Friday, June 04, 2010

A Legend Passes

When I was in fifth grade, I took a trip with a couple friends to a cabin in Lake Arrowhead. We went up to play in the snow. At some point on that trip, as the college basketball season was getting underway, I heard a radio personality say that if the Bruins were to win the NCAA championship that year, it would be their 11th in 20 years. Now, at that time I was more interested in the math, though I knew I was a UCLA fan. But it wasn't until later in life that I learned the 10 championships of which the radio personality spoke were thanks to John Wooden.

In the '90s, rooting for UCLA, leading up to their championship in 1995, I learned more about the greatness of John Wooden. And from everything I learned, he received more credit as a great person than he did as a great basketball coach. I have memories of Kareem Abdul Jabar and Bill Walton going on Roy Firestone's show with Coach Wooden and lauding the man, even moreso than they lauded the coach.

In 2005, I spent a season watching the greatest college basketball team I've ever seen, the 2004-2005 Illinois Fighting Illini. One of their signature wins came in the Wooden Tradition at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis against highly regarded Gonzaga. After the game, Coach Wooden raved about the unselfishness of Deron Williams and Dee Brown and the rest of the Illini. They thrashed Gonzaga that night, and they did it with a style that Coach Wooden loved. Their trademark was passing and shooting, and it was all on display that afternoon. In one game that season, they made 14 passes in a possession against Northwestern before hitting a three pointer. That was the type of team Coach Wooden loved. Fundamentally sound, great shooters, great passers, great defenders. They didn't wear the blue and gold, but they were a Wooden team.

A couple years ago, I got tickets to see Coach Wooden and Vin Scully give a Q&A with TJ Simers in Los Angeles. I attended the event with my parents. Until the day I die, it will be one of my most treasured memories. I got the chance to see two of Los Angeles' greatest legends hold court, and I got to do so next to my dad, my greatest role model. I've been in Illinois for about a third of my life, but I'll always be an Angeleno, and to see those two mesmerize the crowd, and to do so with my parents, is something I'll never forget.

John Wooden is more than just a great basketball coach. He was a great individual. His contributions to the game are dwarfed by his contributions to the human race. We are all better for having experienced his greatness.

RIP, Coach.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

World Cup 2010 - Group C Preview

Group C

United States

June 12 England vs. United States
June 13 Algeria vs. Slovenia
June 18 England vs. Algeria
June 18 Slovenia vs. United States
June 23 United States vs. Algeria
June 23 Slovenia vs. England

Favorites: England and the United States


Key players: Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Frank Lampard (Chelsea), Ashley Cole (Chelsea), John Terry (Chelsea), Rio Ferdinand (Manchester United)

The English have a deserved reputation for conservatism, change should only occur – if it needs to occur at all - slowly and incrementally. Soccer is no exception to this rule. England invented the game and dominated it for 50 years. Why should they change? They were so secure in their dominance, they didn’t even both to show up to the first “world cups.” Surely, these would be nothing more than the “rest of the world” enjoying a new fad. They certainly didn’t see any need to change their style of play, even after they were dominated by the Hungarians in the 1950s, the Spanish in the 1960s, the Dutch in the 1970s, the Brazilians in the 1980s, the French in the 1990s, and the Germans every time the game went to penalties.

The English style of soccer has not changed in ages. Four defensemen, four wingers, and two strikers. One tall, burly man at the front to get the ball, the other smaller and quicker to makes runs off the big burly guy and score the goals. When you get the ball, you hoof it up to the front man, or you get it to the speedy wingers who run down the sides and cross into the box for the burly front man to head it home. Strength and speed were the keys.

As was good old fashioned English grit. Skill on the ball, or quick passing were never as important as a players’ intestinal fortitude. They may not be the most stylish of teams, but they had something their Gaullic and Spanish neighbors would never have: English “endeavor.” They would simply outwork their lazy continental (or, South American) opponents and win the game by pulling up their boots and forcing the other team to submit. Style was for weaker men; resolve was for champions.

But the championships stopped coming. 1966 saw the English win the world cup (they had decided to lower themselves to compete) on home soil. They have never won it again; they even failed to qualify for USA 94. They have never made the final game since 66. But still, change comes slowly.

