World Cup Preview: Group C
The 2010 FIFA World Cup kicks off in six weeks today, close enough that you can start to hear the vuvuzelas and smell the biltong. Continuing his preview of this summer (winter)’s events, Dotmund has now reached Group C, where he will do his best to cover the large three lions tattoo on his face and behave in the sort of balanced way we like here at Twohundredpercent. Let’s see what he discovered, with his little notebook at his side.
Qualification 1st place in UEFA Group 6 FIFA Ranking 7 Best World Cup Winners (1966) Last World Cup Quarter final (P5 W3 D2 L0 F6 A2 (2006)) Head coach Fabio Capello (since November 2008) Most capped player Peter Shilton 125 (1970-1990)Top goalscorer Bobby Charlton 49 (1958-1970).
If you look at it dispassionately, England have an outstanding record in international football, for a country of their size. However, football doesn’t really do dispassionate much, and so inflamed rage is very much the order of the day at their “failure” to win anything for the last 44 years. Could 2010 change all that? Well, as usual, of course it could. Will it? With England, it’s difficult to ever know for sure.
They qualified very well. Drawn in a group with their Euro 2008 qualifying tormentors Croatia, they summarily dismissed them 4-1 in Zagreb and then 5-1 at Wembley. Indeed, England were unbeaten throughout qualifying until after their passage to South Africa was secured and they succumbed to a tame 1-0 loss to Ukraine in Dnipropetrovsk. Better than the results, though, were some of the performances, as coach Capello managed to thrash some teamwork into his thoroughbred charges, a quality so often lacking in England’s play in recent years.
From a squad point of view, England have some of the very finest footballers in the world at their disposal. Strength in depth is more likely to be their problem: with their first eleven all fit and talking to one another, they can be a match for any team in the international game, but there are question marks over some of the replacements should that best XI have to be broken up, for reasons of injury, suspension or sexual intrigue.
The spine of the team is fairly settled. Erstwhile team captain John Terry of Chelsea joins his successor Rio Ferdinand of Manchester United at the heart of defence, Chelsea’s Frank Lampard will occupy a central midfield position whilst Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard is likely to occupy more of a libero role, maybe cutting in from the left flank. Up front, England rely on the little and large combination of Tottenham Hotspur’s 6’7″ Peter Crouch, with the splendid record of 20 goals in 37 internationals, and Manchester United’s all-action deep-lying forward Wayne Rooney. England’s best player and top scorer in qualifying with 9 goals in 9 games, Rooney’s fitness is very much key to England’s fortunes. As well as his all-round team play, there’s no-one waiting in the wings who can replace him. Jermaine Defoe of Spurs matches him only really for height, whilst Aston Villa’s Emile Heskey serves as a back-up for Crouch’s holding role.
Rigorous proponents of the 4-4-2, it’s the extremities of the pitch that are more problematic. Although the right-hand side presents a range of enviable problems, with Glen Johnson of Liverpool, Micah Richards (Manchester City), Aaron Lennon (Spurs), James Milner (Aston Villa) and Shaun Wright-Phillips all in possible starting contention. Left full-back is more of a problem. Ashley Cole’s broken ankle and Wayne Bridge’s international retirement have thrust Stephen Warnock (Blackburn Rovers) and Leighton Baines (Everton) to the fore, but neither have much experience at the highest level. Goalkeeping duties, too, are as unsettled as they have been since the retirement of David Seaman. Rob Green of West Ham will most likely get the nod, but Portsmouth’s veteran David James has had a distinguished season in difficult circumstances, and would be hard done by to miss out on his third finals. As for a third-choice, Chris Kirkland of Wigan or Joe Hart of Birmingham City are the most likely choices. Or Paul Robinson of Blackburn Rovers. Or Ben Foster. Or or or. Can a team who doesn’t honestly know its strongest line-up really challenge for the trophy?
In Fabio Capello, though, England have a very safe pair of hands. The hugely successful Italian coach has brought discipline to the national set up in England, and he’s unlikely to be heading into his first World Cup as a manager (he was in the Italy team for the 1974 tournament as a player) without his normal rigorous preparations. Capello is a winner, it’s just up to whether or not the players let him down.
Qualification 1st place in CONCACAF 4th round FIFA Ranking 16 Best World Cup Third place (1930) Last World Cup First round (P3 W0 D1 L2 F2 A6 (2006)) Head coach Bob Bradley (since December 2006) Most capped player Cobi Jones 164 (1992-2004) Top goalscorer Landon Donovan 42 (2000-present).
