World Cup Preview: Group H

World Cup Preview: Group H

By on Jun 4, 2010 in International Football, Latest | 0 comments

The 19th World Cup Finals kick-off in just seven days, and the impending five week surge of ill-informed tabloid jingoism is tantalisingly within reach.  Trying hard to not get carried away, but gnawing at the rope which tethers him to his kennel with excitement nevertheless is Dotmund, who today completes his in-depth look at the runners and riders for South Africa 2010.  Today, a sneaky peak at the reigning European champions, a second-time Central American qualifier, a team from a country with a lot of cheese in and a team from a country which is quite long and thin.

SPAIN

Qualification 1st place in UEFA Group 5 FIFA Ranking 2 Best World Cup Fourth place (1950) Last World Cup Last sixteen (P4 W3 D0 L1 F9 A4 (2006))  Head coach Vincente Del Bosque (since July 2008) Most capped player Andoni Zubizarreta 126 (1985-1998) Top goalscorer Raúl 44 (1996-2006).

Spain arrive in South Africa in uncharted territory: as World Cup favourites.  The reigning European champions are deserving of the role, but it will require a major improvement on their previous World Cup form for the team to live up to their expectations.  Aside from a fourth-place finish in the unusually-structured 1950 tournament – where the final six teams played one another in a round-robin – the Spanish team is yet to get past the quarter finals at the World’s biggest football tournament.  Last time out in Germany was an applied demonstration.  The team who two years later would sweep the European game began by showing glimpses of later form in an impossibly stylish 4-0 demolition of Ukraine in Leipzig.  Further wins against Tunisia and Saudi Arabia saw them top their group, but up against a wily French team in the Second Round, the young Spanish side were convincingly sent packing.

Qualifying for the 2010 tournament, however, was a continuation of their Euro 2008 form.  From ten games, ten wins with the loss of only five goals.  With the majority of their players approaching their peak and brimming with confidence, Spain look like the real deal at last.  They are not unbeatable – last year’s Confederations’ Cup defeat to the USA proved that – but it will probably take an off-day or an outstanding performance to unseat them.

Their team are growing increasingly familiar.  In goal is the captain, Iker Casillas of Real Madrid.  A true veteran at only 29 years of age, Casillas has 103 international caps as well as almost 400 appearances in the Primera Division and is one of Europe’s top goalkeepers.  His understudies – Liverpool’s Pepe Reina and Barcelona’s Victor Valdes – are unlikely to get a look-in.  Indeed, Valdes is yet to make his international debut.

In defence, the solid central partnership of Valencia’s Carlos Marchena and Barcelona’s experienced Carles Puyol is supported by flying full-backs.  Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos is typically the choice on the right and Villarreal’s Joan Capdevilla the pick on the left.  Back-up is provided by Real Madrid’s versatile Alvaro Arbeloa, whilst any changes to the central partnership will see Arbeloa’s clubmate Raul Albiol or Barcelona’s Gerard Pique step up.

Spain’s midfield is the envy of world football, an embarrassment of riches which saw a player as distinguished as Cesc Fabregas spend much of Euro 2008 as a substitute.  There are no guarantees for him this time, either.  Affairs are likely to be anchored by Xabi Alonso of Real Madrid, an irreplaceable team player, as Liverpool found out this season.  In front of him will be the Barcelona pair, the outstanding playmaker Xavi and the more forward-thinking Andres Iniesta.  Xavi had injury worries leading up to the tournament, but Arsenal’s Fabregas is a ready-made replacement should they rear their ugly head again.  Barcelona’s anchor Sergio Busquets and Atletic Bilbao’s Javi complete the back-up for central positions, whilst Valencia pair Juan Manuel Mata and David Silva offer choices on the flanks along with Sevilla’s Jesus Navas.

In attack, two of the most coveted players in Europe, Liverpool’s Fernando Torres and Valencia’s David Villa.  Both are prolific, both are quick and both are skillful.  In short, both are a nightmare for opposing teams, although Torres has had injury worries.  Bilbao’s towering Fernando Llorente and diminutive Barcelona winger Pedro complete the attacking options.

Vincente Del Bosque is the man charged with the enviable task of making all this talent work in harmony.  Succeeding the controversial but brilliant Luis Aragoñes was never going to be an easy task, but Del Bosque has seemingly made the transition as smoothly as could be hoped.  A Real Madrid legend, Del Bosque won 5 league titles as a player with Los Blancos, adding two more as manager and two European Cups for good measure.  A World Cup may now beckon.

SWITZERLAND

Qualification 1st place in UEFA Group 2 FIFA Ranking 26 Best World Cup Quarter final (1934, 1938 & 1954) Last World Cup Last sixteen (P4 W2 D2 L0 F4 A0 (2006))  Head coach Ottmar Hitzfeld (since July 2008) Most capped player Heinz Hermann 117 (1978-1991) Top goalscorer Alexander Frei 40 (2001 – present).

