Tuesday, May 30, 2006

10 Days and Counting...

The World Cup is a mere ten days away. I am way, way behind on my country profiles, so I'll try to abbreviate some of them and make sure to hit all the biggies, but not leave out the interesting little guys either. Also, a lot of friendlies this past weekend and a big slate today, plus injuries and team announcements...

Poland 1 - Colombia 2. Freak goal from the Colombian keeper settles the game.

Czechs 1 - Costa Rica 0. Jan Koller returned to action but Tomas Rosicky was still out and Nedved didn't play in the Czech victory.

ENGLAND - I chose to do England because I don't really need to look anything up for them. England's a team everyone's talking about, and everyone will always talk about, so long as they're a part of the tournament. The second most romanticized team in the world -- "birthplace of football" and all that jazz -- this is a team that could reach the final or severely disappoint their very large (and international) fanbase. The talk nowadays is all about injuries. Can Wayne Rooney return from a broken metatarsal? Will Michael Owen return to fitness in time to lead the line up top?
But there are other significant questions as well. An all-star midfield cast of David Beckham, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, and Joe Cole may be deadly on free kicks and score a number of spectacular goals, but which of those four will provide defensive cover for a good but occasionally shaky backline? Will soon-to-depart manager Sven-Goran Eriksson employ a deep-lying holding midfielder like Tottenham's rising star Michael Carrick? England play today against Hungary, and rumor has it that Eriksson may actually play Liverpool's Jamie Carragher in defensive midfield (as opposed to his more natural center back role).

In terms of their draw, I think most people are looking past Paraguay to a possible showdown with Sweden. This could be fatal. Paraguay is a solid team who's advanced past the group stage both of the past tournaments and given their Round of 16 opponents (eventual champs France in 98 and eventual runners-up Germany in 02) fits before losing 1-0. They allow very few goals but have some Europe-based attacking flair in Bayern Munich striker Roque Santa Cruz. I can see England, without Rooney's cutting edge, only getting a draw out of this game. Trinidad won't put up much resistance, and I think England finally gets over their slump (dating back to 1967) against the Swedes to top the group. The bottom line for this team is playing to their strengths. There is no need for the conservative play that has plagued the team in the past. No European team can match its midfield attack but a few teams could exploit them on the counter attack. How this balances out will likely determine their fate.
Best case scenario: Finalists. Could easily happen.
Worst case scenario: Out at the Round of 16 to Germany on penalties. Every England fan's recurring nightmare.

TUNISIA - Few people will expect much of Tunisia, playing in their fourth World Cup and their third consecutive. They've failed to win a game in their past two appearances, having two 1-1 draws (with Romania in 98 and Belgium in 02) to show for their efforts. But where the last campaign fell apart due to conservative tactics -- they needed a win vs. Japan to advance out of their group in 02 but packed the midfield and underwhelmed in a 2-0 loss -- but this time around they've got former French coach Roger Lemerre at the helm. Lemerre was an assistant for the World Cup winning side in 98 and head coach for the French team triumph at Euro 2000. He may not have the same artillery he had with France, but his team's pedigree is better than it was last time out. Brazilian-born Dos Santos is a legitimate goal-scorer and Rahdi Jaidi is of Bolton is a towering presence in the back and a threat on set-pieces. The real problem will be the supply line. They only have two goals to show for their past six games, and only one win (2-0 vs. Australia in the last Confederations Cup) since becoming the first African team to win a World Cup game (3-1 vs. Mexico in 1978). Can they find the quality in midfield to supply a decent frontline? Can they sneak a result against favored World Cup debutantes Ukraine? Their first game against Saudi Arabia will decide everything: anything less than three points and their chances at advancing are shot. Spain and Ukraine look most likely to advance, but you never know.
Best case scenario: Sneak into the Round of 16.
Worst case scenario: Another measly draw, two losses, and a quick trip home.


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