Tuesday, 22 June 2010

World Cup so far: Group A and B preview

So the last time I wrote, it was the end of the first round of matches, and there were serious concerns about the lack of goals and truly exciting games. As it turns out, our fears were proven wrong, with the second round of matches providing us with some of the really exciting and entertaining football that we associate with the World Cup. Now every team has played their second game, and we find ourselves with 8 groups with something to play for in each one.

Only two teams have qualified so far (Netherlands & Brazil), and only two have been eliminated (Cameroon & North Korea). From now on the early games are over, and we have 4 games per day. What this means is that there are two games at 3pm (11am here in Brazil), and two games at 7.30pm (3.30pm here). Now what I want to do here is write a wee bit about each group, and preview the two final matches that are ahead, giving you a clear idea about what is at stake, and the conditions needed for each team to progress. So let's begin with Tuesday's games, Groups A and B.


Remaining fixtures: France x South Africa, Mexico x Uruguay (both 1500 BST, 1100 BRT)

Group A has been an interesting one so far, from the exuberant and plucky hosts South Africa, to a failing France side, to the excellent Americans Uruguay and Mexico. Matchday 1 saw every team leave with one point, Mexico being held by a great South Africa performance, and Uruguay and France playing out a bore 0-0 draw. The interesting stuff came in the second matchday, with an impressive Uruguay bringing the hosts down to earth with a 3-0 victory, and Mexico pulling off a relatively unexpected 2-0 victory over France.

Uruguay and Mexico, both with four points, will be expected to qualify. While either France or South Africa would need a big win in their last game, and hope the two Americans do not play out a draw against eachother.

France x South Africa

This should be an interesting match. Both teams know that anything less than a win (and a big win at that) will see them eliminated from the tournament. From a French point of view, this is already a disastrous World Cup, and only reaching the final would redeem them. On the field, results have been extremely disappointing, with only one point from a possible six, and not even one goal scored. Off the field there are more problems, striker Nicolas Anelka has been sent home after criticising boss Raymond Domenech at half time during the Mexico defeat, and Patrice Evra had to be separated from fitness coach Robert Duverne after the two had a heated disagreement in training.

Things have truly gone from bad to worse for Les Bleus, and now Domenech has said there is a possibility that some of his squad "may boycott" this final game against South Africa.

Despite having the same results, the mood in the South Africa camp is much more positive compared to that of the French. Bafana Bafana are on the verge of becoming the first ever host nation to exit the tournament at the group stage, but they are looking to end on a high note with a memorable victory over France.

Mathematically speaking, both nations can still progress to the next stage if either side can win and overcome the goal difference of either Uruguay or Mexico. It may be unlikely, but it is still a definite possibility.

Prediction: Should be a really good competitive game, France will try to do whatever they can to avoid another defeat, but Bafana Bafana will be driven on by thousands of supporters to try and record a famous win.


Mexico x Uruguay

Before the World Cup, many would have expected this one to be the deciding match as to who would secure the second qualifying spot behind France. As it turns out, this is the match between the two sides who top the group and look big favourites to qualify. Mexico and Uruguay have both impressed so far, Uruguay put three past South Africa in their last game, and Mexico outplayed the French and won 2-0. As a reward for their performances previously, both sides now only require one point to qualify, and even a defeat for either side should still see them through to the last 16.

Despite the fact both teams have one foot in the next round, there is still a lot to play for here. Whoever wins the game will finish in first position in the group, meaning they should avoid big-guns Argentina in the last 16, so this game is still going to be competitive.

Prediction: My money is still going to be on a draw, but both teams will go out to win and we should see a good game with two good sides.

Mexico 1x1 Uruguay


Remaining fixtures: Nigeria x Korea Republic, Greece x Argentina (both 1930 BST, 1530 BRT)

Another interesting group so far, early favourites Argentina have strolled to the top as expected, but the real interesting battle will come for second place. South Korea got the group started, with a 2-0 win over Greece, and they were soon joined at the top by Argentina who defeated Nigeria 1-0. The next matchday produced more goals and excitement, as Argentina preserved their 100% record with an emphatic 4-1 defeat over Korea Republic, and Greece recorded their first ever World Cup victory with a 2-1 win against 10-man Nigeria.

