Saturday, June 24, 2006

Squeeze Me in the Box

Here's my World Cup previews, in full from the almost legendary Outpost Gally Semi-Official World Cup thread:

I've deliberately waited until after the first round before posting them up here. So, now you can be astonished at my perceptiveness and foresight ... or laugh at the inaccuracies if you prefer.

Group A
Costa Rica
Appearing in their third World Cup (who will ever forget their joyous victory over the Mighty Jockos in 1990?) the Ricans combine considerable attacking flair with an occasional defensive naivety which cost them badly in Japan four years ago (3-2 down against Brazil with 20 minutes left and in a qualification place, they went chasing the game, eventually losing 5-2 and being eliminated on goal difference). Up-front they have the lightning pace of Ronald ‘The Bullet’ Gomez and, of course, the awkward-but-effective rubber-limbed Paulo Wanchope, formerly of Derby, West Ham and Man City. There’s plenty of talent in midfield, their bright young star being 23 year old Carlos Hernandez along with Saprissa wing-back Christian Bolanos who was so impressive against Liverpool in the recent World Club Championship. Expect playmaker Danny Fonseca to start just behind the front two. At the back, they have plenty of experience in Brescia’s Gilberto Martínez and Luis Marin (the country’s captain and most capped player) but there is a feeling that both may be one World Cup past their peak. Their key result is going to be against Poland and a win may put them into a second round tie with England. They’re certainly not incapable of that and, indeed, of causing Sven’s boys more than a headache or two.

Ecuador
Colombian coach Luis Fernando Suárez’s team are, frankly, the outsiders in what is, elsewhere quite an open group. Now without the great Alex Auinaga, Ecuador, playing in their second World Cup will rely on experience at both ends of the pitch from centre back Ivan Hurtado (an astonishing 128 cups for his country) and the former Southampton flop Augustin Delgado (29 goals in 66 matches), both of whom have indicated that they plan to retire after the tournament. Another familiar name (to those who frequent Aston Villa’s reserve games, anyway) is the occasionally brilliant right-back Ulises de la Cruz. Suárez appears to have abandoned the swift-passing game of four years ago (which brought Ecuador a noteable, albeit ultimately hollow, victory against Croatia) in favour of a more basic, organised, 4-4-2 approach. They have two speedy wide-men - Marlon Ayoví and Luis Antonio Valencia (currently playing in Spain with Valencia) and a canny tanna-ball player in Edison Méndez. Another player to have – briefly – played in England, former Crystal Palace disaster-area Iván Kaviedes (remember him?) along with Felix Borja, a tricky forward who plays for Greek club Olympiakos. With several players in the squad coming from Ecuadorian champions Liga Deportivo Universitaria who were one of the surprise packages in the 2006 Copa Libertadores, they at least boast some form going into the tournament – and, let’s remember, they beat both Brazil and Argentina to qualify. But, they’re still, very much the outsiders here.

Ze Chermans
Jürgen Klinsmann has assembled what appears, on paper, to be ze worst Cherman side in a generation. Which was exactly what we all said four years ago and they still end up getting to the sodding final. You’re just got to hate these guys, don’t you? They simply don’t know when to stay down! This time, however, they’re unlikely to pull off the great “write-them-off-at-your-peril” runs of 82, 86, 90 and 2002. At the back, Ze Chermans will rely on that loveable auld Arsenal scallywag Jens Lehmann … Can some enterprising Ecuadorian forward make sure they accidentally KICK HIM IN THE FACE, PLEASE? (Still, bright-side, Oliver Kahn’s happy boat-race, beaming from the bench – it just sounds SO GOOD, doesn’t it?!). In front on him will be Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Marcell Jensen, Arne Friedrich of Hertha Berlin, lumbering Moscow Chelski FC-skinhead thug Robert Huth and several old hands like Jens Nowotny, Philipp Lahm, Per Mertesacker and Christoph Metzelder. In midfielder, expect the starting four to be Bastian Schweinsteiger, Torsten Frings, Moscow Chelski FC-bound Michael Bollocks and Bernd Schnider, though they can still call on talent like Thomas Hitzlsperger if needed. Up-front it’ll be Miroslav Klose (who has had a fine season with Werder Breman) and Lukas Podolski (who has had an absolute ‘mare with Köln). Schalke’s tricky Gerald Asamoah waits in the wings and if they need somebody give a right-good-kicking, Oliver Neuville’s still on the bench at 33 and still as mean as fuck. So – the weakest Cherman side in a generation? Mummy, I’m scared. On the minus said, no Sebastian Deisler, no Christian Wrons, a Cherman media who think that they’ll do well to get past the first round, a horribly rigid 4-4-2 system that teams with a bit of imagination and flair should be able to run rings around and the fact that Klinsmann has a modern offensive game in mind which relies on defenders who can do more than just destroy (a genre that simply doesn’t exist in German football – and the fact that he considers Robert Huth such a player tells you all you need to know about Klinsmann!) On the plus side, home advantage, a manager without a ridiculous perm (first time since 1986 for that!) and the fact that they’re, you know, Ze Chermans. This should be interesting.

