Thursday, 10 June 2010

The Preview

The countdown is almost over. The World Cup is 24 hours away. Here is my first preview - starting, surprisingly, with Groups A and B. There'll be a preview of England's match with the USA and Group C as a whole tomorrow night as well as a review of the first two games of the tournament.

Group A is probably the most difficult group to predict, any of the 4 teams have a realistic shot at not just qualifying, but winning the group. On paper France are the best side, but they are hampered by having a slightly dodgy manager and by the fact that their senior players are past their best. It's a cliche, but there is normally a shock in the group stages, and I fear for France. South Africa are not anything special, considerable pressure is on Steven Pienaar to deliver. If he doesn't have a good tournament they'll really be in trouble but home advantage may well help them to scrape second place in the group. As Mexico showed at Wembley, they are technically excellent and play good football. However, they're going to have to bring their shooting boots to get anywhere in the competition and not repeat some fairly shocking marking at corners which was their downfall against England. Uruguay have two of the most in form strikers in the world up front together. Diego Forlan, who fired Atletico to Europa League victory and Luis Suarez, who finished the season with a quite phenomenal goalscoring record at Ajax - 48 in 49 games.

Ultimately I think this group might be very, very close. Mexico have been slightly unlucky with the draw, as South Africa in the first game will be incredibly fired up, and I expect the home support to be fanatical and intimidating. There isn't a great deal of big game experience in the Mexican side and I think they'll struggle. There's also the possibility that the vuvuzela's might have driven them to suicide by the end of the game. Uruguay and South Africa to just about shade it, and France to crash out at the first hurdle.

In Group B it's hard to see past Argentina to qualify at a canter. Despite the criticism of Maradona, in reality they actually have a more settled line up than England. The team who'll start the first game against Nigeria on Saturday is pretty much set in stone. Of course, there is always a worry/probability that El Diego might pick himself or do something equally mental at some point, but if he keeps his head they are genuine contenders. Despite the sheer quantity of brilliant attacking players in the squad it seems they are going to play a fairly controlled style of football, not as expansive as they could. The creative burden will fall on Lionel Messi and the inexperienced (at international level) Angel Di Maria. The second place team is a bit of a lottery. Greece still play in a similar way to the side that won Euro 2004, but not as well. It's unlikely they'll be able to surprise and frustrate opposition in the same way they did 6 years ago. It would be a shock if they got out of the group or even if they avoid bottom spot. South Korea are workmanlike but lacking in genuine talent. Again, they are unlikely to reproduce their performance of 2002 on home soil, but they may well just have enough about them to reach the round of 16 - assuming they don't benefit from 'questionable' refereeing this time. Nigeria are strong in attack, Yakubu and Obafemi Martins are powerful strikers but the supply to them will be the key if they are to do anything in South Africa. John Obi Mikel is out of the tournament and that will be a big blow, they need all the experience they can get. It leaves the ever so slightly worrying prospect of the midfield being built around Dickson Etuhu. The key match will be the final group game in Durban against South Korea, probably a playoff for second place.

I think South Korea will scrape a victory, and join Argentina in the second round.

These results would give us second round matches of Uruguay vs South Korea and Argentina vs South Africa. From an English point of view, it really blows their side of the draw wide open - and could give them a relatively simple path to the semi final. I'll talk about whether they will be good enough to take advantage of that tomorrow.

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