Korea Republic look in the best position to finish in second place, but in truth either the Koreans, the Greeks or the Nigerians could find their way into the second round.

Nigeria x Korea Republic

Nigeria go into this last game with zero points and only one goal, but still with a possible chance of qualification. The Super Eagles have been a little unlucky to find themselves with no points, after a pretty good performance against Argentina losing only one goal, but the 2-1 loss against Greece was unforgivable.

Personal errors were to blame for the defeat. It began with star keeper Vincent Enyeama flapping at a long range shot to allow Torosidis to score, and then previously impressive Kaita got himself sent off after a silly outburst, leaving them with only ten men. Their luck seemed completely gone when striker Chinedu Obasi missed a golden opportunity to bring them level late in the game.

On the other hand, the South Koreans have impressed so far. A great performance against Greece got them off to the best possible start, but a 4-1 defeat against Argentina was harsh on the Koreans who had a relatively good game. Many will now believe that second place is South Korea's to lose.

Nigeria's objective is clear, the only scenario that allows them to qualify is if they defeat Korea Republic, and Argentina beat Greece in the other fixture. I'm sure you will agree that it is surely a possible outcome, and the fact that they know only a win will be enough may give them the encouragement and incentive to go for the win. However their opponents are in the completely opposite position, mathematically even if they were to win against Nigeria, they could still be eliminated if Greece were to achieve a better result against the Argentinians.

Prediction: Although the qualification of either of these teams hinges on the other fixture, this one will be exciting. Nigeria need a win, but do not expect Korea to give it up easily.

Nigeria 1x1 Korea Republic

Greece x Argentina

Now Argentina are virtually assured of qualification, needing to lose by three goals or more to have a chance of being eliminated. Even though they are under very little pressure, do not expect Maradona's men to settle for anything less than a victory. Some players may be rested, but there a lot of players who have a lot to prove and will be looking to make it into the first eleven like Kun Aguero, Milito etc.

Greece will be buoyed by the fact they managed to get their first World Cup win in their last game, and now the prospect of qualifying for the next round will have Greek confidence at an all-time high. Losing is not an option for Greece, and they will surely do everything they can to avoid that and better the result of their main qualification rivals Korea Republic.

Prediction: Being in Brazil, this is the game I'll be watching. Should be an interesting one unless Argentina flex their muscles and put the game to bed early. Greece will battle hard, and if they can avoid mistakes, they should give Argentina a good game.

Greece 0x2 ARGENTINA

Thursday, 17 June 2010

World Cup so far: Winners & Losers

So the World Cup has finally begun, and every team has now played their first group game (except for South Africa + Uruguay, who at the time of writing have just completed their 2nd match). It has been a strange tournament so far, goals are at an all-time low, only 28 goals after 17 matches (there were 40 goals at this point in 2006, and 48 in 2002), but the passion and excitement is still there.

I've been impressed by the staging of the World Cup by our hosts South Africa. The stadiums look amazing, support is strong and the vuvuzelas are so loud that everyday life now seems to be accompanied by a low buzzing sound as someone watches highlights nearby.

The first round of games is usually where the big teams are tested and often nations are completely written off depending on their first result. What I'm going to do here is just have a look at the big winners (and losers) of the World Cup so far. So let's start with the positive side, the nations who will be the happiest after their first games...

Korea Republic

I've predicted Korea Republic to have a good tournament this year, and they got off to the best possible start with a 2-0 victory over group rivals Greece. This was a must win for the Koreans if they are going to have a chance of getting through this group, and with tough games against Argentina and Nigeria to come, the importance of this result is massive.

The South Koreans played some nice football, and capitalised on some errors in concentration in the Greek defence to score twice. The first goal came early, after only 7 minutes, when a neat free-kick from Ki Sung-Yeung found Lee Jung-Soo at the back post who volleyed home. The second goal came 7 minutes into the second half, a terribly misplaced pass from Vyntra handed possession to Park Ji-Sung, the Manchester United midfielder then took the ball past his man and beat the keeper with a lovely finish.

Korea Republic now go in to tomorrow's game against Argentina full of positives, and they will fancy themselves to spring a surprise result against Maradona's men.


One of the most successful nations in the history of the World Cup, the Germans entered this year's tournament with various injury troubles, a tough group and a seemingly pessimistic attitude. However, these worries will have been washed away by now, with Deutschland finding themselves named as "the team to beat" after an emphatic 4-0 win over Australia on Sunday.