Poland
Paweł Janas’s side are something of an enigma to say the least. Brilliant in qualification when spanking Northern Ireland and Wales like they invented the game but, put them up against England and they always seem to get a mental block, sh*te in their own pants and run a mile. Celtic’s Artur Boruc has had a great season and is likely to start in goal ahead of Tomasz Kuszczak with Jerzy Dudek left at home. The defence is a mixture of some – albeit ageing - quality: the highly experienced Jacek Bąk and Michał Żewłakow, and a few thuggish nonentities: Baszczyński and the amusingly error-prone Mariusz Jop especially. The loss, through injury of Tomasz Rzasa could be a crucial blow. The midfield, however, is packed with pace and threat: Leverkusen’s Jacek Krzynówek provides experience on the right wing whilst the trio of Szymkowiak, Sobolewski and Smolarek in the middle are young and quick and might well scare the bejesus out of Costa Rica in what is likely to be the group’s key match. Southampton pair Kamil Kosowski and Stottingham-Hotshots-bound Grzegorz Rasiak provide other alternatives and there’s a pair of useful Austrian-based players in Radomski and Mila. In attack, Maciej Żurawski has rediscovered his scoring boots after a decidedly iffy start to his career at Celtic but the baffling exclusion of Grezegorz Piechna – a big tough target man who played throughout the qualifiers – leaves Zurawski’s eventual partner unclear. Possibly Radiak playing in a more advanced role or even Krakow’s under-rated Paweł Brożek. Quick, neat and, on their day, an adventurous side, Poland’s strength lies in its midfield. They had an awful World Cup four years ago when they looked like a team devoid of ideas and confidence and that, sometimes, still manifests itself (they were heavily beaten by Denmark in a friendly last year, for instance, after dominating the first half). This time, with a decent start against Ecuador in their opening game in Gelsenkirchen, they could be England’s opponents in round two. Where the ghosts of Lato, Deyna, Domarski and Tomaszewski await for one, final, exorcism.

Group B
England
Okay, let’s be completely honest about this, let potential loss of Rooney is a devastating blow to England’s chances. With him, this side looks (again on paper) to be the best equipped England World Cup side since 1990 and, possibly, even 1970. Without him …
Positives: Good goalkeeper. Good back four, even if the left back is a dirty little cheat who shouldn’t be within a million miles of the England side. Central midfield – quite possible the best pair in the world. Pretty decent right winger too. And, given that I had such a low opinion of him a few years back as a fancy-dan-wanker who would never make anything of his abundant talent, the guy on the left’s turned out all right. And this is where the problems start. Assuming they don’t get any more injuries – always a dangerous assumption with England, that – and, assuming that Owen is fit – always a dangerous assumption with Owen, that. Then all they’ve got to do is find out whether Crouch or, erm, Crouch is the better option alongside him and hope that Rooney’s fit for twenty minute bursts by the second round. Lennon and Walcott will be used, if at all, in lightning bursts to scare the shit out of opposition who won’t have seen them and that’s a clever move. But, if we’re already 3-down to brazil then even 15 minutes of teenage genius isn’t going to be much use. Depend on the following – England won’t concede many goals (they might not score many either but that’s beside the point); they will be hard working unlike the team that wilted in the Tokyo heat four years ago. And, importantly, any free-kick about twenty yards out and they will have a very good chance of sticking it in the old onion bag.
Sven Göran Eriksson has staked his reputation on a metatarsal bone healing quickly. On more outrageous pieces of fortune have careers been made or lost.

Paraguay
In Bayern Munchen’s Roque Santa Cruz, Paraguay have one of the most exciting centre forwards in world football. This kid’s got some serious game although he’s had a bad knee injury recently and might be only partly fit for the war. Elsewhere, however, they look like a team in transition. Like Ecuador, they did beat Argentina in qualification but they squeezed in by the skin of their teeth and, with Chilavert having retired, they travel to Germany with an even lower profile than four years ago. But, whilst they lack star appeal they are a hard working side who know how to grind out a result. Defensively strong thanks to an excellent keeper - Justo Villar – and two nails centre backs - Carlos Gamarra and Julio César Cáceres, they also boast Zaragosa left-back Delio Toledo and Julio Manzur who plays in Brazil for Santos. European experience from the likes of Edgar Barreto (Nijmegen), Julio dos Santos and Roberto Acuña (ex-Deportivo de La Coruña) is also there in abundance even if Diego Gavilán’s stay in Newcastle’s reserves was both comically short and tragically unmemorable. In attack Nelson Haedo Valdez followed Santa Cruz to Germany and has had a decent season with Werder Bremen. The key match here is against the Swedes in Berlin on 15th June – a match that will go a long way towards how the group shapes up.

Sweden
The amusing-named Lars Lagerbäck leads his country back to their second consecutive World Cup face-off with England. Scoring 27 goals in their first 7 qualification games (mind you, 13 of those were against Malta) the Swedes looked to be coasting it until a defeat against Croatia late in the group gave them a few jitters before they finished off Iceland in the last match. Then they lost a friendly 3-0 to Eire and the murmurs continued that this is a side who flatter to deceive. They’re back-four looks like a pensioner’s outing focused around the seemingly perennial Olof Mellberg and Teddy Lucic neither of whom will ever see thirty again. There’s a lot of hard workers in the middle – Linderoth, Anders Svensson – but little real flair or qualify save for the “plays when he fancies it” attitude of Mad Freddy Ljungberg. Kim Källström, on the back of a great season with Rennes, may figure before the competition is over. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrik Larsson continue to carry the hopes up front and are both truly fine players … and they were truly fine players ten years ago too, when they were both, you know, young. The fact that Marcus Allbäck is their likely back-up merely cements this idea of an ageing side who’ve pretty much grown old together although, watch out for Ajax’s Markus Rosenberg if he gets on. By the time they play England in the final group match in Koln, we should know the fate of both sides and, frankly, it’s likely to be qualification in both cases. What happens on 20th June, however, cos impact very significantly on the rest of the tournament.

Trinidad & Tobasco
Every World Cup seems to throw up a fun newcomers who brings a smile and a bit of colour and entertainment to the party (Zaire, Cameroon, Jamaica). This time it’s Leo Beenhakker’s boys. The squad is largely made up of journeymen players who’ve spent a career kicking around the lower reaches of the football league (Dennis Lawrence, Brent Sancho, Chris Birchall, Carlos Edwards, Stern John Kenwyne Jones) or, even worse, the Scottish league Marvin Andrews, Densill Theobald, Russell Latapy, Collin Samuel, Jason Scotland). The TNTs most recognisable players are Shaka Hislop (likely to edge out Dundee’s Kelvin Jack in goal after a fine end of the season with the Hamsters) and his mate, Octogenarian Dwight Yorke, once of Villa, The Scum and Blackburn, now strutting his stuff in Australia. Having qualified by beating Bahrain in a play-off, they’re by far the smallest nation in the tournament (Pop: 1.1 million). Frankly, it’s a miracle they’re there and I’m sure we all hope they have a good time and perform well. Their second game, against England in Nuremberg, is likely to be their big moment and, by the time they arrival in Kaiserslautern to play Paraguay, their World Cup adventure may well be over. However, just a small tip, they have a lad in their squad called Cornell Glen who plays in the US for Los Angeles Galaxy. He’s reckoned to be the fastest thing on two legs. So, except John Terry to kick him into about Row Q the second he comes close…

