italy’s championship. He parlayed that into a ridiculous contract from Real Madrid and proceeded to stink out the joint for the next four years. Unfortunately for Italy, Marcello Lippi seems to have slept through that time because Cannavaro is back in central defense. Fortunately for him, he has Daniele de Rossi in front of him, Gigi Buffon behind him, and Giorgio Chellni next to him to make up for his slow pace and inevitable errors in defense. With Cannavaro in such a central role, Italy may be hard pressed to live up to their defensive pedigree.

Like the Germans, one must never count out the Italians, no matter how old, slow or uncreative they may seem. Lesser Italian sides have seen younger, flashier teams come and go before and dispatched them 1-0 with regularity. It is quite possible that this team could do the same. With a favorable draw in the group stages, they could easily make it to the knock out round and face perennial underachievers like Portugal or Spain, lull them to sleep, and then beat them on one free kick.

It is hard to imagine them getting much further than that. Given the age of their team and the altitude in South Africa, half their team could be in a wheelchair by the round of 16 and dead by the semi-finals. But if there is one team that could win a game with 10 dead players and one lively striker, it is Italy. All it takes is one calculated dive in the penalty area, one flop to get a red card from the other team, one well placed kick to the other team’s star player’s groin. In Italian soccer winning, like politics, has no relation to morals. Machiavelli would be proud.

Paraguay

Key players: Roque Santa Cruz (Manchester City), Paulo da Silva (Sunderland), Nelson Valdez (Borussia Dortmund), Lucas Barrios (Borussia Dortmund), Oscar Cardozo (Benfica)

Salvador Cabanas got a late start. He was a midfielder by trade for much of his early career, bouncing between teams and never making his mark. Then, with his career going in neutral, he was moved up front, an unusual position for someone so short (5’8). It immediately paid dividends. Cabanas was the top scorer in the Chilean league in 2003, top scorer in Mexico in 2006, top scorer in the Libertadores in 2007 and 2008. He was a man on the rise and in demand. English teams were scouting him. Spanish teams inquired for his services. He was ready to lead the line for his country in the World Cup.

On January 25, 2010, Salvador Cabanas walked into a bar in Mexico City and did not walk out. What happened between the time he sauntered into a nightclub and 5 in the morning is disputed. Cabanas says he was trying to stop a robbery, others say he was playing Billy big boots and got what he deserved. One thing is certain, Cabanas walked in as a man on top of the world and was carried out with a bullet in his skull.

A bullet that still remains in his skull, as it is too close to his brain to remove. Not surprisingly, Cabanas will not be in the Paraguay squad for this year’s World Cup. Given his age and, you know, the fact that he has a bullet in his skull, likely rules Cabanas out for any World Cup in the future. It is unfortunate, because his absence likely rules out any long run for Paraguay in this year’s tournament.

One might scoff at the idea of Paraguay making any sort of challenge, yet they were one point away from beating Brazil and topping South American qualifying this year. They play an open style of football when they can, but also are very adaptable, and will revert to a defensive shell when necessary. They beat Brazil and Argentina in qualifying, giving as good of a game on the road as they did at home.

And then their best scorer was shot in the head and it all changed. Without Cabanas, Paraguay must rely on old Roque Santa Cruz up front. Santa Cruz has been non-existent at Man City and has not been healthy all season. Alongside him will be young playmakers Nelson Valdez and Lucas Barrios, both of whom ply their trade in Germany. If fit, Oscar Cardozo could also play up front (hopefully in place of Santa Cruz), and he is one of the most in-form strikers in Europe this season. With these playmakers, Paraguay often display a 4-3-3 attacking style game that pressures their opponents. They control the ball with skill like a typical South American team, playing defense by obtaining possession and not letting the opponent get the ball.

But Paraguay are no pushovers, they are adaptable. They also revert to their traditional hard, defensive brand of soccer when the occasion calls for it. Justo Villar captains the defense from his position in goal. The Villareal keeper is an excellent stopper. Da silva and Caceras are decent central defenders who mimic Paraguay’s traditional style of heavy legged, rugged defenders.

Look for Paraguay to use that style in its first game against Italy. Knowing it has weaker teams in Slovakia and New Zealand in its next two games, Paraguay will likely play for the draw against the favored Italians, open it up against the overmatched Kiwis, and then play pragmatically against the Slovakians. It could be a recipe for success. However, if the Paraguayans do fail to make an impression offensively at this year’s cup, the blame will not fall at the feet of the Italians or Slovakians. Rather, the wrath of Paraguay will likely turn north, to a small discotheque on the outskirts of Mexico City, where the hopes of a country for glory were struck down with one small bullet to the skull.