Everything worked out nicely for the Germans, taking an early lead through Podolski and then getting another through Miroslav Klose to go in at half time with a 2-0 lead. Their opponents were left in further trouble when star man Tim Cahill was red-carded, and Germany then exploited their one-man advantage, finding two more goals through Thomas Müller and substitute Cacau.

It was a fabulous result against a sorry looking Australia side, and it leaves Germany top of Group D, only requiring one more win to seal their place in the next round. The hard work is most certainly not over for Germany, as their next two games are arguably the toughest, against Serbia and then Ghana.


There has been a lot said about the Japanese national team in the build up to the tournament, many people (including myself) doubted the team's quality and whether they would be able to finish Group E with any points. Despite that, the Samurai Blue got the job done on Monday when they nicked a 1-0 win against Cameroon in Bloemfontein.

This game was by no means a classic match, with both sides lacking in flair and concentration at times, but Japan dug in for the result after taking the lead on 39 minutes through Keisuke Honda. The goal was a little more about poor Cameroon marking than Japanese quality, but it was a good cross from Matsui, and a composed finish from Honda.

Their opponents were poor, Samuel Eto'o was not himself, showing the form that drew criticism from Cameroon national icon Roger Milla, suggesting he only plays well for his club as opposed to his country. In a very tough group with Netherlands and Denmark being their other opponents, Japan will be delighted to be able to go into those games knowing that any results will give them a healthy chance of qualifying.


No doubt the most surprising result of the tournament so far, Switzerland are our other big winners after their 1-0 win against tournament favourites Spain earlier on today. Group H is, in my opinion, the real 'Group of Death' in this year's tournament, with favourites Spain, newcomers Honduras, and the hotly tipped duo of Chile and Switzerland. Earlier on we saw Chile battle past Honduras to win 1-0, and then we expected to see a spectacular show of attacking football with Spain heavily favoured to win.

First of all, I have to say Switzerland got it dead right. Their coach Ottmar Hitzfeld is full of experience, and he called the tactics perfectly, allowing Spain to play their attractive brand of passing football, but keeping men behind the ball and starving the Spaniards of space in the key areas. Spain continued to control the game without managing to break down the last line of Swiss defence, and they were punished when Switzerland took a shock lead on the counter-attack through Gelson Fernandes.

Switzerland kept their tactics exactly the same, staying deep and soaking up the Spain pressure. They hit on the counter-attack again with Eren Derdiyok hitting the post after an excellent run, a total shame as it would have been a truly memorable World Cup goal.

Switzerland now have their big match against Chile approaching, and will have to be at their best to get past Bielsa's men and seal qualification.

Now I believe those are the four biggest winners of the World Cup so far, it's still to be seen whether they will be as happy after their second match, but they have made excellent starts.

So it's now time for the four losers.


We have already covered the Greeks briefly when talking about their opponents Korea Republic, and their disappointing 2-0 loss leaves them as one of the tournaments biggest losers so far.

As I mentioned in one of my World Cup preview posts, Greece rely on a strong and water-tight defence to be able to beat teams, and their defensive performance against Korea was nothing short of shocking. South Korea's two goals both came from defensive mistakes, the first goal saw Lee Jung-Soo completely unmarked with three Greek defenders ball-watching, and the second was a horribly misplaced pass in defence.

If this is what happens against South Korea, I dread to think what ultra-offensive Argentina and Nigeria will do to them.


Ok they did not actually lose their first match, but the manner in which England drew 1-1 against rivals USA is why they are one of the biggest losers of the first matches.

Please do not get me wrong, this isn't just an opportunity for me to call England "losers", or give out unfair criticism because I do not support them. England did not play terribly against the USA, and the USA were not particularly good either, but the manner in which they lost the equaliser and their failure to get back in the lead could cause some problems in the side.

Surely you've all seen it by now if you weren't watching at the time, but Robert Green's awful handling error to allow Clint Dempsey's tame shot to roll over the line was so surprising I could hardly believe my eyes as the ball went in. After that moment, England didn't manage to pick themselves up again, squandered some chances and the game finished 1-1.