But it does eventually come…sort of. England finally realized that a few individuals outside of their great island fortress might know a thing or two about the game. They have hired an Italian named Fabio Capello to lead their national squad. Capello is one of the most successful club level managers in history, preaching discipline and cohesiveness.
What he has not preached is change. He has not tried to change England into something they are not: a slick passing team. Instead, he has tried to find a way to bring out what they do best (run, tackle, toughness) and while minimizing what they do poorly (pass, posses the ball). It worked in qualifying, with the English easily winning their group and humiliating their former bogey team Croatia. It has not been nearly as effective when England play the elite teams in the world: Spain beat them 2-0, Brazil 1-0.

This is not to say that the English are totally without skill. On the contrary, they have some of the most skillful players in the world. Wayne Rooney is generally considered to be the third best player on the planet. Steven Gerrard is a talismanic midfielder capable of scoring and passing with the best in the world. Rio Ferdinand is a silky smooth defender with the speed of a winger. Frank Lampard bombards down the middle of the pitch, sending rockets toward the goal. Joe Cole is a particularly skillful attacking midfielder.

But they don’t play particularly skillfully for the national squad. Instead, it is still a lot of running and long passes forward, a lot of physical play, and a reliance on speedy wingers and a burly center forward. The team has definite weaknesses. For starters, two of their best players (Lampard and Gerrard) play the same position. When they are on the field at the same time, they often get in each other’s way. Emile Heskey is a very big soccer player, but not so adept at doing anything but being big. They also have wingers like Aaron Lennon, Sean Wright-Phillips, and Theo Wolcott who are very fast, but are not very good at passing the ball or getting back to help their defense.

And that defense also has problems. Ferdinand and John Terry are getting older and have been injured. Left back Ashley Cole is generally considered to be the best in the world; right back Glen Johnson is excellent going forward but so poor in defense that he becomes a liability. They have options on the bench, but those options are either untested (Michael Dawson), painfully slow for international play (Jamie Carragher), or injured too often to be reliable (Ledley King). Their goalkeepers are either too young (Joe Hart, Robert Green) or too old (David James), and generally aren’t world class.

The English come right at you, relying on their superior strength and speed to beat you. It works against opponents who cannot match their athleticism. Fortunately for England, there are no teams in their group that can match them in that regard; however, it can make them vulnerable to counter-attacks, especially with an older defense and a right back who is so deficient defensively. And all three teams in group C are good counter-attacking teams.

Despite their troubles, the English are heavily favored to make it out of this group and have the capability to go far in the tournament. With a little good fortune (and what country doesn’t deserve a little good fortune more than the victims of the “Hand of God”?), the English could find themselves in the semi-finals or finals. And that would be a change even England would support.

United States

Key players: Clint Dempsey (Fulham), Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy), Tim Howard (Everton), Oguchi Onyewu (AC Milan)

Despite our obvious differences over the course of history, Americans usually follow the lead of the English. We use English law, English language, and take more from English culture than any other. The same is true in soccer.

The US usually plays 4-4-2, just like the English. The US relies on superior athletes, just like the English. The US lacks individual skillful players, just like the English. The US wins with organization and toughness more than passing and possession, just like the English. The US often loses because it is naïve tactically and relies more on belief than skill, just like the English.

The biggest difference is that the English have much better players. America has two players who could make the English squad: Tim Howard and Landon Donovan, two players who play positions where the English are weak (goal and wing).

But not having players as good as England’s is no crime. America has a solid, if unspectacular group of players who work well together. The attack is led by young, big Jozy Altidore up front, with either Landon Donovan or Clint Dempsey playing slightly behind, waiting to take passes after Altidore holds up the ball for them (sound familiar? It’s a very English system). Michael Bradley will often make runs from midfield into the box to support the strikers. America will use its size and strength up front on set pieces and corners to overpower smaller sides.

In midfield, the US has a couple different options. It will always play with two defensive midfielders, and, depending on the opponent, may play with three. The usual two defensive midfielders are Ricardo Clark and Michael Bradley. Bradley is bigger and more skilled going forward, Clark is strictly a defensive presence whose job is to protect a vulnerable back four from attack. On some occasions, the US will have Benny Feilhaber or Jose Torres playing out wide to add some creative passing ability. Sometimes Donovan and Dempsey will drop back to play as traditional wingers, giving the US some depth, sometimes one will sit behind the strikers, giving the US more of a diamond look and adding another body in midfield to stifle attacks before they reach the US defense.