Are Switzerland the international football team it’s the hardest to be excited about?  It’s possible.  Centuries of political neutrality, it could be argued, may be to blame.  But it’s more likely that they’re not a particularly exciting side to watch.  In Germany four years ago, the Swiss became the first team in World Cup history to be eliminated from the tournament without conceding a single goal.  Entertaining or not, they remain a tricky side to beat, evidenced by their qualification which saw them squeak past the notoriously well-drilled Greece by a single point.  However, they can also underperform triumphantly.  After all the concerns about the standard of Austria’s team for Euro 2008, it was in fact their Swiss co-hosts who proved to be the weaker.

The Swiss squad is a patchwork quilt of players from clubs all over Europe.  Six of the 23 play their football at home, with Germany the most abundantly represented league in the group with seven.  One of that number, Wolfsburg’s Diego Benaglio, is likely to be the goalkeeper.  His understudies, Young Boys’ Marco Wolfli and FC Zurich’s Johnny Leoni have just four caps between them, all of them Wolfli’s.

Swiss hopes may rest on their defence proving as well-drilled as they were last time out.  Everton centre-half Philippe Senderos is perhaps the best known, but the real experience comes in the shape of FC Zurich left-back Ludovic Magnin.  Lazio’s Stephan Lichsteiner will be the right-back, with Senderos’ likely partner Stephane Grichting of AJ Auxerre.  Defensive back-ups tend towards the young rather than the experienced: 9-cap left-back Reto Zeigler of Sampdoria, 10-cap central defender Steve von Bergen of Hertha Berlin and Hannover’s Mario Eggimann, with just 8 internationals to his name.

The side’s real experience and grit can be found in the middle of the park instead.  Bayer Leverkusen’s Tranquillo Barnetta – who has 50 caps despite only being 25 – will likely be used out wide.  On the opposite, right, flank will probably be West Ham’s Valon Behrami, whilst Basel’s Beni Huggel is the favoured stopper.  The side’s most-capped player is playmaker Hakan Yakin, now 33, and most likely to be employed as the midfield spearhead or as a withdrawn centre-forward.  Saint-Etienne’s Gelson Fernandes, previously at Manchester City, may well also feature, but the other back-ups are again largely untried at this level: 23-year old Leverkusen player Pirmin Schwegler has just 2 caps, Basel’s winger Xherdan Shaqiri one.

In attack we find the team captain and his country’s all-time top scorer, Alexander Frei of Basel.  Frei’s ongoing effectiveness in front of goal is essential, not least because his never-ending outspokenness makes him as popular as an outbreak of crabs in the dressing room.  Frei joint-top scored in qualifying, too, but the other player to take that honour is Blaise Nkufo, 35 and enjoying an Indian summer both with FC Twente (although he will join Seattle Sounders after the World Cup) and the Schweizer Nati.  Powerful Leverkusen striker Eren Derdiyok is the favoured back-up, with Nuremburg’s Kosovan-born Albert Bunjaku also making the trip.

Switzerland’s coach needs little introduction.  Ottmar Hitzfeld is one of only three coaches – the others are Ernst Happel and Jose Mourinho – to win the European Cup with two different clubs.  Hitzfeld was born on the German-Swiss border, and has spent significant proportions of his career both as a player and as a coach with Swiss sides: Bazel, Logano and Luzern during the former and Zug, Aarau and Grasshopper in the latter.  The Swiss national job is, perhaps surprisingly, his first international appointment.

HONDURAS

Qualification 3rd place in CONCACAF 4th Round FIFA Ranking 40 Only World Cup First round (P3 W0 D2 L1 F2 A3 (1982))  Head coach Reinaldo Rueda (since January 2007) Most capped player Amado Guevara 133 (1994-present) Top goalscorer Carlos Pavón 57 (1993-present).

Honduras’ key World Cup claim to fame, in spite of their respectable sole Finals performance in 1982, remains as one of the antagonists in the El Salvador-Honduras “football war” of 1969.  2010 sees them get their second chance to be remembered for rather more positive, footballing, reasons.  Honduras arrive in South Africa at the expense of Costa Rica, whom they edged out thanks to a superior goal difference.  Given the well-documented social and economic problems Honduras has experienced in recent years, their World Cup qualification is probably one of the most feel-good stories of this summer’s tournament.

The Honduran squad is one which is increasingly receiving international recognition.  Nearly half of the final squad play their football abroad, with three being familiar names to followers of the English Premier League.

In goal is Olimpia’s Noel Valladares, one of Honduras’ most important performers and ever-present during the extensive CONCACAF qualifying program.  Standing at only 5’10”, he’s fairly short for a goalkeeper, but his understudies – clubmate Donis Escober and Ricardo Canales of Motagua – will have their work cut out to displace him.

The lack of height continues throughout the defence.  At just 6 feet, Anderlecht’s Victor Bernardez represents the most towering physical presence.  He’ll most likely be joined at the centre of defence by Osman Chavez, most recently at Platense but currently out of contract.  Emilio Izaguirre will likely start on the left, with Wigan’s Maynor Figueroa another familiar presence.  Motagua’s Sergio Mendoza also makes the trip, as do China-based Mauricio Sabillon of Hangzhou Greentown and Johnny Palacios of Olimpia, brother of the more familiar Wilson.