I've still got no doubt that England will stroll through the group stage, I expect big wins against Algeria and Slovenia, but this result puts a little bit of doubt on whether this is a team capable of going all the way. But on a positive note, this was the best possible time for a setback like this to occur, as England have time to recover and if they hammer both Algeria and Slovenia team morale may be better thanks to the draw.


They are one of my tips to be dark horses this year, but Serbia got off to a poor start losing 0-1 to Ghana. Despite some pretty poor warm-up results, Serbia still have a squad capable of turning heads at this year's tournament. But in Group D with Germany, Australia and Ghana, their opening game against the Black Stars seemed like a must-win.

The game ended up very close, only decided by a Gyan penalty after Kuzmanovic handled the ball in the area with only five minutes remaining. The most worrying part for Serbia is that they failed to show the quality that they have in their team, the defence played well but nothing spectacular and attacking players like Zigic and Milos Krasic didn't get a chance to show off their skills going forward.

The result leaves Serbia chasing qualification from behind, with a huge match against Germany approaching and then the grudge match against rivals Australia, while their main qualification rivals Ghana have the upper hand from the beginning on both points and head-to-head standings.

That said, if Serbia do manage to get a result against the Germans, they would still be in a good position to get one of the qualification places if they can keep their head against Australia.


Again, I touched on Spain's surprise 0-1 defeat against Switzerland earlier. I have included them as one of the biggest losers for a few reasons, the obvious one being that Spain were the favourites to win this tournament at the beginning, and losing the first game is a huge shock.

The other reason is that Spain were a bit unlucky in this game, they didn't play particularly poor, but were left with nothing after 90 minutes. Compare this to the likes of France, Italy and England, who played fairly bad but managed to leave with the draw and gain at least a point.

Spain had opportunities, Xabi Alonso even hit the bar, but Switzerland played a tactically superior game and took all three points. Also to be noted is that Spain were forced to bring a not completely fit Fernando Torres off the bench to try to win the game, something which del Bosque would not have planned unless Spain were comfortably leading the game.

This result now makes this amazing group even more exciting. Switzerland and Chile have three points each, and with Spain expected to beat Honduras next week, it will all be down to Switzerland x Chile and Spain x Chile to see who will grab qualification... It might even go down to goal difference.

Now that's it for now, hope you have enjoyed reading this and have enjoyed the World Cup so far. One more thing before I go, on Tuesday I was at home with ten Brazilians watching Brazil beat Korea DPR 2-1. It was an amazing day, the match was good, but being able to support Brazil and join in the celebrations was so cool. Football is everything here in Brazil and watching that game was an awesome experience. Thanks to everyone involved for an awesome day, and I can't wait until the Ivory Coast game now.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

World Cup News

Just a bit of quick-fire World Cup news from the last week or so... Just to keep you up to date.


The hosts South Africa have released their final 23-man squad for the finals, the main surprise being the omission of their all-time record goalscorer Benni McCarthy. The West Ham striker has been struggling for fitness recently and seems to be a bit out of shape, the team may miss his talismanic goalscoring ability, but it was a brave choice to exclude him.

Meanwhile their group rivals France have made a few surprising choices in their squad selection, leaving out Karim Benzema and Patrick Vieira. Les Bleus forward Thierry Henry has also admitted he expects to feature in this World Cup only as a substitute after failing to get a starting place in France's recent friendlies. The Barca striker said that "the most important thing is the team" and that "we're all in this to go as far as we can together."


Argentina boss Diego Maradona has raised a few more questions surrounding his managerial decisions, as he is choosing to go with four natural centre-backs as his defensive line for this year's Finals. Velez Sarsfield star Nicolas Otamendi is expected to be forced to play as a right-back. Maradona also chose to exclude big names like Riquelme, Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti in his squad selection.

Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel has been pronounced 'fully fit' and has joined up with the rest of the Nigeria squad. Mikel was feared to be a doubt for his side's opener against Argentina after he underwent knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus. The Super Eagles have also had their departure to South Africa delayed, after their aircraft at Stansted Airport "developed unspecified problems". They do not know yet when they will be flying out, but the Nigerian government are sending a new aircraft from Paris to fly the team.

There has been mixed news for the Korea Republic, with in form striker Lee Dong-Gook managing to regain fitness in time to be included in the final squad. However defender Kwak Tae-Hwi has had to pull out of the squad with a knee injury.


