Wednesday, June 16, 2010

2010 World Cup: Group H Preview

Group H





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


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…


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.


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.


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

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

2010 World Cup – Group G Preview

Group G


North Korea

Ivory Coast


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


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.


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

Monday, June 14, 2010

World Cup 2010 - Group F Preview

Group F

New Zealand

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


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.


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.


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