Wilson, of Tottenham Hotspur, will also make the trip, where he will help fulfil creative duties from either the centre or right-hand side.  He’ll be assisted in this by the team captain, attack-minded midfielder Amado Guevara of Motagua.  Guevara is now in his 16th year of international service, and Honduras’ most-capped ever player remains a fundamental part of their team.  Wide man Danilo Turcios of Olimpia and forward-minded Julio Cesar de Leon of Torino are also likely to feature.  Defensive options are offered, meanwhile, by Wigan Athletic’s Hendry Thomas.  Olimpia’s Ramon Nunez and Bari’s explosive right-winger Edgar Alvarez complete the selection.

Up front, Honduras are led by CONCACAF’s qualifying top scorer, the vastly experienced Carlos Pavon of Real España.  36 years of age and with nearly a century of caps to his name, Pavon is also his country’s all-time top scorer.  During qualification, Pavon formed a deadly partnership with SC Vaslui’s Carlo Costly, but unfortunately Costly misses out through injury.  His place is likely to be assumed by Genoa’s David Suazo, a familiar face to followers of Italian football, where he has racked up over 320 appearances in eleven seasons.  The other strikers on the plane are Marathon’s versatile Walter Martinez and the youthful pair of Roger Espinosa of Kansas City Wizards and the magnificently named Georgie Welcome of Motagua, one of the Honduran league’s most prolific goalscorers.

Coaching Honduras will be Reinaldo Rueda.  Having previously managed his home nation Colombia’s national team in the middle of the last decade, Rueda has been highly successful in his spell at Honduras.

CHILE

Qualification 2nd place in CONMEBOL FIFA Ranking 15 Best World Cup Semi final (1962) Last World Cup Last sixteen (P4 W0 D3 L1 F5 A8 (1998))  Head coach Marcelo Bielsa (since 2007) Most capped player Leonel Sánchez 84 (1955-1968) Top goalscorer Marcelo Salas 37 (1994-2007).

One of South America’s most gifted sides, it’s a surprise that this will be Chile’s first World Cup appearance in twelve years.  Last time out, La Roja managed to reach the second phase without registering a single victory, before a heavy defeat to Brazil.  This time, they qualified second in group behind the Brazilians, but beating Paraguay and Argentina.  The Chile side are quite highly regarded on their continent, with some exciting young players coming through.

In goal will be the team’s captain, Claudio Bravo of Real Sociadad.  This season in the Spanish second division, Bravo scored from a free kick, but was also sidelined through injury until fairly recently.  Ever-present in qualification, should Bravo’s fitness be a doubt his understudies are the home-based duo of Miguel Pinto (Universidad) and Luis Marin (Union).

In defence, PAOK’s Pablo Contreras is the most-capped player in a team not brimming with experience.  Contreras will line up either on the right or in the centre, where he would join up with Universidad Catolica’s Waldo Ponce, a regular throughout qualification.  Ponce’s clubmate, Ismael Fuentes also makes the trip, as does West Brom’s Gonzalo Jara and Boca Juniors’ versatile Gary Medel.  On the whole, however, the Chilean defence is seen as something of a weak link in the chain, with a lack of height a particular issue.

In midfield, Matias Fernandez, an attacking midfielder who plays in Portugal for Sporting is perhaps the most important player, for his creation and his dead-ball skills.  He’ll be joined by Marco Estrada, a stopper who plays for Montpellier, with Carlos Carmona of Reggina his key rival for the defensive midfield role.  Besiktas’ versatile left-sided Rodrigo Tello and Colo Colo’s Rodrigo Millar complete the central midfield options.  Meanwhile, attacking depth is offered by Flamengo’s right-sided Gonzalo Fierro, pacy left-winger Mark Gonzalez of CSKA Moscow and An Ain’s flamboyant Jorge Valdivia, a deep-lying forward.

Up front, Chile’s most prolific striker in qualifying was Real Zaragoza’s Humberto Suazo, a diminutive 5’7” tall but one of Latin America’s most lethal strikers.  He will be joined by Alexis Sanchez of Udinese, a 21-year old of great potential and one to watch this summer.  Xerez’s Fabian Orellana is another central option, as is the deep-lying Esteban Paredes of Colo Colo.  America’s wide-man Jean Beausejour is another choice, and proved a popular pick throughout qualification.

The coach is Marcelo Bielsa, who led Argentina through their disappointing 2002 World Cup campaign and also led his home side to Gold Medal success at the Athens Olympics in 2004.  Chile came calling in 2007, and it’s been a fruitful partnership, with Bielsa leading the team to a number of first-time achievements, including their first ever win over Argentina in official competition.  A thoughtful and scholarly manager, Bielsa’s press conferences are famed for their length, as he insists on giving equal time for all – from the largest media conglomerates to the smallest local newspaper.

MY (useless) PREDICTION

It’d take a bold and/or stupid man to pick anyone but Spain as the winner of Group H.  More stupid even than me, it seems.  Chile are, I think, likely to join them.  I also fancy Honduras might shock Switzerland, who have not been in particularly good form since completing their qualification program.

1. Spain
2. Chile
3. Honduras
4. Switzerland

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