Thursday, June 01, 2006

More Cup Previews

Now 8 days until post time. As I've slacked off a little bit, I will now be previewing the tournament favorites. And today, I'll look at the Yanks' Group E opponents:

CZECH REPUBLIC - For me, a difficult team to figure. Loaded in midfield and possessing some very good strikers in attack, this is the most dangerous attacking team in the group. They are dynamic: if 6'7" striker Jan Koller is healthy, they can attack directly with great efficiency. The talisman is undoubtedly (former?) Juventus midfielder Pavel Nedved, a tricky player who plays in the left center midfield channel. But should he falter, Arsenal signing Tomas Rosicky and alltime Czech caps leader Karel Poborsky are likely to pick up the slack. I don't know much about their defense, but they've got experience and are supposedly well-organized. That they have Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech backing them up will certainly help.
While the Czechs have had some recent success at big tournaments with runs to the Euro 96 final and Euro 2004 semis, this is their first World Cup appearance since they split with Slovakia (Czechloslovakia had a good run in the 90 tournament, losing out to eventual winners West Germany 1-0 on a Matthaus penalty). Expect them to come out hungry and sharp. If there's a weakness, it's a backline that I saw hand Saudi Arabia a few too many opportunities in a recent friendly. They've also taken some knocks -- former Liverpool midfielder Vladimir Smicer is out and Koller and Rosicky are recovering -- that could wear on them.
Best case scenario: Semifinals.
Worst case scenario: The optimist in me says first round elimination, but a second round exit to Brazil seems most likely.

ITALY - Ahh, the Italians. If history is any indication, they will slog through their first round games but advance. Once in the knockout stages, the world will see the uniquely Italian approach to the sport. Italy, if often seems, believes that the true goal of a soccer match is to protect a 1-0 lead for as long as possible. Only in the event that the other team scores can the Italians be coaxed into attack. This is precisely why the Juventus-AC Milan Champions League final of a few years back was the worst thing to happen to the future of soccer in America since the 94 World Cup Final. No goals, and no real chances either. But for an astute fan, it was tactical attrition, the inch-by-inch fighting of World War I played on a soccer field.
Luckily, this time around, the Italians have a true artist in Francisco Totti. He's recovering from injury, but will probably play tucked just behind the strikers, with license to roam. The hitman up top looks to be Fiorentina's Luca Toni, who lead Serie A with 31 goals this year. We may also see master goal-poacher Pippo Inzaghi -- one of those guys who plays no part in the buildup but is invariably found toeing the ball into the net from three yards at the end of an attack -- and Milan's Gillardino. Their defense is ageing, to be sure, but Cannavarro and Nesta are still seasoned, tough, and commanding. After giving away two gift goals to lose to Korea in 2002, don't expect any favors from them this time around. I'd put money on two clean sheets in the group stages.
Best case scenario: this is a team we could see in the final if all the chips fall in place. Experienced, tactically astute, and skillful.
Worst case scenario: Likewise, a team that could -- and, my prediction, will -- overlook their lesser fancied opponents in Group E. We've seen complacency from them before -- Euro 2004, World Cup 2002, and Euro 96 all come to mind -- and it might happen again.

GHANA - Like US coach Bruce Arena admitted when the World Cup draw came out, I don't know much about Ghana. Most US experts -- former players like Eric Wynalda and Marcelo Balboa -- have indicated they think we will knock off the Ghanians with relative ease. And while there's something to be said on the Americans' behalf for World Cup experience (Ghana is competing in their first ever World Cup despite strong performances at the youth level), there's also something to be said for quality. African teams are often the most organized, but Ghana's top players have a good deal of European experience. Premiership fans will know Michael Essien of Chelsea, whose speed and tenacity made him the most expensive African player ever when he was signed from Lyon. The Black Stars can match the US for talent, with captain Stephen Appiah at Turkey's Fenerbahce, playmaker Mutari at Serie A club Udinese, defender Sami Kuffour (formerly of Bayern Munich) at Roma, and striker Matthew Amoah at Borussia Dortmund. Expect a surprisingly stingy performance, but some difficulty finding goals. They'll likely play with only one striker, but if Amoah can score a couple goals, they may be dangerous. A 3-1 win over Korea shows that this is by no means a weak team. However, getting out of the group is probably beyond them, but how difficult they are to beat could go a long way to deciding who advances from the group.
Best case scenario: Second round loss to Brazil. Would be a big achievement.
Worst case scenario: Three losses and a first round exit.

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