2010 could be the time for the USA’s men’s football team to start fulfilling their potential. For almost two decades now, since their own World Cup in 1994, the woman’s game has very much dominated the American football fan’s affections, with their fabulously successful international side. With that team now being overshadowed by European sides, however, and with the memory of their impressive run in last summer’s Confederations Cup (where they finished as runners-up to Brazil) still fresh in their mind, this summer could prove a watershed moment.
Their qualification for their 9th World Cup finals was pretty uneventful by the US team’s recent standards: along with Mexico, the USA are very much the biggest fish in the CONCACAF pond. It’s been 24 years since the Stars and Stripes last failed to qualify for the World Cup. The last ten years have also seen three CONCACAF Gold Cup titles, most recently finishing as runner-up to Mexico in 2009.
The American squad, too, has grown in reputation in the world game. Their most famous player, attacking midfielder Landon Donovan of LA Galaxy is well-known and respected in European league football and is already a veteran of 121 international matches despite being only 28-years old. Other mainstays of the team are similarly well-known. Captain Carlos Bocanegra played over 100 games in Fulham’s defence between 2004 and 2008 and now plays in France for Rennes. Top scorer during the qualifying campaign was Hull City striker Jozy Altidore with 6 goals. Completing the spine of the team is goalkeeper Tim Howard of Everton, now a veteran of 7 years and almost 200 Premier League matches.
Other likely members of the squad include Oguchi Onyewu of Milan in the centre of defence and FC Dallas left-back Heath Pearce. In midfield, expect to see Rangers winger DaMarcus Beasley and Michael Bradley – son of national team coach Bob – of Borussia Mönchengladbach, who played more minutes than anyone else in qualification. In attack, Fulham striker Clint Dempsey and Houston Dynamo forward Brian Ching are also likely squad members. Overall, the team are solid if not always spectacular performers, with consistency very much a byword. Their key problem is that they still let in too many goals: during their run to the final of last year’s Confederations Cup, for example, they still conceded more than they scored.
Their coach Bob Bradley was promoted from the under-23 set up after the 8 year tenure of Bruce Arena ended in a disappointing performance at the 2006 World Cup. Although the first choice of U.S. Soccer was Jürgen Klinsmann, Bradley quickly made his mark on the team and has been rewarded with consistently good results. Most notable of these so far was ending Spain’s 35-game unbeaten run in the semi-finals of last season’s Confederations Cup, but he has also presided over the national team’s biggest ever victory – 8-0 against Barbados in 2008 – and two runs to the CONCACAF Gold Cup final, including one title. In fact, the USA under Bob Bradley have never failed to reach at least the final of any tournament they’ve entered.
Qualification 1st place in CAF 3rd Round Group A FIFA Ranking 27 Best World Cup First round (1982 & 1986) Last World Cup First round (P3 W0 D1 L2 F1 A5 (1986)) Head coach Rabah Saâdane (since 2007 (also 1981-82, 1985-86, 1999 and 2003-04)) Most capped player Mahieddine Meftah 107 (1990-2006) Top goalscorer Abdelhafid Tasfaout 34 (1990-2002).
Algeria enter their third World Cup finals having never qualified for the second stage. However, it’s worth remembering that in 1982, this was largely due to the ludicrous spectacle of West Germany and Austria entering their final group game knowing that a 1-0 win for the West Germans would guarantee both sides’ passage. Algeria’s spirited displays in Spain that year – they won two of their three games, including a famous victory against a typically excellent West German team in their opening match – were the first glimmering of the African game achieving prominence on the world stage, and were very poorly rewarded by the rules, which were duly changed as a result.
There are a whole generation of football supporters, then, unlikely to begrudge Algeria any success in the international arena. However, it has been a whole generation since they last won that honour, which they did on the after the final weekend of the CAF 3rd round, in an achingly tense tiebreaking play-off against rivals Egypt. The majority of today’s Algerian team were toddlers the last time the Desert Foxes qualified for the World Cup, whilst over half of the final 23-man squad are unlikely to have been born at the time of the Spanish controversy in 1982.
Now, as then, this squad will be comprised roughly of half home-based players and half who play abroad, the difference now being that instead of just France, the best Algerian players now ply their trades in European countries as diverse as Italy, Greece, Germany, Spain, England and Scotland. The mainstay of the qualifying games was a home-based player, ASO Chlef goalkeeper Lounès Gaouaoui. Other squad staples are likely to be Wolfsburg’s utility midfielder Karin Ziani, captain Yazid Mansouri of Lorient, also a midfielder and Algeria’s most capped current player, and Rangers centre-half Madjid Bougherra, once also of Crewe, Sheffield Wednesday and Charlton Athletic. Goals are generally spread thinly throughout the squad: in qualifying three players ended as top scorer with three strikes apiece. In addition to Ziani’s contribution from midfield, centre-back Antar Yahia of VfL Bochum and Istres forward Rafik Saïfi were the players to most regularly trouble the scorers. Saïfi is also Algeria’s most prolific current marksman, his 18 international goals putting him 6th overall in his country’s all-time list.