Group C
Argentina
Oh, the Argy-Bargies … this is gonna be a right good laugh. José Pekerman’s boys look like the best side to emerge from the land of the disparus since The Hand of God was just a chubby baby’s hand. Okay, so Roberto Ayala is almost as old as the Queen Mother and Juan Pablo Sorín and the utterly unloveable Hernán Crespo aren’t exactly spring chickens either but this squad is based on the excellence of youth. Except that goalkeeper, who’s 35! Fears of another early exit – like the delicious one four years ago - should vanish when you look at this likes of Messi, Tevez, Riquelme and Saviola. And yet … you know, they really weren’t all that convincing in qualification and, if any group can be called The Group of death this time around, it’s Group C, with four really decent sides. Pekermen is inexperienced and known to be a lover of fair play (fair play? Argentina? Some mistake, surely???) and will depend on the European experience of Burdisso, Milito, Coloccini and Gabriel Heinze on The Scum at the back. A hugely experienced midfield quartet (in which the great Pablo Aimar sometimes struggles to get a game) can be either inspirational or bastard scary depending on which side of bed they got out of this morning (Lucho González, especially). Yet there is always a suspicion that if Juan Riquelme doesn’t play, Argentina don’t play. It was the same with Maradonna in 86, of course, and look what happened then. Also, they’re well balanced when they play 4-3-1-2, with Riquelme in the floating role behind Crespon and Messi but, if they go 4-4-2, they can look flat and disorganised.

Potentially, it’s England in the quarter finals, but there’s a lot of games to b played before we get that far.

Côte d'Ivoire
The 2006 African Cup runners-up, this is the Ivory Coast’s first venture onto the big stage. They’re a multi-talented bunch, and like Cameroon and Nigeria and Senegal before then, could really shake up a few of Europe’s big guns before this torunament is over. They haven’t been helped by the draw, however and face Argentina in the opening match in Hamburg on 10th June.

Defensively sound thanks to the likes of Blaise Kouassi, Abdoulaye Méïté and Kolo Touré, it’s the attacking flair of Didier Zokora, Kanga Akalem, Didier Drogba and Aruna Dindane that will be worrying the Dutch and the Argies the most, though the lack of too many class wide-players may be a slight worry (Emerse Fae didn’t make the final squad, for instance). They’ve got a very experienced coach, however – Henri Michel – and bags of talent. They may be nicknamed The Elephants but any opponent who expected them to be slow, lumbering and predictable, is in for a big surprise and, possibly, World Cup elimination.

The Netherlands
So, the big question is has Marco van Basten finally done who no Dutch coach since 1974 has managed? To bring together a squad of some of the most talented ball-players on the planet (with the egos to match) and get them all pulling in the same direction. Rinus Michels, Dick Advocat and Gus Hiddink – three of the greatest managers the world has ever seen – couldn’t do it. Well, it’s gotta be said from the qualification (only drawing two matches out of 12 and winning the rest – and they weren’t playing nuggets either, they finished up ahead of the Czechs and knocked out the Romanians) suggests that there could be orange on the streets of Berlin on 9th July. Bet ze Chermans’ll love that.

Everywhere you look, it’s the same old faces … and most of them are playing in the Premiership: van der Sar, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Kromkamp, Mark van Bommel, Rafael van der Vaart, Why the long-face van Nistelrooy, Robin van Persie and that nasty cheat Robben of Moscow Chelski. And, even if you do say to yourself, “MY Christ, is Philip Cocu *still* playing”, any squad that can afford to leave out Seedorf, Davids, Jaap Stam and Kluivert (no matter who shit all four have been playing) is calling on some considerable talent.

And, they’re looking hard at the back, for once – the including of a suicidally mental Khlaid The Cannibal Boulahrouz who has gone from being a disaster at AZ67, to being used as a temporary striker at Waalwijk to, suddenly, becoming one of the best (and most feared) centre backs in the Bundersliga has been a revelation. I back the Dutch to go a long, long way in this World Cup. if they do, it coukld be a sight to see, I mean A SIGHT TO SEE. And, if they don’t … well, that’ll probably be a sight to see, too – for completely different reasons.

Serbia and Hugo Montenegro
In 1974 when Jugoslvia was still, you know, Jugoslavia and they had a tricky little winger called Ilija Petković playing for them, they were one of the cult-sides of the tournament – as their hugely amusing knocking out of the Jockos will testify. Since then, the country’s been to hell and back and now, doesn’t exist anymore. But two-thirds of it are represented in this World Cup and Serbia & Montenegro have got the bitch of a draw that Croatia haven’t. Serves them right for all the ethnic cleansing. The Scum’s Vidić is the lynchpin of a tough (though ageing) defence alongside Schalke’s Mladen Krstajić and Kiev’s Goran Gavrančić which conceded just one goal (to Spain, away) in qualifying. In midfield Ognjen Koroman of Portsmouth Reserves(!) and the great Dejan Stanković provide some Balkans backbone but it’s up front that the Serbs might be causing a few sleepless nights in Buenos Aires, Amsterdam and … whatever the capital of the Ivory Coast is (it’s Yamoussoukro, kids, don’t all shout at once … ‘O’ Level in geography here, you know…) No, not because of Savo Milošević or even Athletico Madrid’s Mateja Kežman. No, the big worry will be a six foot seven inch lunch of Peter Crouch lookalike called Nikola Žigić. Like the team he’s not pretty but he’s damned effective.

I’ll tell you what, I really don’t want to call this group because I think there could be at least one major (and I mean, Brigadier-General) surprise.

