World Cup is of and running, and with the opening games we have already had a taste of some of the teams from around globe, which has sent body-clocks adjusting to a new form of nocturnal existence as thousands of viewers patiently wade through the early hours of mornings hoping to witness their favoured game. And already there have been plenty of highlights, the Germany-Costa Rica offering an exciting opening to proceedings with the Swiss-cheese defence on show providing plenty of goal-scoring highlights (Germany winning 4-2 with two superb long-range strikes giving the hosts an early three points). And from seeing the Germans play over the last few years this is certainly a different Germany to the old vicious 1-0 hack merchants whose mechanical movement around the park would make Otto Rehhagel’s European Championship winning Greece side seem adventurous. For times have changed from the older German teams that could boast an almost impregnable defence with the likes of Kohler and Sammer supplemented by pacey wing-backs of the likes of Ziege and Reuter, which allowed for an amazing quick transition from defence to attack. For it is now some ten years since Germany’s last competitive trophy and it will be a vastly different proposition for this team to get amongst the final teams. And while the return of Michael Ballack and the skill of Schweinsteiger means this side still has the ability to unlock defences, this team is a long way from one of the tournament’s strongest. For if the Germans cannot improve their defence by about 200% on the first showing against Costa Rica I don’t care how many goals Miroslav Klose can score (and he looks in form to score a packet) they will not progress far beyond the group stages.
This criticism however cannot be levelled at my tip to take out the cup, Argentina, who after being run ragged by Ivory Coast for the first thirty-five minutes succeeded in going to the dressing sheds 2-0 up at half-time. After winning the World Cup in Mexico 86 with the mercurial skill of Diego Maradona (with a little help with those fateful “hands of God”) it has been a long time between drinks for one of the footballing powerhouses that continued generation after generation to produce teams brimming with talent. However, I don’t want to put the mocker on, but this could finally be the Argentine’s year (this was also my guess four-years ago when Veron-Batistuta-Samuel et al couldn’t make it past the group-stages, so I’m not claiming any form of omnipotence in my reading of events.)
But returning to the brisk, exciting game that was played last night, Argentina in their first preliminary game looked a dangerous, compact unit, Riquelme producing his defence-splitting balls, Saviola running rampart around the pitch, Crespo looking sharp in front of goal and Robert Ayala providing an almost movable force-field at the back with his uncompromising defence. That said Argentina’s opponents, Ivory Coast were similarly impressive, and probably had the better of play for much of the first half, with the exchange of passes only requiring some better finishing from the likes of Kalou and Keita. In this game I have to sympathise with the Ivory Coast being drawn in the “group of death”, for if they were in the corresponding “group of life” (Group A Germany, Ecuador, Poland, Costa Rica) on last-night’s performance they would probably have topped Group A. For this Ivorian side is an impressive side, filled with the elegance and flair of Bonaventure Kalou and Kanga Akala, and the steely tackling of the two Toures (Yaya and Kolo) and Didier Zokora, and with a striker like Didier Drogba requiring defenders to put in Ayala-like performances, this side has the potential to trouble the top teams in the competition. Whether Ivory Coast can overcome an impressive all-over-the-park Netherlands is unlikely, but having seen such a cracker of a contest with Argentina, it will be a shame to see the Ivorians depart early, as they are certainly capable of producing some highly entertaining football.
Of the other things of note: –
– Trinidad and Tobago’s resident faith-heeler, defender Marvin Andrews may need a little more work on his divine apothecary work, after missing the team’s opening game, having repeatedly refused club requests to undergo a knee operation. I just hope it wasn’t Marvin who performed the laying-of-the hands on Trinidad keeper, Kelvin Jack who was subsequently ruled out of the World Cup during the pre-match warm-up, providing veteran Shaka Hislop with the chance to star for the World Cup’s biggest outsiders. Then again maybe Marvin can claim this as some form of divine intervention as Jack’s replacement, former Newcastle man Shaka Hislop had an absolute stormer of a game with the gloves to repeatedly foil Sweden in historically nil-nil draw for the Caribbean newcomers
– That again maybe Ecuador’s witch-doctor is also taking credit after successfully inflicting on Poland a 2-0 loss – proving that the long-ball game that worked so well at altitude could be adapted to Germany. For in this tight affair it was Ecuador’s big-men who were to be the stars with injury-prone Augustin Delgado (nicknamed ‘Tin’ by Southampton supporters who rarely saw him play) and Carlos Tenorio using their strength in the air to get ahead. While at the other end the giant-frame of defender Giovanny Espinoza repeatedly repelled everything that was thrown at him, a performance that might provide the young defender with a move to Europe in the not to distant future.
– England better hope Rooney’s metatarsal is healing up, as they lacked spark in a rather uninspiring game with Paraguay. When the difference between the two-sides was an own-goal from a David Beckham, Sven-Goran Eriksson will be hoping for much better, for if the Poms are not amongs the final teams in the draw expect an even greater lynching from Sven than he has already received from the Sun and the News of the World. No wonder Portgual coach Luis Felipe Scolari turned down the job to be Sven’s successor.
Anyway that leads to the road faced by the Socceroos who kick-off against Japan tomorrow, as the nation attempts to shake off its Old Kent Road football status bestowed upon us by the ridiculous FIFA rankings. So it is time to prove the doubters around the world wrong, for if the Socceroos perform like they did against the Netherlands then I am confident that the side has what it takes to advance to the group stages (and in passing Go the FFA will collect a lot more than $200), but if they play as they did against Liechtenstein they’ll be lucky to get a Community Chest $20 prize for runners-up in a beauty contest. Anyway, enough mixed metaphors lets have a look at the Socceroo’s upcoming opposition.