New Zealand

Key players: Ryan Nelson (Blackburn)

The Kiwis are the worst team in the World Cup. The motto of North Korea, South Africa, and Algeria is “thank God for New Zealand.” They boast a grand total of one player who plays in Europe’s biggest leagues, and no players who ply their trade for the biggest clubs in those leagues. Moreover, they start at least one player who plays in the New Zealand league. Yeah, I didn’t know New Zealand had a league either.

And yet, the little engine that could made it to the World Cup, knocking off Bahrain in a playoff by shutting them out in New Zealand. This is probably because the “little” engine isn’t so little. The Kiwis are a big bunch who would probably rather be playing rugby. Heck, they sometimes play soccer like they’re playing rugby. Big, physical, and intimidating, the Kiwis will knock you around on the field for 90 minutes.

That mentality is no better represented than in the form of their giant central defender Ryan Nelson. Nelson – who used to play in MLS, holla! – now plays for Blackburn in England. Blackburn are a team known for knocking the you-know-what out of whomever they play, so Nelson fits right in. Expect to see lots of fouls, lots of elbows, lots of other player on the ground….and lots of goals conceded.

Don’t expect to see too many goals scored. New Zealand’s aim for this tournament should be getting a shot ON goal, much less a shot to go in the goal. This is true even though they start three forwards up front. If they do manage to score, it is likely to be from Scott Smeltz, their best striker. Smeltz currently tears up the A-League in Australia. The competition is likely to be a bit better in South Africa.

Seeing as this is a New Zealand preview, federal law requires that I mention either Lord of the Rings or Flight of the Conchords. Since it would be difficult to fit Jermaine or Brett (Brit) into a soccer tale, we’ll have to go with Frodo. Think of New Zealand not as a young Frodo Baggins, making his way through Mordor to destroy a ring and defeat the might Sauron. No, think of them as the fatter, older, slower, less athletic Hobbit who was left in the Shire to tend Frodo’s fields while he went off the save the world. New Zealand has about as much of chance to make it out of its group as Frodo does of landing that big NBA contract. 3 and done for the Kiwis.

Slovakia

Key players: Marek Hamsek (Napoli), Martin Skrtel (Liverpool), Stansilav Sestak (Bochum)

Not only do individual countries have styles, so do regions of the world. South America tends to be more skilled and technically sound. Southern Europe is the same. Northern Europe tends to be more organized and defensive. Asia blends South American technique with Northern Europe organization. Africa tends to have neither but has a lot of big, fast dudes. Eastern Europe simply tends to beat the crap out of you.

Slovakia is no exception. In fact, when Czechoslovakia split up some twenty years ago, all the skill seemed to fly to the Czech side of the border. Without the Pavel Nedveds of the world, Slovakia reverted to Eastern European form, they beat on you until you quit. Slovak must be Cyrillic for beat down.

All of this generalizing is a little unfair. Slovakia do have a couple skill players. Marek Hamsik is the best known. The midfielder currently plays for Napoli in the Italian league and will be pulling the strings as an attacking midfielder. He led Napoli in goals this season with 12 and he will need to duplicate that type of form if Slovakia are to make any noise.

Other than Hamsik, Slovakia have little up front. Literally. Their most talented player might be winger Mirosalv (Butter) Stoch, the 5’8 Chelsea youth product is quick, fast and gets things done. Just don’t ask him to score with his head.

The defense is a little larger. Led by Liverpool’s Martin Skrtel, Slovakia has not conceded more than one goal in their last four games. Unlike Stoch, Skrtel is 6’3 and an imposing figure at the back. However, unlike Stoch, he’s never healthy for very long. The rust may not show in warm-up games against Costa Rica, but it might be evident with Italians and Paraguayans running at you.

The Slovaks will line up in their traditional 4-4-2, with occasional forays by the fullbacks supplementing their attack up the middle through Hamsek. This will be their attempt to provide width, however, any team that focuses on their wingers at the expense of the middle will be making a mistake. If Slovakia is to score, it is likely Hamsek who will do it. They don’t have much else.

What they do have is traditional Eastern European aggressiveness and steel, forged in the fires of communist oppression. The thought of losing a tackle in midfield to a little Frenchman is not much of a bother to people who grew up under the gray boot of Russia. In Eastern Europe you fight for what you get, which goes for a ball in midfield as much as a meal on the table. If the Slovaks are to win a game or two in this tournament, it will be because they fought harder for their meal than their opponents. Look for them to go home early and hungry.

Group F predictions sure to go wrong:

June 14 Italy 1 vs. 1 Paraguay
June 15 New Zealand 0 vs. 1 Slovakia
June 20 Italy 1 vs. 0 New Zealand
June 20 Slovakia 1 vs. 2 Paraguay
June 24 Paraguay 4 vs. 0 New Zealand
June 24 Slovakia 0 vs. 0 Italy

Paraguay 7
Italy 5
Slovakia 3
New Zealand 0

Paraguay and Italy advance

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