Group D
Angola
This might sound petty but, frankly, Angola are at their first World Cup because Nigeria are not. The 1-1 draw against the Super eagles in Kano was enough to see the boys from the land of the MPLA up for the Big G. The fact that their first game is against their former colonial oppressors, Portugal, is an added bit of spice to an already unlikely tale. Because this is, undoubtedly, the 2006 World Cup’s most romantic story – a team that opened their qualifying campaign in the African Preliminary stages losing 3-1 to Chad. The replaced of Ismael Kurtz as coach by Brazilian Luis Oliveira Goncalves sparked a team with few well known names but who are well organised and don’t concede many goals. Their best known player is the Benfica striker Pedro Mantorras who had been plagued by knee injuries. Elsewhere, aside from some European experience from the liked of Hull’s Rui Marques the home-based players will largely depend on the midfield guile of Edson and Paulo Figueiredo. By the time they get to their final match – an intriguing clash of cultures against Iran – they might be playing for pride only. But, as France and Spain and Colombia have found out in recent World Cup, African football is no longer the stuff of jokes.

Iran
In 1978, they drew with the Jocks. In 1998, the beat The Great Satan (something Dubbya seems determined to bomb them back to the stone age for – coming to a TV near you any day now). In 2006, they’re, seemingly, there to make up the numbers. Yet, in the talented Branko Ivanković, they have a man who piloted a hugely unfancied Croatian side to third place in 1998. The current rumour is this might just be the most well balanced and organised team ever to come out of the Middle East – along with Africa and the Far East one of the games real growth areas.

Their defensive quality is based largely on four tough lads who play in the Bundersliga – Mahdavikia, Zandi, Karimi and Hashemian. The most famous home-based player in a survivor from the boys of 98, the striker Ali Daei (now 38) who will play alongside Vahid Taleblou. They’ve also got the pin-up boy of Middle east football, midfielder Ali Karimi who is about to step in Michael Bollocks’ boots at Bayern Munchen.

They have, at best, an outside chance of progressing further but, as noted, things just seem to happen when Iran are in the World Cup.

Mexico
A World Cup winner with Argentina in 1978, coach Ricardo Lavolpe has a team that no less an authority than Pele reckons the Brazilians could learn a thing or two from. But then, in 1982, Pele said Belgium would win the World Cup so it’s high time people stopped listening to that lunatic. However, in the 2005 Confederations Cup the Mexicans beat Brazil and drew with Germany and Argentina, having already spanked the Yankies in qualification, they’re currently ranked 6th in FIFAs world rankings. And all this from a team with just four overseas players in their squad (Barcelona’s Rafael Márquez, Notlob’s Jared Borgetti, Villareal’s Guillermo Franco and Claudio Suarez who plays in the US). However, there’s been some controversy recently with the country’s most legendary ex-player Hugo Sanchez openly criticising Lavolpe over his style of play and over the inclusion of the naturalised Argentinian striker Guillermo Franco in the squad.

Mexico play a tight, efficient 3-5-2 system with a packed midfield that includes another importee, Brazilian-born Nelson Sinha and the mercurial Luis Ernesto Pérez. There’s also the hugely experienced Pavel Pardo (125 caps) who will play in central midfield, probably alongside Jesus Arellano his Monterrey team-mate. The fire-power of Borgetti and Franco should be enough to see the Mexicans comfortably into Round Two.

Portugal
Big Phil Scolari’s boys have been, over the last ten years or so, one of *the* cult sides of World football – even if they do have a nasty habit of knocking England out of major tournaments. The joyous march through Euro 2000 is just a memory now (not as funny a memory as their calamitous 2002 campaign – starting the tournament as favourites and getting thrashed off the USA before going out in the first round admittedly) and most of that astonishing team (though not, significantly, Luis Figo) have retired. The way they qualified (beating Russia 7-1, for instance) suggested the new crop could be as good, if not better than the old. No longer is the team based almost entirely around the old powerhouses of Portuguese football, Sporting Club, FC Porto and Benfica. Now it’s the international talents of Paulo Ferreira, Miguel, Fernando Meira, Nuno Valente and Tiago Mendes strutting their stuff. In Ricardo Carvalho they have one of the Premier League’s most improved defenders. In Deco, one of the world’s great play-makers. And in Cristiano Ronaldo a filthy little cheat whose talent for diving is matched only by his inconsistency at international level. Fucker.

They play an odd 4-2-3-1 formation with Maniche in the holding role and Ronaldo and Figo out wide feeding the lone striker Pauletta (who, despite his dreadful Euro 2004, recently broke Eusabio’s all time Portuguese scoring record). I suppose, when Luis Boa Morte is your main alternative, that’s an inevitable choice. There are other puddings in a squad of quality main courses. I mean, how in the hell is Hugo Viana within a million miles of the World Cup? The goalkeeper, Ricardo, isn’t nicknames Dracula for nothing (he hates crosses). And, you’ve also got to wonder about the wisdom of having the other great survivor of the glory team of 2000, Nuno Gomes in the squad with his notoriously dodgy ankle. Impressive centre back Jorge Andrade misses out through injury which is a further blow.

Still, their recent form and their manager’s track record alone affords the Porties with enormous respect. They will be, as Portugal have been for the last 10 years, slick and easy on the eye.

Oh, and they’ve got a goalie in their squad called Quim. Snigger.

Group E
Czech Republic
First time finalists, technically (it’s 8 years since Czechoslovakia last played in the finals and 10 years since they so lit up Euro 96 by beating the Eye-ties at Old Trafford). One of the great mysteries of world football concerns what’s gone wrong with Czech football over the last decade. It’s not like they haven’t had the players (Marek Jankulovski, Tomáš Ujfaluši, Vladimír Šmicer, Pavel Nedvěd for God’s sake). But, they always seem to come a cropper somewhere along the line.