12th June, Australia vs Japan
This will probably be a much-tougher match than expected, with a well-coached Japanese side, whose precision passing is based upon the Brazilian style offering our defence an early test. Luckily for us some of Japan’s key players are probably not in their best shape, Hidetoshi Nakata has suffered from being sparely used at Bolton, pacey striker Noahiro Takahara has been dogged with injuries all year while zippy young right-wing back Akira Kaji is facing a race against time to be fit for the opening game. Despite these setbacks this is still a dangerous side with Celtic-based attacking midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura probably the most dangerous figure with his long-range shooting and clever passing game, also look out for the occasional wide-run from Mitsuo Ogasawara and the solid-work rate of Takashi Fukunishi who will sit in front of Japan’s defence and distribute possession. One weakness the Socceroos may attempt to target is goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguichi’s, whose lack of poise under the high-ball was exposed in his stint with former English First Division side Portsmouth. This tactic might be employed with clever crosses floated which will enable Mark Viduka to use his size-advantage against a goalkeeper with a reputation of experiencing the yips when facing top-class opposition. Having side this while we can expect the Socceroos to pour forward, it will still need to be wary of the passing games of Nakata and Ono, and the overlapping runs of Kaji if they want to come out with all through with maximum points. From just before kick-off It sounds like Harry Kewell will again be given the cameo role of the bench, but then again maybe Guus is just playing mind-games with the opposition.
(My guestimate – Australia 3-1)
18th June, Australia vs Brazil
Yes, this is the game no-one expects us to win, and while the Socceroos have snuck one win and one draw against Brazil in Confederations Cup action (the win was against the equivalent of a Brazil C team), stealing a solitary point from this game would be a big achievement. Probably the best we can hope for is Brazil having despatched with Croatia, might decide to rest some of their star players (not that there is an absence of star-players among the remaining squad).
Having said that looking for an Achilles heal amongst such mastery will probably see Guus working hard with his lads to find some strategy that will wear down the natural creative skills of the Brazilians, and looking for the slightest gap in which to snatch an opening to get a chance on goal. This opening could present itself when the Brazilian wing-backs charge forward at an inopportune time, allowing an Emerton, Kewell or Bresciano to get behind their men offering a goal scoring opportunities for the likes of Viduka or Cahill. (Yes I am being optimistic)
The other tactic that Guus might employ with the Brazil fielding the equivalent of three-attacking midfielders in his first eleven (Ronaldinho, Kaka, Ze Roberto) would involve clogging up midfield with three grinding midfielders (Grella, Skoko, Culina) to spoil the supply of possession. Brazil in previous matches have struggled when the likes of Uruguay have adopted this tactic, which in such games has seen the Brazilians being out-muscled in midfield for large proportions of the game. But with the likes of Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Adriano, Kaka, there are bound to be sequences of passing that no amount of strategic preparation can contain, for if Brazil are at their free-flowing best Mark Schwarzer will be called upon to make even more saves than he did against Holland. And while there are some questions about Brazil at the back (particularly with Brazil reverting back to a back-four that includes Roberto Carlos and Cafu who are persistently venturing forward), any thing that doesn’t do too much damage to the for-and-against has got to seem a bonus for the Socceroos.
On a minor point, can anyone tell me how right-backs Daniel Alves of Sevilla or Julian Belletti were overlooked in preference to Cicinho, who has struggled with defensive duties since moving to Real Madrid (that said I hope he plays against Australia, as right-back could be one of this side’s few weaknesses).
My Guestimate (Brazil 2-0)
22nd June, Australia vs Croatia
This match could well turn out to be the pivotal game of the qualifying section in which we will see half a dozen players of Croatian heritage take on a Croatian side with three Australian-born players (Joseph Simunic, Ante Seric, Joe Didulica). However unlike the Japan match, expect this to be a fierce physical contest that could be decided by the odd goal as Croatia’s solid defensive rearguard includes experienced defenders like Robert Kovac, Igor Tudor and Dario Simic whose presence will prevent most easy scoring opportunities from presenting themselves. However even with this solid defence I still think this will be the easiest of the three matches, despite Croatia succeeding in a third-place finish in World Cup 1998, as the team have struggled to replace their golden-generation of Boban, Suker, Boksic et al who performed so highly in the mid-late 90s. And it is with a certain dearth of creativity in midfield that has been the key reason why the Croatian team has struggled to live up to their previous high-water mark following the collapse of Yugoslavia. This cautious approach in midfield should allow the Socceroos to deploy a more adventurous game of football with a little less emphasis on man-marking allowing for more midfielders to drift further into the box. Also Croatia’s goalscoring exploits have been a little haphazard recently, yet still on their day as Italy will attest Croatia’s physical force can be very difficult to overcome (Croatia would follow this performance with a loss to first-time World Cup qualifier Ecuador in a rather unappealing match). So watch out for the physical presence of strikers Ivica Olic, and the pony-tailed Dado Prso, and on the right-side watch out for young Darijo Srna who has the potential to eat up the right-touch line with quality runs that will test Scott Chipperfield’s ability to adapt to the left-back role.