And if there is any part of the US team that needs to be protected, it is that defense. The US centerbacks are big and slow, useful against teams that have big strikers or who rely on set pieces to score, but extremely vulnerable against teams with quick strikers who run right at you. The fullbacks are woeful. Generally slow and devoid of much skill, they are a major weakness. The US has no world class fullbacks, and if teams can get behind their midfield on the flanks, the US is in big trouble.

To top it off, the US’ best defenders are coming off injuries. Carlos Bocanegra is a centerback by trade who is forced to play fullback on the US, but he’s coming off hernia surgery. Oguchi Onyewu is a huge presence in the middle, but he missed the entire season with a knee injury. The others just play like they’re injured.

The biggest difference between the US style of play and that of the mother country is that the US plays the counter-attack, waiting for the other team to come to them, then hitting them on the break. That will play well against England who will come right at the Americans, but will probably result in boring, sloppy matches with Algeria and Slovenia, who play the same style as the US. America’s plan will be to survive against England, root for Algeria to beat Slovenia, and then beat Slovenia themselves. It cannot afford to be behind Slovenia on points going into the final day, because that will invite England and Slovenia to play for a tie which could eliminate the Americans regardless of what they do against Algeria.

This is a decent American squad with some major flaws at the back. That doesn’t bode well for a deep run in the tournament. America should expect to get out of this group, but not go much farther than that. Just another way that the US is copying the motherland…


Key players: Madjid Bougherra (Rangers), Karim Ziani (Wolfsburg)

97 years ago, Albert Camus was born in Algeria. Raised in Algiers as the son of French colonialists, Camus would go on to write a number of influential books, serve in the French Resistance, and win the Nobel Prize for Literature. One of his major philosophical works was The Myth of Sisyphus, where Camus imagines Sisyphus not as the tortured soul condemned to an impossible task for all eternity, but rather as a happy man, content in pursuing his work no matter how futile the final result may seem.

If so, the Algerian national team can look forward to some damn good times in South Africa.

Algeria is one of the worst teams in the tournament. Their most consistent trait is their inconsistency. They shocked the soccer world by beating heavily favored, three-time African champion Egypt in a one game playoff to ensure qualification. Then, less than a year later, the same Egyptian team throttled them 4-0 at the African Cup of Nations, which happened right after Algeria beat a heavily favored Ivory Coast team 3-2. You never know what Desert Fox team you are going to get.

But you do know what Desert Fox formation you will get: 3-5-2. Coach Rabah Saadane only runs one look, a packed midfield, a mobile defense, and two strikers up front to hit you on the counter. Stifle the other team in the middle of the park and use their two quality attacking players to move the ball up the field quickly and catch the other team unaware.

Those two quality players are the central defender Madjid Bougherra and the right midfield attacking player Karim Ziani. Bougherra is the reigning African player of the year, a solid central defender who leads a strong backline but can also move up field to start the attack. Ziani is the creative force in midfield, pulling the strings for the strikers.

Unfortunately for Algeria, that’s all they have. On top of that, Bougherra is injured and struggling to be fit for the tournament. Without him, Algeria are not only impotent at the front, but a mess at the back. Their recent form demonstrates as much. They were obliterated 3-0 at home by Serbia, and then on the road 3-0 by Ireland. Bougherra missed both games. He was sorely missed.

Algeria is not likely to be missed at this tournament. They play a counter-attacking style that is often dull to watch for neutrals. It’s only exciting when they don’t play it particularly well, for then the goals come in bunches for the other team. If Bougherra fails to be fit for any games, this is a strong possibility against a team like England. However, the United States and Slovenia also play a counter-attacking style, which could lead to a number of slow games in clogged up midfields. Nobody expects much from this Algerian team, and they have thrived under those types of circumstances before. But that was against lesser opposition and with a healthy side. It seems unlikely they will replicate those miracles again here.

In addition to being a writer, Camus was also a philosopher known internationally for being one of the founders of Absurdism. Any notion that Algeria will make any noise in this tournament would fit right in with Camus’ line of thinking.