Coach Karel Brückner goes into this tournament with more than a few worries starting with a defence that looks great on paper (Petr Čech, David Rozehnal et al) but conceded a whopping 12 goals in 12 qualifying games – the worst record of any European qualifier. That’s a weakness that could be exploited in another tough group. Nedvěd’s return from retirement has helped to stabilise a midfield that, with Karel Poborský also featuring, has an average age of 32. The rising star here, of course, is Tomáš Rosický, nicknamed ‘the little Mozart’, who emerged from Nedvěd’s shadow after Euro 2004 and was a leading figure in qualification, scoring vital goals at vital times.

Up-front, well, it’s a dependable trio Šmicer, Baroš and the formidable Jan Koller (although the big man has been suffering from ligament trouble all season and was a very late inclusion in the squad). Again, it’s a ageing side – quality all the way but they somewhat remind me of the great 1994 Romanian team … in 1998. A side that’s got old together and are running on empty. They have far far too much class not to make the second round but it’s hard to see them going much further.

Ghana
One of the most exciting aspects of this World Cup is Ghana’s first ever qualification, beating fancied South African and DR Congo along the way. Coached by red Star Belgrade veteran Ratomir Dujković, they’re a flair side, full of pace and energy and they could cause a major surprise at this tournament – although the draw hasn’t been kind to them. Much European experience (Mensah, Ahmed, Kuffour, Sarpei, Stephen Appiah Michael Essien, Muntari) gives them a solid foundation and, in Eric Addo, Gyan Asamoah and Matthew Amoah they have, potentially, three of the most exciting prospects in the entire tournament. Mind you, they had a rotten Africans Cup of Nations this year (knocked out in the first round – although they were missing several key players, Essien, notwithstanding) and there’s a sense that they lack balance – a situation not helped by Laryea Kingston missing the cup through suspension. Dujokvic has his work cut out but his side have the quality, if not, necessarily, the experience to surprise many.

Italy
Ah, the Azzurri – the prettiest football team in the world. So classy, so … Italian. So prone to doing stupid things like losing to North Korea. The last couple of years have been strange ones for the Eye-ties, after replacing Trapattoni with the great Marcello Lippi as coach they, frankly, struggled through the qualifiers (drawing 1-1 at Hampden for a kick-off) and their preparations haven’t been helped by the serious injury to Francesco Totti (as devastating a blow to them as Rooney’s bad foot is to England). But then … it all started to come right and the way that they simply outclassed the Germans in 4-1 demolition in March has got the rest of the football world either licking its lips or quaking in its boots.

Rock solid at the back – they, literally, don’t come much better as a back five than Buffon behind Zambrotta, Nesta, Cannavaro and Massimo Oddo. A midfield that possesses the scary toughness of Gattuso with the dazzling skill and flair of Pirlo, De Rossi etc. It’s a heady combination. But, get this, their front line (assuming Totti’s fit) will be to perm any two from him, Luca Toni Gilardino, Del Piero, Inzaghi or Iaquinta. (I’d assume they go with the experience of Alessandro del Piero and blizzarding pace and power of Toni. if Totti’s fit, he’ll play behind the front two in a 4-3-1-2 formation, if not, they might go 4-3-3 with Gilardino wide on the right.

They had a bad World Cup four years ago and a dreadful Euro 2004 (I was actually in Italy at the time of their elimination and it felt like a national tragedy). And that’s Italy top to bottom – like the proverbial little girl with the proverbial little curl, when they’re good they’re very VERY good, but when they’re bad they’re horrid! I think this time, they’re gonna go all the way. But then, I thought that in 1990 as well and they fucked-up in the semis.

Ciao!

USA
One of the great things about the 2002 tournament was the FINALE emergence of the USA as a credible force in world football. These days, they’re in the top 10 of the FIFA world rankings after reaching the quarter finals along losing, narrowly to Germany. It’s a huge credit to Bruce Arena that most of his team now play in Europe and are as highly regarded as imports from Central and South America. They’re in a tough group but they were in a tough group four years ago yet, as Portugal and Poland discovered, you underestimate them at your peril.

Expect Kasey Keller to edge out Tim Howard and Brad Friedel between the sticks. Other familiar names include Carlos Bocanegra and Brian McBride (Fulham), Eddie Lewis (Leeds United), former Mackem Scum Claudio Reyna (Man City), Bobby Convey and Marcus Hahnemann (freshly promoted with Reading) and the usually impressive DaMarcus Beasley (although he’s had a bit of a ‘mare with PSV this season). The key man is probably Landon Donovan, hugely talented (as Portugal will remember) but a relative failure in two stints with Bayer Leverkusen and now back where he started at Los Angeles Galaxy. He’s been playing on the right recently, but many feel he’s best in the middle alongside Reyna or Pablo Mastroeni.

Like most American sporting teams, they’ll be mentally tough, well-disciplined and hard to break down. They’re even a decent outside bet for the second round – where they could face Brazil. Now that would be a clash of cultures worth watching.

Group F
Australia
Strewth, cobber, the Socceroos have finally made it back to the big stage for the first time since the World Cup was last held in the land of Krautrock and Braukwerst. And, this time, they’ve got a quality coach, the great Guus Hiddink. What, the question is asked, can a man who can take flaming South Korea to a World Cup semi-final do with a country and talented and sport’s obsessed as Australia? Having beaten the likes of Tahiti, Fiji, Vanatu and the Solomon Isles (I’m really not making this up!) before overcoming the considerably harder U-Are-Gays on penalties after a play-off, the Aussies are justifiably up for this one. Their five-man midfield - Tim Cahill, Jason Cullina, Vince Grella, Scott Chipperfield and Marco Bresciano - have bags of stamina and skill and protect a sometimes shaky defence that includes the one-and-only ‘Little Hands of Concrete’, the Smoggies’ Mark Schwarzer, plus that vicious thug Lucas Neill and, amazingly, Newcastle United’s best centre half of probably the last five years, Craig Moore (mind you, he’s had fack-all competition!)

