FIFA World Cup Preview- Group D
Group D looks somewhat straightforward with Portugal being the clear favourites. Mexico are amongst the best sides in the world, and should be able to beat a skillful Iranian side to the second qualification spot. Angola are the outsiders in this group. The problem with qualification from this group is that the qualifying teams will set up a showdown with the qualifiers from the Group of Death in the second round.
Portugal is one of the strongest teams around. A skillful team with a delightful blend of youth and experience, the team has been rebuilt almost completely by 'Big Phil' Luiz Felipe Scolari after the Golden Generation moved on. One of the few survivors of that gloriously underachieving team is Luis Figo, arguably the greatest player in the country's history after Eusebio. The Inter midfieler will be at hand to lend some experience to a youthful side that has not witnessed many major tournaments.
Inspite of Figo's presence, most Portuguese fans are pinning their hopes on the shoulders of the young and talented, if somewhat erratic, Manchester United winger Cristiano Ronaldo (in pic). The flamboyant number seven is known for his stepovers and bursts of pace that often leave defenders redfaced. He has often been criticised for needless trickery, especially at club level. However, for his nation, he has been a stellar performer over the last three years and will be keen to display his dazzling talents at the World Cup Finals.
He is ably supported in midfield by Barcelona star Deco, who is likely to display his status as one of the world's most valuable midfielders. Winger Simao is more than capable of causing a few tears to opposition fullbacks and will prove to be quite a handful. Maniche is a skillful player with fabulous technique but might end up watching from the sidelines after half a season on loan at Chel$ki that saw him make very good friends with the subs' bench. Midfielders competing for the holding role include Costinha, Hugo Viana and Armando Petit. Lyon's Tiago will be another midfielder to watch. This lot will try to provide service to Pauleta up front, while sitting in front of a strong defence that includes, Paulo Ferreira, Miguel, Ricardo Carvalho, Nuno Valente, and Fernando Meira, among others. They will of course be backed up by goalkeeper Ricardo, one of the stars of Euro 2004, who has been chosen as number one ahead of Quim and Bruno Vale. The main strategy will be to burst down the wings and play the ball into the one man up front, though Pauleta can also be replaced by Helder Postiga, the experienced Nuno Gomes, and Fulham's combative forward Luis Boa Morte. All in all a tough team to beat.
Mexico is one of the strongest unseeded teams, and is strong inspite of coach Ricardo Lavolpe's unusual selection policies, which include dropping the country's biggest star Cuauhtemoc Blanco and picking his son-in-law Rafael Garcia. The country's main strength is its defensive setup, which includes a talented shotstopper in Oswaldo Sanchez and a tough tackling back four, also capable of burst down the field, that comprises Carlos Salcido, Barca defender Rafael Marquez and 37 year old Carlos Suarez, among others. The midfield is a little suspect, but the team has many world class strikers to get the goals no matter how poor the service is. Jared Borghetti is the team's all time leading scorer, and is backed up by Jose Fonseca and the somewhat out of form but ever enthusiastic Guillermo Franco (remember his seven misses in the Champs League semifinal second leg?).
The only challenge to Mexico for the second qualifying spot will be from Iran. The team has many players who played as youngsters at France 98. In Ali Daei, they have the all time leading goalscorer in men's football at the international level. Ali Karimi, a former Asian Player of the Year, is a star at Bayern Munich, and the team also has other Germany based players such as Vahid Hashemian and Mehdi Mahdavikia. The team's strength is its attack, but it is also capable of dour defence when required.
Angola are rank outsiders in this group, and this World Cup will serve as a launchpad for future success for the team rather than an immediate impact on the world stage.
ASSESSMENT/PREDICTIONS- Portugal will go through qualification without much hassle. Mexico should also go through easily, but Iran is capable of giving a few scares.