Key players: Robert Koren (West Bromwich Albion), Milivoje Novakovic (Cologne), Zlatko Dedic (Bochum), Samir Handanovic (Udinese)

Slovenia is the smallest country in the world cup with a population about the size of Kansas City. Historically, Slovenia has been dominated by outsiders; the French, the Austrians, the Venetians, the Ottoman Empire, the Communist Party. If there is one seminal moment in Slovenian history, it is the Battle of Sisak. There, a coalition of Slovenians and Croats held off an attack from a far superior Ottoman Empire force; defending to the last man as the Ottomans laid siege to their territory.

Defense against all odds runs in Slovenia’s blood. In order to qualify for the world cup, Slovenia was up against a far superior Russian squad. One coached by the “genius” Guus Hiddink, and led by players plying their trade in Europe’s biggest leagues. Faced against such insurmountable odds, Slovenia dogged the Russians over two legs, snatched a goal in Moscow, and then held off the Russians in Slovenia to pull one of the biggest upsets of European qualifying. Like Algeria, they were not supposed to be here.

And like Algeria, they play defensive football. The most common words used to describe the Slovenian team are “disciplined,” “organized,” and “hard working.” They are dogged defenders who play a possession style of soccer designed to get the ball out of your hands (feet?) and keep it from you. Think South Korea, only a bit bigger.

Their best players are currently playing abroad, but doing so at smaller clubs on smaller stages. Robert Koren is the key to the Slovenian offense. An attacking midfielder at West Brom in England’s Championship league, he is the link between the Slovenian defense and its counter-attack. Novakovic and Dedic are the spearhead of that attack; a pair of strikers who will be the targets of Koren’s passes.

What Slovenia lacks in talent, it makes up for in organization. Matjaz Kec took over the Slovenian team before this world cup qualifying cycle and immediately began to remake them. Abandoning the traditional Yugoslavian/Balkan style of attacking soccer, he instituted a defensive 4-4-2 system based on possession and the counter-attack. Using Koren as his linchpin, he formed an organized defense that was extremely difficult to breakdown, and a transition from defense to attack that was difficult to stop.

It has been wildly successful. They qualified out of a group with traditional powers the Czechs and the Poles (albeit, not traditional Polish or Czech quality teams). In the ten qualifying games, they only allowed 4 goals. Beating Russia was no mean feat, including shutting them out on home soil. Following that, they gave future opponent England all it could handle in losing 2-1 in Wembley and thumped Qatar 4-0. Slovenia’s defense should not be ignored.

Nor should its attack. While it lacks the firepower of England (or even the US), it plays a style that is extremely effective at turning its own defense into attack. Slovenia poaches its goals here and there from teams caught napping.

But this is the main stage, where it is more difficult to find teams unaware. Slovenia will be tested in this group by a mix of teams that will not play into their hands. The Americans and Algerians are not attacking teams, and will be satisfied to let their superior athletes overpower the Slovenes, daring them to come out of their shell. England will challenge the Slovenes much like Russia, only the English have more athletes and one of the best strikers in the world.

If Slovenia is to make it through, it will likely be at the expense of the US, and they have a big advantage in that regard: the schedule. The US must start with England, while Slovenia plays Algeria. If the expected happens and Slovenia and England win their opening matches, then Slovenia will only need a tie against the US to go into the last day in a favorable position. Assuming England beat Algeria, both Slovenia and England will only need a tie to advance. If history has told us anything, it is that teams in the world cup will only do whatever is necessary to advance, and a tie in such a situation is far from out of the realm of possibility.

Slovenia, through its defense and its schedule, is the main competition for the Americans in this group. The US-Slovenia match will likely decide who is the runner-up to the English. Look for the Americans to win that match, but don’t look for the Slovenes to go quietly, just prepare to be bored by two teams sitting around and waiting for the other to make its move. A recipe for boredom for fans, but just what the Slovenes ordered.