The interesting one, of course, in the front pairing of Viduka and Kewell – who were so successful together at Leeds but who, apparently, can’t stand the sight of each other these days. The 3-5-2 formation allows for some experimentation and we should expect to see contributions at some stage from Brett Emerton (whose star really has fallen since he left Holland for Blackburn – one of Graeme Sourpuss’s finest moments, that, Stan Lazaridis, Josip Skoko and Archie Thompson (the latter, particularly, if Viduka decides to go missing in action as he tends to when the going gets tough). In theory, though should be the whipping boys of this group, if not the whole competition, but I’ve a real sneaking feeling they might just grab a qualifying slot.

Brazil
So, every tournament we ask the same old questions. can they possibly be as good at 1970? (No, of course they can’t, you only get a team like that once a lifetime.)

Well, then, are they as good as 1982? (You’re joking – the 82 side was the greatest team never to win a World Cup.)

Okay, are they as good as last time…?

Now, that’s a good question.

Let’s be practical about this - Emerson; Ze Roberto; Kaka; Ronaldinho; Ronaldo; Adriano. That’s the likely starting top six. If any of them are ignored by coach Carlos Alberto Parreira (who, let’s remember, has already won one World Cup!), then there’s people like Gilberto Silva, Edmílson, Fred (great name, that!), Júlio César and little Robinho warming the bench.

Be honest, you’re scared now, aren’t you?!

But… I know every effing depressing Jimmy Hill clone since time began has wittered on about “the Brazilian’s traditional defensive frailties…” All these fuckers could talk about in 1970 was how sh*t a keeper Felix was, ignoring the fact that with 10 players like that in front of him IT DIDN’T MATTER. And this time, Dida’s pretty decent as Brazilian keepers’ go. yet, for all that, I’m gonna fall into the same trap. Brazil have two of the finest full backs in the world –Cafu and Roberto Carlos – but they both … well, ANCIENT! (Cafu celebrates his 36th birthday a couple of days before the holder’s first match, against Croatia). The centre of the defence is a problem too with Lucio’s traditional partner, Roque Junior, missing through injury (expect wither Juan or Cicinho to fill in here). Then there’s the perennial question of Ronaldo’s fitness (mental as well as physical)…

Call me a churlish, cynical old tosser if you like but I can just see them falling into the old Brazilian trap of winning a couple of early games heavily and then strutting around like they own the place until they get somebody like Italy or Holland in the quarters and getting a very nasty shock. It may not happen, they’re reigning world champions after all and you don’t do that without being a bit special (ask Scotland). They remain, 76 years after the competition first began, the only team to win a world cup on a continent other than their own (in their case, three of them!) When Brazil turn it on, the world smiles and everything seems better. Again, as with Holland this could be the year when everything comes together. But if it doesn’t, seldom can a fall from grace be more potentially spectacular. You thought Senegal knocking out the France four years ago was sensational, tune in to Brazil’s first three matches and just … be prepared for extreme possibilities!

Croatia
The fire that the great Prosinecki-Boksic-Suker-Jarni side lit under the 1998 World Cup won’t be forgotten in these parts quickly (I had two quid each way on them at 50-1 to win the cup). But the style that carried that great side had been lost thanks, largely, to a dearth of quality Croat midfielders in the years since. These days, Zlatko Kranjčar’s side tend to sit deep and counter-attack in classic pre-the-wall-coming-down Iron Curtain style. it’s a bit depressing really. Most of their best work goes on around their 21 year old pin up boy, Niko Kranjar. The defence - Robert Kovač, Dario Šimić, Igor Tudor – are solid but the creativity that was once a vital part of Croatian play seems missing in a rigid 3-4-1-2 system (the width is provided largely by Marko Babić). Rangers’ Dado Pršo and Ivan Klasnić are the main threats up-front. They play Brazil in their first game and the result of that will go a long way to determining what sort of tournament it’s going to be for Croatia.

Japan
The zest and fervour that Japan created four years ago might’ve been down to home advantage but, you know, there was some quality in there for Philippe Trousers to work with. He’s gone now, replaced by Zico in the hope that a bit of Brazilian magic can rub off on a side that’s been kept together more by lack of alternatives than genuine quality. A piss-easy qualification group (including Iran, bizarrely) masked a lot of cracks in the make-up. Much will depend on a midfield that worked their bollocks off every match four years ago. If that’s left them bollockless, then this could be a hard couple of weeks for the team. Shunsuke Nakamura is a quality player but struggles to hold down a regular place in the Celtic team. Junichi Inamoto – Japan’s key-player four years ago - swapped life in Arsenal’s reserves for life in Fulham’s reserves and, then, life in West Brom’s reserves. Shinji Ono fell so out of favour at Feyanoord than he was allowed to drift back to the Japanese league. Whilst Hidetoshi Nakata – the Ginger Ninja – left the sun of Serie A behind for a few sub appearances on wet Wednesday nights at Bolton and looked, frankly, about as miserable as it’s possible for any man to.

It’s always unwise to write anybody off but their lack of a natural goalscorer is a real worry. their opening game against Australia promises to be remake of The Sands of Iwo Jima, with a similar life-or-death outcome. if they got nothing from that (and I suspect they may not) then they’re, frankly, stuffed.

Group G
France
Hang on … Fabien Barthez? Lilian Thuram? Zinédine Zidane? Sylvain Wiltord? Is this 1998 and I’ve just woken up after an eight year bad dream?

Jean-Alain Boumsong? Pascal Chimbonda? Djibril Cissé? Is someone taking this piss, here?

No, it’s just Raymond Domanech “having a laugh” and putting together the weirdest French squad since some idiot decided that Dominique Rocheteau was “too flashy” and left him out back in the 70s.

Thankfully, when you’re talking about a squad that also includes Gallas, Sagnol, Diarra, Makélélé, Vieira, Henry, Saha and Trézéguet, it’s not all bizarroworld. not quite, anyway… Cos there’s something very odd up with the Frenchies this time around. And not in a remotely good way, either.