England boss Fabio Capello has announced his final 23-man squad for the finals excluding Leighton Baines and Theo Walcott. Baines was expected to be in the squad as back-up for Ashley Cole at left-back, but that spot has been handed to the relatively untested Stephen Warnock. Walcott's exclusion also comes as a surprise, four years on from his shock inclusion in the 2006 World Cup squad.

Group opponents Slovenia have instilled an interesting mentality ahead of their World Cup campaign. Forward Valter Birsa believes they have "nothing to lose". The striker went on to say that "all we can do now is carry on giving our all and fighting for every ball, like we have up until now". Team captain Robert Koren is also reinforcing the team spirit in the Slovenian camp, saying the team do not have individual stars, but a strong unit as a team.


Before the World Cup there are always injuries to important players, this year there have been few more important than Germany's Michael Ballack. The Chelsea star was injured in his team's FA Cup victory over Portsmouth and will miss the finals. This adds to the existing injury problems for the Germans, with 'keeper Rene Adler missing out, and midfielder Trasch is struggling for fitness.

Australia's final squad selection included one Middlesbrough player, while omitting two others. Boro 'keeper Brad Jones will be on the plane to South Africa, whilst right-back Rhys Williams and former Celtic striker Scott McDonald missed the cut. Manager Pim Verbeek has blamed Middlesbrough directly for Williams' exclusion, saying that he had been carrying an injury and continued to play for the Teeside club through a series of injections. Verbeek said he "could never train fully", and the manager was disappointed to have to exclude him.

Despite looking like a squad to really surprise everyone at the finals, Serbia's poor warm-up form has drawn its critics. The problem got serious in their friendly defeat against New Zealand, as fans rioted in the stands. Defender Nemanja Vidic had to act as the peacemaker, addressing the fans via a microphone in the middle of the field, asking for calm.

Along with the aforementioned injury to Michael Ballack, Group D has suffered another major injury, with Ghana losing star player, and fellow Chelsea midfielder, Michael Essien. Essien has been injured since January, but he was confident of making a return in time for the finals. After much assessment, Ghanaian medical experts said he would not be fit until the end of July.

Group E

The Netherlands have chosen not to pick striker Ruud van Nistelrooy for their campaign in South Africa, throwing his international future into extreme doubt. van Nistelrooy has a fabulous record for the Oranje, scoring 33 times in 64 games.

Former Celtic icon Shunsuke Nakamura has recovered in time from an ankle injury to be fit for Japan's World Cup squad. After missing the friendly defeat against England, it was feared that the player (now at Yokohama Marinos) could miss out on the final squad selection due to injury.

Cameroon star man Samuel Eto'o had threatened to pull out of this year's World Cup, after national legend Roger Milla had criticised his performances for the national team. Eto'o has since been named in the final squad and will be taking part at the Finals, but this latest scandal is one of many which could unsettle a talented Cameroon side.


Giuseppe Rossi and Mattia Cassani were surprise exclusions in what is an otherwise very strong Italy squad. However, Rossi and Cassani had both been expected to make the final squad, with Rossi's place taken by Giampaolo Pazzini of Sampdoria, and Cassani being dropped in favour of extra striker Fabio Quagliarella of Napoli.


On Tuesday 11th May, Brazil coach Dunga announced his seleção, sparking many debates all over the world. First of all, there was no room for fantastistas Ronaldinho and Adriano, after they both failed to impress for the national team in recent times. Secondly, Dunga refused to give in to national pressure and select the Santos duo Paulo Henrique Ganso and Neymar. Thirdly, there was surprise inclusions for Wolfsburg striker Grafite and Flamengo midfielder Kleberson (formerly of Manchester United), and surprise exclusions for AC Milan forward Alexandre Pato and Juventus midfielder Diego.

Now, there are a lot of talking points here, and I'll go through them a bit here instead of writing a new article.

I am very pleased with Dunga's selection. The main way he has chosen his team is by those who have impressed when given the chance for the national team. This explains the exclusions of everyone mentioned there. On the other hand, when called upon by the national team, players like Grafite, Josue, Julio Baptista and Kleberson have really impressed.