Group C predictions surely to go wrong:

England 3 vs. United States 1
Algeria 0 vs. Slovenia 1
England 4 vs. Algeria 1
Slovenia 1 vs. United States 2
United States 3 vs. Algeria 0
Slovenia 0 vs. England 1

England 9
United States 6
Slovenia 3
Algeria 0

England and the United States advance

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

World Cup 2010 - Group B Preview

Group B

South Korea

The favorites: Argentina and Nigeria


June 12 South Korea v. Greece
June 12 Argentina v. Nigeria
June 17 Argentina v. South Korea
June 17 Greece v. Nigeria
June 22 Nigeria v. South Korea
June 22 Greece v. Argentina


Key players: Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Juan Sebastian Veron (Estudiantes), Diego Milito (Inter Milan), Javier Mascherano (Liverpool), Walter Samuel (Inter Milan)

It must be hard to be a genius. I certainly wouldn’t know. But it seems that geniuses have a difficult time living their lives after their days of genius are over. Even tougher is the genius who dares to become a soccer manager. Whereas the most successful managers were water carriers or average players, the genius just can’t seem to get his viewpoint across to his players; can’t seem to make them play the way he played. While there are exceptions to every rule, for every Johann Cruyff there seem to be three Marco van Bastens…or Ruud Gullits…or Roy Keanes….

Or Diego Maradona.

In November 2008, Argentina decided to place its most famous citizen in charge of its most recognizable export when it named Diego Maradona the head coach of its national soccer team. Maradona came to the job with an ego the size of his belly, but without any significant coaching experience. With other successful coaches available, it was a big gamble by the Argentinean football association, placing their trust in a man who has been in and out of drug rehab for most of his life, and walked away from his last, brief stint as a coach as soon as things got a little shaky.

The results have been mixed. Argentina started brightly under Diego, winning its first three matches. Then things went south in a hurry. A 6-1 drubbing to unfancied Bolivia. Losing 2-0 in Ecuador. Being run off the park 3-1 by Brazil…AT HOME! Finally, a stunning 1-0 loss to Paraguay left Argentina on the brink of failing to qualify for the tournament altogether.

Diego was prickly. The press were baying like hounds for the blood of the now-fallen hero. And it was all falling into place for disaster. Argentina – a team with more striking talent than any nation on earth – could not score at home to Peru in the middle of a torrential downpour. The unthinkable was about to happen. And then…Martin Palermo came from nowhere to stick the ball in the back of the net in the 90th+ minute and Argentina had qualified. Palermo, a Maradona favorite and late substitution in the game, had saved the savior. The genius was back.

Or is it? Argentina boasts the best collection of attacking players in the world: Messi, Higuain, Tevez, Milito, Aguero. Lionel Messi is the undisputed greatest player on the planet and the heir to Maradona’s throne as the greatest player in Argentina’s history. Milito scored the two goals that gave Inter Milan the Champions League title and is probably the most in-form striker in the world. Tevez just completed a remarkable season at Manchester City. But with so many great players, why does Argentina find it so difficult to score?

The answer may lie with Maradona. He is determined to build the team around Messi. And why not? He’s the greatest player of his generation. But the way he shines at Barcelona is due as much to the team around him as it is to the player itself, and Argentina do not seem to have figured out how to replicate the situation. At Barca, he has Iniesta and Xavi controlling the midfield with sharp passes, giving Messi space to work. He is also surrounded by fullbacks who maraud down the flanks to open up space for the little genius to move freely.

For the national team he has none of that. Maradona has surrounded him with speedy wingers in Gutierrez and di Maria and relied almost exclusively on one man to get him the ball: Juan Sebastian Veron. Unlike Xavi or Iniesta, Veron will sit deep and try to hit Messi – or the wingers – with long diagonal passes to open up space. Javier Mascherano will play the traditional role of Argentinean hatchet man, but passing the ball is not his forte, and finding Messi is not his priority. Whether this works remains to be seen, but it hasn’t set the world on fire during the qualification phase.

Another problem is in defense. Maradona inherited a team without any great fullbacks and tried to solve the problem by leaving the one great player he had who could play the position off the team (Javier Zanetti). Instead, he decides to play four center backs. Four large, lumbering, slow center backs. Teams with speed on the outside will be licking their chops. Argentina is solid in the middle, but weak in goal and on the flanks.

The last hurdle they must overcome is the man himself. Maradona’s team selection raised eyebrows all over the globe. Martin Palermo is by all accounts a nice person, and he did save Diego’s bacon against Peru, but there is no way he should be included in a squad loaded with talent up front at the expense of a player like Zanetti (or even Cambiasso) who could help at the back and to defend the wings. Apparently Zanetti isn’t Maradona’s favorite person, so he gets left off the squad for much less useful players like Maxi Rodriguez, who take orders better.