After the rank mess that Jacques Santini made of Japan 2002 and Euro 2004, Domanech – the former Under 21 coach under Aime Jacquet – is rumoured to not have the entire respect of the squad. There is talk of strange one-on-one debriefing sessions, and man-management (or, rather, lack of it) that leaves mega-talented players gibbering wrecks. Goalless draws (at home) to Israel, Switzerland and Ireland weren’t the only stutters in a thoroughly underwhelming qualification campaign and it took Zidane coming out of International retirement to finally spark the team into life (although they could still only draw a second time with the Swiss and had to beat Cyprus in the last game to scrape through at the expense of Israel).

So all does not look well with Les Bleu. And yet, how can you bet against any team containing players like that? There was a feeling in 2002 that they were a side that had gotten old together and, amazingly, most of them are still there … is this, not one, but two World Cup’s too far for one of the greatest sides world football has ever seen?

South Korea
if they thought that all they had to do was replace one great Dutch coach with another (Dick Advocaat) somebody in the South Korean FA was reaching for the magic mushrooms that weekend. Sure, Lee Young-Pyo, Park Ji-Sung, Lee Eul-Yong and Seol Ki-Hyeon now have some European experience to go with that cheeky scamp Ahn Jung-Hwan (now in Germany after his extremely amusing biting of the hand that fed him when putting out Italy four years ago). Sure, they took everybody by surprise then and, even though their success was largely built on some downright shocking refereeing decisions (remember Spain’s disallowed goal-that-never-was?) they now have positive experience of the big stage…

… yeah?

You’re goin’ home in a big white aeroplane…

Can I just add

a) Kim Sang-shik is just, like, THE greatest name for a Korean football ever. bar none.

b) Isn’t Jin Kyu Kim a character in Lost?

c) Park Chu-Young is number 17 at our local takeaway.

d) very underwhelming qualification (losing twice to Saudi Arabia, fr instance.)

e) first round exit. probably.

Switzerland
Very under-rated team, the Swiss. They finished above France in qualification and, to be honest, must be right pissed off they ended up as a third seed when they might have expected a second spot. as it is, they’ve ended up in what looks to be, potentially, The Group of Sleep and all eyes will be on their game with South Korea in Hanover on 23rd June.

Defensively strong (Philippe Senderos, Christoph Spycher, Patrick Müller), a combative and mobile midfield (Johann Vogel, Ricardo Cabanas, Raphaël Wicky, Daniel Gygax) and two quality strikers (Alex Frei and Marco Streller), their only real weakness is a slight lack of depth. but, if they manage to remain injury free there’s no reason why they shouldn’t qualify for the second round at least.

Togo
I know absolutely nowt about them, sorry!

Most of the defence play in the Bunders-reserve-liga (Eric Akoto is a regular at the excellently-named VfB Admira Wacker Mödling), apart from Senaya and Adebayor I’ve never even heard of most of the midfield and the only striker in the squad that I’m aware of, Robert Malm, isn’t even a regular at struggling French side Brest.

Togo had a rotten African Cup of Nations, losing every game and there is a suspicion they could be the weakest African qualifiers for several tournaments. Putting out Senegal in a weak African group was considered quite an achievement but a defeat to Zambia and lucky win against Mali somewhat put that into context. There are stories of a huge bust up between the former coach and Adebayor during the African Cup which, seemingly, haven’t entirely been resolved despite the arrival of experienced German coach Otto Pfister. Given that they players, allegedly, backed the coach, most countries would have ditched Adebayor like a shot but, Togo seemingly don’t have that luxury, he’s their only world class player.

It would be a major surprise if their World Cup lasted longer than three games.

Group H
Saudi Arabia
Qualifying for their fourth consecutive World Cup, it very much depends on which Saudi Arabia bothers to turn up. If it’s the national Girls Under-12 XI who decided to give Germany shooting practice four years ago then Shevchenko, Raul and the like will be chomping at the bit to get started. if, on the other hand, it’s the team that stunned Belgium in 1994 … but it probably won’t be.

Now that Sami Al-Jaber’s woeful spell at Wolves is just vague and a distant memory, let’s be charitable and say that they’ve got former Asian player of the year in Nawaf Al-Temyat. And that’s about it. A lack of overseas experience doesn’t help, they struggled to overcome the might of Kuwait and Uzbekistan in their qualifiers and will do well to get a point, frankly.

Spain
Here we go again. Spain, the perpetual under-achievers. The Newcastle United of international football. Annoying. Infuriating. But, just occasionally, when they stop fighting for five minutes, breathtaking. If they get their shit together, the rest of the world should watch out big style. But, it's a *big* "IF"! Because we all remember four years ago, and eight years ago, and twelve years ago, and every world cup and European Championship (1984 aside) as far back as anyone can remember and those stupid, ridiculous defeats against Nigeria, Belgium, Yugoslavia. Etc. Etc. Etc. You look at this on the surface and the question simply HAS to be asked, how in the name of Alfonso Di Stefano have Spain never done NOTHING on the international stage (okay, they won the Nations Cup in 1964 but that was a fluke!). You look at every squad they produced and, like as not, it’ll be frightening.

Well, this time they laid one old ghost at least, avenging that calamitous 1986 defeat to Belgium by putting them out and then beating Slovakia in a play-off. Luis Aragonés’s team is the usual mix of terrifying flair and abundant strength - del Horno, Puyol, Salgado, Xabi Alonso, Fàbregas, Luis García, Iniesta, Joaquin, Raúl, Reyes. They’ve abandoned the experiment of four years ago when the picked a squad (Mendieta aside) entirely La Liga-based. This time, they’ve brought back all the big guns and they want this badly. Aragonés, of course, as we all know is bonkers. I mean, mad as toast. Known for his outrageous outbursts and despicable racism along with his uncanny habit of changing formations at the drop of a hat. And yet, for all that Spain are unbeaten since he took over in the summer of 2004.

Raul has had a poor season (as, indeed, have all the Real Madrid players … and it should also be noted the Barcelona’s success was largely based on their foreign imports). The experiment of playing him and Fernando Torres together simply hasn’t worked and it’s likely that Valencia’s free-scoring David Villa could start up front. Another Valencia man, Albelda will provide the midfield solidity in a straight 4-4-2 system that has width and pace - you’re a Saudi Arabian full back and you have Reyes and/or Luis Garcia coming at you as 1000 miles and hour, do you a) sh*t yourself or b) sh*t yourself and try to stop him?

