Thursday, June 08, 2006

FIFA World Cup Preview- Group C

If you thought that the last post was long drawn and boring, then this might just about break every record possible. We are talking about the famed group of death, and this year it features Argentina, Holland, Serbia and Montenegro (the stingiest defence in qualification, with plenty of goals to boot), and the strongest of the African representatives, the Ivory Coast.
First up, Argentina. Another team that has pinned its hopes on a youngster recovering from injury, in this case Lionel Messi, who has already made his comeback, as has tough Manchester United defender Gabriel Heinze. Messi is the latest in a long line of players to be christened the new Maradona, and only the second to be named so by El Diego himself. The first one, Andreas D'Alessandro, has been dropped from the team after a string of indifferent performances for Wolfsburg, followed by many flashy, yet ineffective appearances for Portsmouth.
Another star the team will rely on is Villareal midfielder Juan Roman Riquelme. Inspite of a crucial penalty miss in the Champions League semifinal against Arsenal, the former Barca player has had a good season, and is heading into this tournament as the team's most valuable player. He heads an all star cast in the nidfield department that features Pablo Aimar, Luis Gonzalez, Javier Mascherano, and Esteban Cambiasso among others. This midfield sits in front of a defence comprising players like Robarto Ayala, Heinze, skipper Juan Pablo Sorin, Fabricio Coloccini, Lionel Scaloni and Gabriel Milito. Sorin is likely to link up with the midfield. The only controversy regarding this back line is the absence of veteran wingback Javier Zanetti, but it seems unlikely that he will be missed in such an all star cast. One problem, here, however, is that Ayala is the only natural centreback in the squad. Coach Jose Pekerman will end up converting a wingback to centreback. Similarly, the midfield has no wingers of repute. All the players are central midfielders. Hence, Pekerman may move Mascherano to the right and use Sorin or Messi on the left wing, or the other way around.
Up front, the team has no problems, with world class forwards such as Hernan Crespo, Messi, Carlos Tevez, Javier Saviola and in form Inter forward Julio Ricardo Cruz. The only conceivable weakness in this team appears to be the vacancies out on the wing.
Holland boasts of a squad complete in every respect. Brazil coach Carlos Alberto Parreira called it the most complete squad in the world. And with Marco van Basten in charge, the infamous Dutch infighting appears to have ceased. Edwin van der Sar in goal has long been considered one of the best goalkeepers in the world, and is full of confidence after a good season with his new club, Manchester United. The defence features world class defenders like Kew Jaliens, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Liverpool's Jan Kromkamp, Andre Ooijer, Johnny Heitinga, and Tim De Cler, with veteran Philippe Cocu sitting in front of the defence to protect it. More likely, Marc van Bommel will play that holding role in midfield. Other stars in midfield include Rafael van der Vaart and Wesley Sneijder, both Ajax Amsterdam products. The forward line has considerable pedigree, led by Manchester United striker (may leave the club soon) Ruud van Nistelrooy, young Gunner Robin van Persie, Feyenoord forward Dirk Kuyt, Chelsea's Arjen Robben (likely to play a supporting role on the flanks to the other forward players), Ajax forward Ryan Babel, and PSV Eindhoven's Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, known as much for his goalscoring feats as his regal name.
There are a few weaknesses with this team, however. Coming into the competition, the goalscoring forwards are slightly out of form, with the exception of Dirk Kuyt. Many are criticising van Basten's decision to leave behind red hot Ajax striker Klaas Jan Huntelaar, who underlined his class this past weekend with a brace in the U-21 European Championships final to help Holland to a 3-0 victory over Ukraine. A more serious problem is that of injuries to several key players, including van der Vaart, Sneijder, and Cocu. A few players have been named on standby, and van Basten has until tomorrow to decide if he wants to use them.
The Ivory Coast and Serbia and Montenegro are less historic teams than their group rivals, but are very strong. The strongest of Africa's representatives to this tournament, the Ivory Coast are led by Didier Drogba, who has displayed the sort of form for his nation that his club Chelsea is still looking to him to reproduce in the Premiership. Other players with top level experience are Arsenal defenders Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Eboue, former Auxerre defender Cyrille Domoraud, Didier Zokora and Aruna Dindane. This team is built to score, and whether or not it goes through, it will entertain.
In contrast, Serbia and Montenegro is more noted for its stingy defence, which conceded only one goal in qualifying, with its back four, comprising Manchester United's Nemanja Vidic, Goran Gavrancic, Ivica Dragutinovic and Mladen Krstajic, being christened the 'Famous Four' (okay, maybe creativity is not the strong point of the S & M media!). Up front, too, they are a potent force, through Savo Milosevic and Atletico Madrid striker Mateja Kezman. The latter, a Chelsea reject, is in great form and will be their main source of goals. In midfield, too, they are strong, with Daniel Ljuboja, Dejan Stankovic and Predrag Djordjevic being renowned playmakers on the European mainland. Their star midfielder, Zvonimir Vukic, however, pulled out of the squad due to an injury. He was replaced by coach Ilja Petkovic's son Dusan, but allegations of nepotism led to Dusan walking out of the camp, although perfectly fit. Under these circumstances, S & M will travel to Germany with 22 players instead of 23.
ASSESSMENT/PREDICTIONS- Argentina and Holland to go through, though it will be hard work against S & M and the Ivory Coast. Argentina and Holland will look to make up for 2002, when joint favourites Argentina crashed out in the first round and Holland didn't even make it to Korea and Japan. This time, they have weaknesses which can be exploited (Argentina's flanks are exposed, Holland has to look for 1-0 wins in its matches), but they should make it through.

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