However there is one player I'd probably have picked instead. Hernanes of Sao Paulo is a 25 year old defensive midfielder, a truly fantastic player, I've always said he could walk into most squads in Europe. Unlike other prospective picks like Pato and Diego, when Hernanes has been called upon for Brazil (2008 Olympics squad) he has really impressed. So my only change would be Kleberson out, Hernanes in. Feel free to suggest your own changes.


Spain's striker David Villa has said that he will happily play on the wing for the European champions if it means he will get a spot in the starting line up. This follows the news of Fernando Torres' return to fitness and the general consensus that El Nino of Liverpool will get the starting spot up-front. New Barcelona signing Villa says that "the important thing is to play".

Tips for success Chile are sweating over the fitness of their top striker Humberto Suazo. Suazo is suspected to be suffering from a muscle injury, and would prompt significant changes in the Chile system. However some people in the know are putting this down to Coach Marcelo Bielsa's mind-games, trying to get teams to change their strategy to playing a team without Suazo. Such doubters are confident Suazo will not miss any games, should be interesting to see how that plays out...

So that's it for now, just to keep you all up to date on what is happening around the nations. Its only 8 days away, and I'm sure that like me, you can't wait for it to begin.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

WC 2010: Whos Going? (Part 7)


In my youth watching international football, Nigeria were always the top African nation. Names like Okocha, Finidi George, Amokachi, Babangida, Kanu and Oliseh were all big players in world football, and were all from Nigeria. However in recent times the “Super Eagles” have slipped down the African pecking order, illustrated best by their failure to qualify for World Cup 2006, at the expense of teams like first timers Angola and Togo.

Despite the disappointments, one cannot easily overlook Nigeria. They still have some excellent quality in John Obi Mikel, Obafemi Martins and Joseph Yobo, and with “nothing to lose” I expect them to have a real go at it this summer.

The new national team boss is former Sweden coach Lars Lagerback, who took Sweden to many big tournaments with relative success. His secure and intelligent tactics will be very important for Nigeria to achieve anything this year.

Nigeria are drawn into Group B in South Africa, this puts them up against Argentina, South Korea and Greece. As I’ve mentioned when talking about the other nations in the group, it is a close one. Argentina have quality, but there are real worries about their ability to play as a team, and the other sides appear quite closely matched. Nigeria will have a tough time trying to get out of the group, but they have a chance.

Star Man: Joseph Yobo

In a team which is known more for their quick and dangerous forwards, Everton’s Joseph Yobo at centre-half provides a required stability for the Super Eagles. Alongside young John Obi Mikel who plays in front of him in midfield, they form the defensive spine of this current Nigeria side.

Yobo has been generally regarded as one of the more solid centre-halfs in the Premier League in recent years, mainly down to his comfort in possession and superb pace for someone his size. He is an extremely important part of Nigeria’s squad and will feature heavily in South Africa.

Player to Watch: Chinedu Obasi

Obasi is a player who has been on the fringe of international selection for Nigeria the past few years. Earlier in the season, the Hoffenheim striker was called up to the squad for the African Cup of Nations at the last minute and rewarded his manager’s decision with some inspiring performances. He has now done enough to make the final cut for the Nigeria squad, and will attempt to continue his solid international progress.

Obasi (or “Edu” as he is often called) plays in an attacking role, usually just behind the centre forward or out on either wing. He is blessed with immense pace, on and off the ball, and his drive and determination will see him making forwards runs and then tracking all the way back to defend if needed.

He is in a similar mould to that of Carlos Tevez or even Franck Ribery, in that he can run at defenders all day long and cause constant threat. Nigeria is a tough team to play for at international level (the national pressure is unbelievable), but Obasi thrives on the pressure and always seems hungry to get as many games as possible. Now that the final squad has been announced, I am happy to see he will be on the plane, and ready to play a big part in the team.

Prediction: In a close group, potentially they could finish anywhere, but I believe South Korea have the quality to progress, and Argentina will prove too strong for the Super Eagles and Greece. Nigeria to go out in the group phase.


Another of the South American qualifiers, Paraguay will be looking to make a big impact on this year’s World Cup. Traditionally they have not been one of the most successful South American nations on the big stage, but with 2010 being their fourth consecutive Finals appearance, and with a talented crop of players and their best qualifying campaign in history, the Albirroja have the right to be optimistic.