Spain should win their group. And they probably will. They should easily reach the quarter finals, at least. Past history suggests they probably won’t.

Tunisia
The resurgence of Tunisian football over the last two and half years under the wise old head of Roger Lemerre and following their thrilling 2004 African Cup of Nations victory has been one of the brightest stories to come out of the continent. A free-scoring side with a lethal pair of poachers up front, Tunisia looked to be heading into the tournament bag full of confidence. But injuries to several key players – particularly their potential match-winner Haykel Guemamdia – have left their preparations in tatters. Defensive experience in Jaidi, Trabelsi and Yahia of St. Ètienne means that Unisia are nobody’s pushovers anymore but, frankly, the midfield looks one-paced Adel Chedli being their one bit of genuine quality (particularly if Mehdi Nafti still hasn’t recovered from the jury that kept him out for most of Birmingham’s calamitous season). Without the missing Guemamdia, the burden of responsibility falls on Brazilian-born Francileudo dos Santos who forged such an effective partnership with the Strasbourg star.

They’ll be hard to break down and Jaidi will be a huge threat from free-kicks but a place in the second round may, just, be beyond them.

Ukraine
And so we reach the 32nd side and my outside tip for the cup. Reaching their first World Cup final since independence from the Soviet Union by cruising a group that included both Denmark and European Champions Greece whilst not conceding a single goal for the best part of 7 matches, Oleg Blokhin’s boys are a rare, heavy mixture or aggression, guile and frightening pace. And despite the former’s wilderness years at White Hart Lane and Upton Park and despite the latter having an oddly unremarkable season (by his standards) at AC Milan, in the last few games that they’ve played together Serhiy Rebrov and Andriy Shevchenko have started to roll back the years and remind us all of those glorious days in the late 90s when if you drew Dynamo Kiev in the Champions League you didn’t make plans for the next round.

Built, largely, around the formidable Kiev and Shakhtar Donetsk defence and midfield units – watch out for playmaker Ruslan Rotan and winger Anatoliy Tymoschuk especially. The real question seems to be how they will accommodate Shevchenko, Rebrov and the brilliant Andriy Voronin in the same team (the answer is that they may opt for something like 4-4-1-1 and leave Rebrov on the bench at least in the opening games). There’s also some considerable irony in the fact that Andriy Husyn, told by the Smoggies that he was too slow for the premiership is heading for the biggest tournament in the world and, for instance, George Boateng isn’t. Laugh? Laugh? I nearly…

This tournament’s surprise package? Are Ukraine the new Croatia? The new South Korea? If Shevchenko gets the ammunition, their opponents will face the firing squad.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Everyday I Read the Book...

Okay boppers, here's the latest from the madcap, zany, wacky and outrageous world of publishing. The last two Book Club shows have featured the following reviews:

Show 6 - 8th May
1. Karen Armstrong - The Great Transformation (Atlantic)
2. Harry Thompson - Penguins Stopped Play (John Murray)
3. Mandy Ambert - Geordie and the Spaceman (Author House)
4. David Nicholson-Lord - Planet Earth: The Making of an Epic Series (BBC Books)
5. Nick Hornby - A Long Way Back (Penguin)
6. Guy de la Bédoyère - Roman Britain: A New History (Thames & Hudson)
7. Guy de la Bédoyère - Hadrian's Wall: History and Guide (Tempus Books)
8. May Quick Reads:
Hunter Davies - I Love Football (Headline)
Gareth Roberts - I Am a Dalek (BBC Books)
Danny Wallace - ... and the Centre of the Universe (Ebury press)
Andy McNab - The Grey Man (Corgi)
Val McDermid - Cleanskin (Harper/Collins)

Show 7 - 5th June
1. Ray Banks - Saturdays Child (Polygon)
2. Matt Weiland & Sean Wilsey (ed) - The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup (Abacus)
3. Joe Boyd - White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s (Serpent's Tail)
4. David Mitchell - Black Swan Green (Sceptre)
5. Vic Reeves - Me: Moir (Virgin)
6. Sandra Perkins - A Very British Strike (McMillan)
7. That Wretched Little Communist Bill Oddie - An Introduction to Birdwatching (New Holland)

And, if you'd like to listen to the June show, it's available online:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/tyne/content/articles/2006/02/09/radio_newcastle_book_club_feature.shtml

Also received during May:

Linda Blandford - Sharpe Cut (Harper/Collins)
John Foot - Calcio: A History of Italian Football (Fourth Estate)
Mick Middles and Lindsay Reade - Torn Apart: The Life of Ian Curtis (Omnibus)
Emma Hartley - 50 Facts You Need to Know: Europe (Icon)
Norman Dabell - One Hand on the Claret Jug (Mainstream)
Brian Cookson - Crossing the River (Mainstream)
John Farndon - Everything You Need to Know About Iran (Icon)
James Essinger - Spellbound (Robson Books)
Pelé: The Autobiography (Simon & Shuster)

As those of you who frequent the Ask Keith Topping message board (http://www.gallifreyone.com/forum/forumdisplay.php?s=&daysprune=&f=14) may know, my mother had a very nasty accident earlier this week - tripped up on Wallsend High Street and bashed up her face, hands and knee pretty good.

She's now home after a couple of days of hospital shenangians but, obviously, I'm a bit limited in terms of the amount of time I'm going to be online for the moment (shopping, fetching, carrying, visiting, etc). At least, until the World Cup starts, then I'll be online pretty much permenantly and she can fend for herself!

So, anyway, a big thank you to everyone who sent their best wishes. She's exceptional grateful if a bit befuddled by whom all of these people who she's never met actually are!

PS: Oh, and a quick reminder that Triquetra, my book on the TV show Charmed is now available from Telos publishing (http://www.telos.co.uk/). Please buy one, several or lots as I really need the money.