Fortunately for Argentina, Maradona isn’t very tall, so the hurdle may not be as great as it seems. They are in a weak group and should progress easily. Milito and Messi are in the form of their lives. The center of defense with Samuel and Mascherano is strong. The talent is there to overcome the weaknesses. And if they don’t make at least the semi-finals, the press in Argentina will be making the hurdle even smaller by cutting Diego down to size for the next four years.


Key players: Theofanis Gekas (Eintracht Frankfurt), Georgios Samaras (Celtic)

In the summer of 480 BCE, the Greek army was faced with a dilemma. The Persian army was approaching, threatening to overrun the small Greek city states. Outnumbered, outgunned (outspeared?), and threatened to be overrun, the Greeks made the decision to send a small division of soldiers out to meet them, find the most defensible position and hold it against all odds. It worked, as the story goes, the Greeks held off the Persian army at Thermopylae long enough for the full army to get its act together and regroup.

Fast forward a few thousand years to Portugal. A 150-1 underdog Greek team took to the fields of Lisbon against a horde of vastly superior European soccer teams determined to drive them off the pitch. Outgunned (outfooted?), out talented, and threatened to be overrun, the Greeks made the decision to defend at all costs, eschewing any attempt at offense.

It worked. The Greeks defeated the French, the Czechs, and the host Portuguese by refusing to let them score. In one of the greatest tournament upsets of all-time, the descendants of the defenders of Thermopylae were crowned winners of Euro 2004.

The Greeks bring a similar team to this year’s world cup. Otto Rehhagel is still the manager, seamlessly matching his German organization with his players’ Greek resolve. Many of the players are the same as well: Karagounis, Charisteas, and Kyrgiakos are still major players on this year’s squad, and still defending to the last. Rehhagel will pack the midfield defense, centered around Karagounis, and force teams to try to push their way through. If the other team gets sloppy, the Greeks will hoof the ball downfield and hope for a corner kick or a set piece in order to score. Rarely will they shoot the ball, content to defend and make the other team come to them.

It’s all so boring to watch. It’s not as if Greece is devoid of attacking talent, they just refuse to use it. Samaras is a decent player, Gekas has ability, and young Soritis Ninis is a fine prospect at attacking midfield, but he rarely plays. Rather than risk a defeat, the Greeks will play for a 0-0 draw every time. It is an effective strategy and, to be fair to Rehhagel, the only one that could produce a victory. It may not be pretty, but it works.

But will it work again? The Greeks advanced to the World Cup from the easiest of qualifying groups, and barely did so, having to beat Ukraine (1-0, of course) over two legs. In the run up to the tournament, Greece has been poor. It lost to non-qualifier Senegal 2-0, and then drew 2-2 with a very poor North Korea. A Greek team leaking two goals a piece to Senegal and North Korea is not a good sign.

At Thermopylae the Greeks famously sacrificed themselves to protect their way of life. For that, we in the West should be forever grateful. Now, 2000 years later, the Greeks are sacrificing attractive soccer in the name of victory. For that, we should all hope for their early exit.


Key players: Jon Mikel Obi (Chelsea), Taye Taiwo (Marseilles), Obafemi Martins (Wolfsburg), Joseph Yobo (Everton), Yakubu Aiyegbeni (Everton)

Nigerian soccer has a problem, one that is exemplified by its biggest successes. At FIFA youth tournaments, Nigerian teams are regularly champions. Nigeria has won 3 FIFA U-17 titles and been runner-up twice. While it has never won the FIFA U-20 title, it has made the finals twice. Despite its success at the youth level, it has never made a real impression in the world cup.

Why the success at the youth level but not the senior level? For one, Nigerian players are always suspected of being a little older than what their country claims them to be. Second, the players have raw talent, but no national program to mold that talent into a professional side capable of winning tournaments. Both are examples of the lack of national organization that holds Nigeria back and prevents them from amounting to anything more than a continental powerhouse.

Once again, Nigeria’s lack of a national plan has reared its head. Shortly after qualifying for the World Cup, they decided to sack their manager, displacing Nigerian Shaibu Amodu with Swede Lars Lagerback. That lack of organization spills onto the pitch, as Nigeria’s back four can be stable, but will slip up at inopportune times. Lagerback may help with that, or he may not, it’s too early to tell, which is not a good sign when the tournament starts in a week.