However along with all of these positive points and improvements, Paraguay and the entire football world received some truly shocking news in January, when star forward Salvador Cabanas was shot in the head following an incident at a Mexico City nightclub. Fortunately since then Cabanas has been recovering well, and was almost in contention to be selected for the World Cup squad. Though he will not be appearing, the excellent news of his recovery will be sure to spur the Albirroja on during the Finals. I wish him all the best in his continuing recovery.

Paraguay have a pretty capable squad this year, they generally go for a standard 4-4-2 formation which has strength and balance. Their strongest area of the field seems to be their forwards, shown by the fact that even without Cabanas, Paraguay have chosen six strikers who will all be challenging for the two starting places. The assumed first choice would be Roque Santa Cruz (if he regains fitness) and Dortmund striker Nelson Haedo Valdez. However waiting in the wings are Benfica hitman Oscar Cardozo, Valdez’s Dortmund team-mate Lucas Barrios and young boys Édgar Benítez and Rodolfo Gamarra.

La Albirroja are placed in Group F alongside reigning champions Italy, Slovakia and New Zealand. In truth it is a pretty handsome draw for them. On their current form, Paraguay could potentially win every game in the group. Though I do believe Italy will be too strong for them, la Albirroja should make it through in second place.

Star Man: Nelson Haedo Valdez

With Santa Cruz struggling for fitness, Nelson Valdez will be Paraguay’s definite starting striker. He has really proved his worth to the national team over the years; he was one of the standout performers in an otherwise poor World Cup 2006 campaign, and his goals and good performances helped Paraguay achieve their greatest ever qualifying campaign this year.

Currently plying his trade for Borussia Dortmund in Germany, Valdez adopts a centre forward role and often drifts out to the left side to support his fellow Albirroja strike partner Lucas Barrios (we’ll talk about him later). Valdez’s greatest attribute is his energy and effort, though sometimes he has trouble directing that energy, meaning he can spend long periods of matches without making an effect on the game.

Valdez is quick, energetic, dangerous in front of goal, and he has the heart of a lion. He fights for every ball and comes up with some important goals for the national team. He will be a very important part of the team if they are going to have any success.

Player to Watch: Lucas Barrios

Just four months ago, Argentinian-born Lucas Barrios was scoring goals in the Bundesliga for Dortmund, and hoping for a call-up to Maradona’s Argentina side. However a lot can change in four months. Thanks to his Paraguayan mother, and after talking with his BvB team-mate the aforementioned Nelson Valdez, in March 2010 Lucas Barrios set about the process that would grant him Paraguayan citizenship. This now made him eligible for selection for the 2010 World Cup, and after much deliberation, manager Gerardo Martino called him up for the World Cup training camp in May.

Since then, Barrios has made his first two appearances for la Albirroja, picking up two goals in the process, and has now been chosen for the final 23-man squad for this summer’s finals. It’s a long way from four months ago when he was hoping to line up alongside Messi, Aguero and Tevez for Argentina.

His nickname la Pantera (the Panther), refers to his danger in the penalty area and top-notch acceleration. Barrios is a true penalty box striker, and his potency in and around the area has been an integral part in Borussia Dortmund’s pleasing 5th position at the end of this year’s Bundesliga.

Despite this success and reputation building, Barrios will have to work a lot harder than some of his national team mates to earn playing time in South Africa. Unlike his other home-grown team-mates, Barrios still has a lot of critics and doubters who don’t believe an Argentinian should be playing for the Paraguay national team. The reality is, that if Paraguay opt for the Valdez/Barrios partnership in South Africa, they will have a proven goal scoring, match winning and crowd pleasing combination.

Prediction: As they are quite an accomplished side, they have a fairly straightforward group. However they are in the hardest half of the draw, and their second round/quarter final opponents will be some of the best teams in the tournament. I expect them to exit in the second round.


Now I must warn you, this might turn into a little bit of a rant... Back at the very start of this blog, I posted some thoughts about Portugal (read here) and in all honesty my opinion has not changed. Portugal’s new Golden Generation aren’t proving as successful as their predecessors, their massive egos mean they don’t function well enough as a team. I mean c’mon, look at this result from last week, 0-0 against CAPE VERDE?!? I know it was a friendly and holds no real indication of how they will perform in South Africa but C’MON.

