Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Group G preview

In every world cup there is a group that gets tagged with the "group of death label". For those not in the know this means that the particular group in question is stacked with usually three extremely strong teams, which if drawn in different groups would probably be favorites to advance to the round of 16. This year the group that is being tagged with this label is group G. With perennial favorites Brazil, European power Portugal, African favorite Cote D'Ivoire one of these favorites dreams will end in the very first round. North Korea as also drawn in this group however so little is known about the isolated nation that it is very hard to preview them. This should be one of the most interesting groups to watch as three attacking teams and one unknown wild card could cause some serious fireworks in the opening round.

The 2006 semi finalist will be looking to repeat their feat of four years ago with a newer looking team then the one selected in 06. Portugal in the past 10 years has become a serious player in world football producing some of the most individually gifted players in the world. From Luis Figo to Pauletta, Simão to Cristiano Ronaldo, this squad does not lack talent. However what it might lack this time around is the discipline and the coaching prowess that was around in 2006. Gone is the experienced Luiz Felipe Scolari who seemed to squeeze the best out of his players during his reign. In is Carlos Queiroz who as great as No. 2 at Manchester United during their 3 title run, but has lacked the cutting edge running a team on his own. The team at times looked out of sync during qualifying for the tournament, and at times struggled to score against opposition they should have beaten pretty easily. They felt it to a last minute play off in order to seal qualification.

In terms of the key players for Portugal, the most obvious is captain and former world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo. Almost all of the forward play runs through the winger/Forward, he is one of the best dribblers of the ball in the world and he is a dead ball specialist. The issue that most people have seen with Portgual is that they have become over reliant on Ronaldo, at times giving him the ball and just watching him make a move without moving themselves. This at times leaves the Real Madrid man isolated with 2 or 3 defenders around him at all times. When this happens Portugal need players like Simão and Deco to step up a lighten the scoring load off of Ronaldo. At time they have look brilliant in this capacity, however most of the time Portugal struggles to score goals with Ronaldo which in a group this Strong could be the squads downfall.

The smart money will be on Portugal to make it through in the second spot, however there is something that does not feel right about this squad. I do not feel or see the unity that carried them through one of the nastiest games in world cup history, I'm speaking of the quarter final games against the Netherlands in 2006 in which their team unity over came the physical challenge the Dutch posed. Because of that I do not think Portugal will advance...but I've been wrong before.

Cote D'Ivoire:
After impressing at their first world cup appearance in 2006, the Ivory Coast will be hoping the 2010 bring them more luck and a place in the round of 16. Les Elephants are they are known play a high tempo attacking brand of football with emphasis on strong creative play in the midfield, and excellent finishing upfront. Les Elephants had a fairly easy qualifying group in Africa, never really being in trouble through out. Along with Ghana Cote D'Ivoire are considered the continents best chance at winning its first world cup. However just like Ghana it has been drawn into a very tough group with two extremely difficult games in which they must win at least one in order to ensure advancement to the second round.

Like Portugal, the Ivory Coast boasts its own world class player in reigning African footballer of the year Didier Drogba. He is considered to be one of the best forwards in the world, mixing strength and pace with enough finesse to beat most defenders and goalkeepers. Drogba is usually the beginning and the end of Les Ele's attack. Which makes his recent injury, a broken forearm a huge concern to the team. It also leaves a massive hole in their attack which will have to be filled by a number of players.

This is a very talented squad with players who can begin to fill in the potential void felt by Drogba's absence. His Chelsea teammate Solomon Kalou has the ability to be a top striker on his day, though he does not possess the strength Drogba has, he has a bit more pace and is just as good a finisher. Cote D'Ivoire also have some young players who could make a huge impact now that they maybe given the chance to shine by manager Sven-Goran Eriksson. Gervinho is an exciting attacking player that can either play up front with Kalou, or can play on the wing and attack. I'm tipping him to be a potential break out star for the tournament. Goals could also come from the midfield from either Barcelona all rounder Yaya Toure or attacking midfielder Kader Keita.

The race for the second spot will be a serious fight between Portugal and Ivory Coast, and this is a fight I believe Les Elephants will win. I believe the they have a better back four than Portugal, I also believe that in the goal scoring department they can at least equal Portugal. Even surpass them if they can contain Cristiano Ronaldo. So given that and the fact that Les Elephants will be playing in front of a defacto home crowd, I'm inclined to give the nod to Cote D'Ivoire.

North Korea:
Little is known about the national football team, in the same way as little is known about the North Korean way of life. The NK's only world cup appearance was in 1966 where they impressed making the quaterfinals. However this version of the squad is made up of mainly of North Korean league players and a few from the J-league in Japan.

The North will bring a vastly inexperienced squad internationally to South Africa. Since most of the players apply their trade in North Korea most pundits have had little chance to see the quality of its players, or how the team likes to line up. From the few qualifying games available the team plays a defensive style of football. They look to counter off mistakes in the build up play of their opponents in the midfield; they also look to cross in balls from the flanks to their forwards. This is also a very physical team who will not hesitate to “get stuck in” as the English like to day.

Just like in 1966 this team is expected to lose every game in this group of death. However due to the fact that so few people outside of Asia have seen the team perform, I cannot rule out the possibility of an upset draw or even a win. Although that scenario looks unlikely the world cup always provides its share of complete surprise teams. Could North Korea throw a wrench into the plans of the big three teams in the group?....Probably not.

There is very little need for me to go into the history of the greatest national team in footballing history. They are 5 time world champions for a reason; this nation produces the best footballers in the world. Like Hockey is to Canada, football is to Brazil. It is the only nation to have played in every single world cup that has been held, plus it is favourite to win every tournament it enters. However over the past 2-3 years the team has been criticized by the footballing press and by Brazil supporters for playing a less than entertaining style of play. Under manager and world cup winning captain Dunga; the team has started to play a more European style of football in which the result is more important than the beauty of the play. This was a reason given as to why Brazil was unsuccessful in repeating as world champion in 2006.

Brazil along with Spain have no visible weaknesses outside of beating themselves on a given day. This team is stacked in every position and anyone on the Brazil squad can go forward with the ball and score. There are too many key players to mention in once breathe, however I’ll mention one that does not always get the limelight. Team captain Lúcio is one of the best center backs in the world, he his strong in his positional play and does an excellent job in organizing the defensive line. He also can dribble the ball like a skilled midfielder and has no problems going forward; he demonstrated this during last year’s Confederations Cup tournament. He was able to break down teams and set up a few goals for the forwards and score a few himself. Once you also add Kaká, Luís Fabiano, Robinho, Elano etc it becomes hard to see any other outcome but top of the group and a run to the finals.

This team will score goals, the question on the minds of many will be their style of play. As mentioned above the manager has changed the style of play to include a bit more emphasis on defensive responsibility. Some will question if this more conservative style will help Brazil win, but one thing is certain; Brazil will progress to the second round.

Brazil in top spot, Cote D’Ivoire in second. Heartbreak for Portugal and a week out for North Korea.

One more to go! Group H next.


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