Looking Into My Crystal Ball…
I had kind of promised myself that I wouldn’t do this, but everybody else is and I think that my opinion may be as valid as the rest of the world’s. So, with no further ado, here’s a quick preview of the group stages for this year’s World Cup.
It’s worth pointing out that the draw for the finals this year was a weird one. there’s no automatic candidate as a “Group Of Death”, and the vast majority of the top seeds should sail through the group stages. That said, there’s always one team that fails to live up to expectations.
Group A: Germany, Poland, Costa Rica & Ecuador – The hosts couldn’t have asked for a better group than this (although they’ll be obviously concerned about hooliganism prior to their match against Poland). Ecuador & Costa Rica are both fairly weak teams (the Ecuadorians are the weakest of the South American qualifiers), and the Germans should ease their way past both of them. It could turn out to be a straightforward shoot-out on goal difference for first place between Germany & Poland, as nerves could get the better of the Germans when they play their neighbours. That said, though, Costa Rica have made fools of European teams in previous tournaments and it could all be turned on it’s head if they (as I think they’re capable) get a result against Poland.
Group B: England, Paraguay, Sweden, Trinidad & Tobago – It’s all about England, though they haven’t beaten Sweden since 1968 and the Swedes have a habit of unsettling England in recent major tournaments. With Henrik Larsson retired, though, and Peter Crouch hitting form at just the right time, it could be time to undo 38 years of something akin to hurt. Paraguay are a mixed bag, and will make a decent fist of seeing off the Swedes for second place – don’t be surprised if they nick a point off Sweden, and edge through in second place. Trinidad & Tobago are probably the weakest team in the tournament and will do well if they manage a single point. Sweden and England are defensively too strong for them, but Paraguay are a different matter. Catch them on a bad day and there could be a surprise on the cards there.
Group C: Argentina, Ivory Coast, Serbia & Montenegro, Holland – Rumours are already starting to flow about discord in the Dutch camp, and the Argentinians are potential winners of this tournament, so a surprise could be on the cards here. The Ivory Coast have a strong team, but the vast majority of their players seem too inexperienced at this level to shine on the world stage. The Serbs could turn out to be the whipping boys of this group. They’re the sort of team that make a convincing argument for less European countries being allowed to enter. First and second place could well come down to the much-anticipated Argentina-Holland match, and whoever drops points in that match could be in trouble. It’s the final group match and we can reasonably expect Ivory Coast to still be in the hunt going into the final round of matches.
Group D: Mexico, Portugal, Iran & Angola – We’re unlikely to find any surprises here, I’m afraid. Forget about Spain: Mexico are the true under-achievers of world football. A huge domestic game, near-guaranteed qualification to every World Cup and fanatical interest at home, but they’ve still never made it past the quarter-finals. Portugal should win it, with the Mexicans possibly having to limp home in second. I would still expect them to see off the dubious challenge of Iran, whilst the Angolans must still be wondering how they got there in the first place.
Group E: Italy, Ghana, Czech Reublic, USA – Ignore the FIFA rankings. The USA are not the ffth best team in the world. The USA only have serious competitive matches at the World Cup finals, and I can’t foresee a repeat the quarter-final appearance that they managed four years ago. Too many of their squad choose the domestic coziness of the MLS, and I don’t anticipate them to feature strongly. The Italians will be especially keen to win the group (they have an even worse record in penalty shoot-outs than England), but the giant figure of Jan Koller is running into good form, and the Czechs are more than capable of winning this group. Ghana could provide a surprise, especially if Michael Essien can lead from the front effectively.
Group F: Brazil, Australia, Croatia, Japan – Okay. I anticipate Australia giving Brazil a run for their money in this group. There. I said it. Not having qualified since 1974, they have a lot to prove, and Brazil’s defensive weakness will be vulnerable to attacking players of the calibre of Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka. Brazil are the obvious favourites. The team to beat. But Ronaldinho failed to turn up in the Champions’ League final last month, Robinho had a poor season at Real Madrid and Denilson might not even make it. The Croatians are physically strong, but I’d question whether they can live with Brazil’s technical excellence, and Japan have singularly failed to build on the the progress they’d made up to hosting the last tournament and can, I think, be safely disregarded.
Group G: France, Switzerland, South Korea, Togo – The French have it all to lose here, and I’ve seen little of the determination to improve that may be required for them to win the tournament. Much has been made of an improving Switzerland side, but they can’t be any worse than the one last lost to England at Euro 2004 in one of the most one-sided competitive matches I’ve ever seen. South Korea are capable of surprising either of the above, and might just edge past Switzerland, but I’m less than convinced that they can repeat their perfirmance of four years ago. As for Togo… Well, I don’t know anything about them. Do You?
Group H: Spain, Ukraine, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia – That the Spanish fail to shine in World Cups is a given. They have to break this cycle eventually, and this could be the tournament to do it. They should at least cruise past weak Saufi Arabian and Tunisian teams, The Ukraine have The Shevchenko, of course, but this is their first ever major tournament and I think they’ll have to settle for second place. This second place is acheivable, I think, because for all their inexperience they’ll be physically too strong for Tunisia & Saudi Arabia who, I rather suspect, might just produce the worst match in the history of the tournament.