I’m not saying Portugal are a bad team, far from it, they have so much quality all over the field and I should be saying they have what it takes to win the trophy this year. I should, but I won’t. Sure if by the end of July, Portugal win the World Cup, manager Carlos Queiroz is named a national hero and Portugal hail their current Golden Generation as the greatest of all time, then I will eat my deserved slice of the humblest pie in town.

Queiroz’s squad selection is another thing that confuses me and I believe it is another thing that will work against their chances of winning. First of all, Pepe of Real Madrid has been chosen in the final 23-man squad. He’s a top player, no doubt, but he hasn’t played football since he was injured back in December, 6 months ago... Surely he has to have passed certain fitness tests to be included, so it’s not like Queiroz is bringing an injured player with him to South Africa, but I’m confident he is not 100% fit by any stretch of the imagination. However, with a quality squad like Portugal, bringing one player who isn’t fully fit is no problem right? Wrong. Pepe generally plays as a DMF (defensive midfielder or volante for Portuguese speakers) when he is with the national team, other players that usually play in that position for Portugal are Joao Moutinho (wasn’t chosen, rightly so) and Pedro Mendes (chosen, but has picked up an injury and is struggling for fitness). So this leaves Portugal’s DMF spot to two unfit players, with the rest of the midfield completely attack minded. Ay caramba Queiroz!

Also another quick problem with the squad selection: Ricardo Costa. I guess he is Queiroz’s godson or something. If you’ve seen him play and you have also seen Zé Castro play (the player who was dropped for R. Costa), then you will know what I mean. I don’t understand it.

Portugal are in Group G this summer, the “Group of Death”. There they will face Brazil (who I think will be champions), Ivory Coast (truly quality African squad) and Korea DPR (unknown quantity). Sure they will be expected to go through, and they might well do, but every game is a potential loss or win based on this inconsistent, frustrating, lacking, yet quality Portugal side.

Star Man: Cristiano Ronaldo

Now he’s one of the most famous players in the world, and rightly so as he is one of the best. I’ll be doing a separate post about him after the World Cup, to follow the Messi & Rooney articles, so I’ll keep this fairly brief.

We all know his abilities; he is lightning fast, capable of moments of magic, he has a vicious shot and his dribbling skills are probably the best in the world. For Real Madrid (and Manchester United before that) he has played world-class football with such consistency, rightfully putting him in the place he is now as one of the best in the world.

Unfortunately for the national team it is often a different story. He is the captain of the national team simply because he is the best player in the squad, and he’s no captain. He’s a flamboyant winger who can score loads of goals and turn the game around for his team, but the role he is asked to play for Portugal, being a “captain”, can sometimes put him under too much pressure and he has been visibly struggling for his country. For Portugal’s sake, they need a captain who is not just the most talented in the team, and then they can let Ronaldo be Ronaldo.

Player to Watch: Liedson

The post that I linked to earlier was when I was reviewing Liedson’s first game for Portugal since gaining his dual Brazilian-Portuguese nationality. Again I don’t want to keep going on about Portugal’s problems as maybe it is not as bad as all that, but Liedson is now one of the most positive things to come out of what was a tight and disappointing qualifying campaign.

Before the introduction of Liedson, Portugal were really struggling to find goals. They have so many talented forwards like Ronaldo, Nani and Simao, but no true centre-forward who could stay in the middle and convert all of the crosses that these world-class wingers would provide. Their old hope was Hugo Almeida, tipped as the new Nuno Gomes, tall striker, good in the air, and they hoped he would be the main goalscorer. But Almeida struggled, he really hasn’t lived up to his hype as of yet.

Enter Liedson, regular top scorer in the Portuguese league with Sporting, and now qualified to play for the national side. He provided just what Portugal needed at the end of that qualifying campaign, someone to get on the end of the crosses and someone to hover around in the area and make goals out of loose balls.

At 31 years old, Portugal will be wishing they had naturalised him sooner. He should be Portugal’s main source of goals this summer, and a key part in their success.

Prediction: In my opinion, the furthest Portugal can go is the second round. They could exit in the group stage, but I believe they will manage to see off the Ivory Coast and other opponents Korea DPR to finish second behind Brasil. But then they would surely face Euro 2008 champions Spain in the next round, and they are not going to beat them.