Nigeria is not without talent; however, that talent is confined mostly to the defensive positions and up front, leaving the Super Eagles short of midfield creativity that could leave it short on goals. Taye Taiwo is an excellent fullback, one of the best in the world. Jon Mikel Obi is a world class holding midfielder, he will sit in front of the back four, protecting Nigeria’s big, lumbering center backs from a direct attack.

But how will Nigeria attack? They have talent up front in Anichebe, Yakubu, and Martins, but no one to get them the ball. Nigeria lacks a world class attacking midfield presence. Mikel and the defense may be able to stop players going forward, but they have no one to pass the ball to and lead the counter-attack. Instead, Nigeria will look to play the ball wide to its wingers (and Taiwo bombing forward from fullback) who will then try to get the ball to its strikers from the outside in. How successful this strategy will be remains to be seen, a recent 0-0 draw with Saudi Arabia does not leave me convinced.

Nigeria are a big, physical team, which could serve them well in this group ad their main competition to advance looks to be South Korea, an organized but small squad. Argentina are a bridge too far for the entire group. If Nigeria can physically dominate the South Koreans, they are likely to emerge to the next round.

South Korea

Key players: Park Ji-Sung (Manchester United), Ki Sung-Yong (Celtic), Park Chu-Young (Monaco), Lee Chung-Yong (Bolton)

One of the wonderful things about football is that national teams often take on the characteristics of the nation they represent. French style, German organization, English toughness, Spanish flair. Nations come to expect their teams not only to win, but to win in a certain fashion. When a Brazilian team wins without style, the victory is seen in many parts as incomplete. When a Dutch team wins without tactically outmaneuvering the other squad, the manager is pilloried in the press despite the success.

All of which brings us to the South Koreans. The Korean team embodies many of the national traits we have come to associate with the country. They play hard. They are organized. They work well together. Their whole is more than the sum of their parts. They’re short.

Short in stature, but not in achievement. South Korea is the most decorated Asian team, having made it to the semi-finals (due in no small part to a number of dubious refereeing decisions) on home soil in 2002. While that is their biggest success, it is not the only one as the South Koreans have made every world cup since 1986 and steamrolled through Asian qualifying this year. They are the dominant team in Asian soccer.

They do so with an organized, ball possession style. Once the South Koreans get the ball, they keep it, connecting on short, accurate passes to move the ball down the field and keep it away from their physically bigger opponents. They lack dynamic playmakers at the main offensive positions, but get by with workmanlike performances from a number of players. Key to their possession style are their midfield dynamos Park Ji-Sung and Ki Sung-Yong. Both are adequate offensively while being tireless workers defensively, dogging their opponents into turnovers that help the South Koreans regain possession while keeping the other team from taking advantage of their small defense.

Ah, but that defense IS small. Cho Yong-Hyung and Lee Jung-Soo start at center back for South Korea and, while capable defenders, they are short. This leaves South Korea vulnerable to bigger teams with tall strikers who can take advantage of Cho and Lee on set pieces or corner kicks. The South Koreans will try to counter this by shutting down the wings to prevent crosses, and not fouling players in the middle of the pitch. Their impressive organization and work rate combines to keep many other teams off-balance, and often without the ball.

The strategy has worked in the run-up to the tournament. Since qualifying, they have beaten the Ivory Coast, Ecuador and Japan all by the same 2-0 score. Both the Ivory Coast and Ecuador are teams that traditionally give South Korea trouble (i.e.: big), but they were dispatched with relative ease. This bodes well for their matches against Greek and Nigerian sides who are both very physical.

The question for the South Koreans will be can they score. They have no proven, world class striker adept at knocking in goals. What they do have is a team approach, working together to overcome their deficiencies through teamwork and hard work. In many respects, the South Koreans have many admirable qualities; however, those qualities do not always win soccer matches. What they have in hard work, they lack in guile and style. What they have in organization, they lack in strength and power. All told, it might be enough to get them through this uneven group, but not much farther.

Group B predictions surely to go wrong:

South Korea 1 v. Greece 0
Argentina 4 v. Nigeria 2
Argentina 2 v. South Korea 1
Greece 1 v. Nigeria 1
Nigeria 1 v. South Korea 2
Greece 0 v. Argentina 1

Argentina 9
South Korea 6
Nigeria 1
Greece 1

Argentina and South Korea advance