Perhaps the one to watch, however, is playmaker Mourad Meghni of Lazio. Since his days in France as a youth footballer, he’s been known as “Petit Zidane”, although his slight frame has left him rather prone to injury. He’s spent all but 16 games of his senior career playing in Italy for Bologna and Lazio. Now aged 26, this World Cup could be a great opportunity to make a splash on a wider stage.
Algeria’s coach is Rabah Saâdane, now in his fifth term as national manager. South Africa will also be his second World Cup – he was in the hotseat when the Fennec Foxes last made the finals tournament in Mexico 1986. Having led Algeria to fourth place in this year’s African Cup of Nations, as well as engineering Egypt’s downfall in the qualifiers for this summer’s tournament, what is his longest ever spell in charge looks to be fairly secure. For now.
Qualification Winner of UEFA play-off versus Russia (2nd place in UEFA Group 3) FIFA Ranking 29 Only World Cup First round (P3 W0 D0 L3 F2 A7 (2002)) Head coach Matjaz Kek (since January 2007) Most capped player Zlatko Zahovic 80 (1992-2004) Top goalscorer Zlatko Zahovic 35 (1992-2004).
Slovenia, one of Europe’s smallest countries and whose independence from Yugoslavia was only recognised in 1992, have a very respectable record in international football. With a population of only 2 million, the Slovene team have qualified for one European Championship and South Africa will be their second World Cup finals. This summer’s objective will be to achieve their first ever victory in these finals tournaments.
Getting there was impressive in itself, defeating Guus Hiddink’s Russia team in a play-off after having lost out to Slovakia in their group stage. Nevertheless, even their runner-up birth was an impressive achievement, as they finished 4 points clear of Czech Republic in a group which also contained Poland and Northern Ireland. Slovenia have history of being formidable opponents in UEFA qualifying competitions, in fact. In their ultimately unsuccessful campaign to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, they were nevertheless the only team to beat eventual champions Italy. Whether they can recreate this form in South Africa, we’ll have to wait and see.
One thing they may have in their favour is unfamiliarity. Very few of their players are particularly well known. Their talismanic playmaker Zlatko Zahovic retired from the international game six years ago, and no other big-name player has really leapt in to fill his boots. Such squads are, though, very much fundamental to the magic of the World Cup and assuming that they’re not a threat would be reckless in the extreme.
First names on the Slovene team sheet are Udinese goalkeeper Samir Handanovic, ever-present throughout qualifying and fundamental to the team’s stingy defence, FC Köln striker Milivoje Novakovic, who was the top scorer in qualifying, and WBA’s playmaking midfielder Robert Koren, the team captain. Other key players are Andraz Kirm, a creative winger who plays for Wisla Krakow in Poland, and defenders Bostjan Cesar of Grenoble and Miso Brecko, of FC Köln. Anxious English supporters may also remember the name Zlatan Ljubijankic, who scored the consolation goal at Wembley in 2009’s 2-1 friendly defeat. He is 26, a striker, and plays for Gent.
Youngsters who may make an impact include attacker Nejc Pecnik, who plays for Nacional in Portugal and chipped in with two goals during qualification despite only playing as an occasional substitute. Look out, too, for 19-year old midfielder Rene Krhin who plays for Internazionale.
The coach, Matjaz Kek, managed the Slovene under-15 and under-16 teams before being promoted to the senior side in 2007. Also a multiple winner of the Slovenian league title with Maribor, both as a player and a manager, he won one cap for the national side in its first year of competition after independence. Like many of his charges, he is little known outside his own country, but his record speaks for itself.
MY (useless) PREDICTION
Be it national bias, over-optimism or preposterous jingoism, it’s hard to see past England qualifying from this group. Their sternest opponents on paper are, of course, the United States. Both teams will be mindful of Germany, lurking in Group D and potentially awaiting either in the second round. This will add a little extra urge, as if any should be needed, to their group-opening fixture in Rustenburg on 12th June. However, neither of the other two teams in the group will be pushovers, despite what the British tabloid press may believe. In particular, Algeria’s recent record in big games looks noteworthy.
2. United States