Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The Football Hipster World Cup Preview: Group D

Politically correct fashion has turned against the label "Group of Death", presumably because, y'know, death is bad. However, time to get real: this group is very bad indeed. Forget the seven world cups that its three better-known constituents have between them; it's better to think of them as the best South American side of the last ten years, the second best European side of that era (sorry Germany), and arguably CONCACAF's best team of the moment. Oh, and England. The counterpoint however is that none of the big names in this group is quite what they were, and whoever slugs their way out of this mess is unlikely to put much fear into the hearts of the tournament favourites. For whom will the bell toll? Read on...

Costa Rica

"What's that? Snakes don't have hips, you say?"
Costa Rica arrive at the World Cup with their best team in years, with a competent mixture of domestic and foreign club players supporting two or three genuine stars. A historically gifted generation to stand alongside that of 1990, its harsh reward for getting to Brazil has been a ferociously tough draw in Group D. Only a brave man would tip Costa Rica to do what they did in 1990, and reach Round 2 – but there could be some surprises along the way.

A lot of that capacity for surprise could come from Bryan Ruiz, a snake-hipped and giraffe-legged forward who – along with keeper Keylor Navas - is the closest thing Costa Rica have to an established star. Although he impressed only in flashes at Fulham, Ruiz has years of good form behind him in Dutch club football, and picked up where he left off this season on loan at PSV. Supporting Ruiz in the attacking ranks are Randall Brenes, who like many in this squad plays his football in Costa Rica’s own league, and veteran no.9 Alvaro Saborio, a consistent goalgetter with Real Salt Lake in MLS. However the no.9 berth – ahead of Ruiz in a deeper role – seems almost certain to go to 21-year-old Joel Campbell. A powerful, technically adept forward who can both score and create, Campbell has spent this season delivering on some of his promise at Olympiakos, where he has been on loan from Arsenal. He is now firmly established as one of the brightest prospects in the North American game. Although, with his habit of exploiting space by dribbling from deep, he may ultimately be better suited to club football than international, Campbell has what it takes to spring some surprises on famous opposition at this World Cup. Other attacking options in the provisional 30-man squad look makeweight and unlikely to make the cut.

Costa Rica’s midfield and defence are unlikely to be familiar to you unless you watch a lot of Scandinavian, US or Australian football. That does not however mean that quality is entirely lacking. There is genuine creativity in the form of Celso Borges, a tall central midfielder who plays an all round role but likes to get forward, and Christian Bolanos. The latter, of FC Copenhagen, offers genuine Champions’ League class on the right of midfield. With his direct running, incisive crossing and neat range of deliveries, not to mention his distinctive bandana, Bolanos is potentially one of the coolest players in Group D. In what is a surprisingly positive midfield, Rodney Wallace (not the 1990s Leeds one) on the left offers more attacking options, admittedly with energy rather than finesse to the fore.  Midfield ballwinning is likely to be the primary responsibility of either the experienced Michael Ballantes, or his younger, more dynamic (and curiously named) colleague Yeltsin Tejeda. Options for a change of pace include lightning-fast winger Diego Calvo and orthodox attacking midfielder Carlos Hernandez, who packs a Lampard-like shot from outside the area. Most of the other options in the provisional squad, like Ariel Rodriguez, are – guess what? – attacking midfielders.

The undoubted stars of the regular Costa Rica defence are keeper Navas – on excellent form with Levante in La Liga – and Everton wingback Bryan Oviedo. However, injury has robbed Oviedo of his chance at this World Cup. In his absence, a fairly conventional flat back four will be played in front of Navas. For much of the qualifying campaign, the starting partnership at centre-back was Johnny Acosta and Michael Umana, but with both playing Costa Rican domestic football in their club careers, they may well give way to more internationally experienced options. Chief among those options will be Oscar Duarte, who has had a sound first season at Brugge in Belgium. He is likely to displace Acosta. Umana’s place is perhaps more assured, although New York Red Bulls centre-back Roy Miller will be challenging for a place. Perhaps surprisingly, neither Duarte nor Miller was a particularly regular fixture during qualifying. Oviedo’s usual place at left back is likely to be taken by converted centre-half Junior Diaz, an experienced Bundesliga veteran, unless coach Jorge Luis Pinto is feeling brave enough to blood one-cap newbie Waylon Francis, who may offer more pace. On the right, fitness issues seem to have cost Costa Rica their other first choice full back as well, with Jose Salvatierra the victim of a knee injury. In his absence, Heiner Mora or Cristian Gamboa are the likely choices; Gamboa’s experience with Rosenborg in Norway may give him the edge.

There’s no doubt that Costa Rica’s most realistic aim in a group this difficult is to cause problems for the bigger nations, and maybe to exert some influence on their progression to Round 2. Whatever the goal, the Costa Ricans have a promising range of attacking resources; none, in truth, is world class, but together they represent an attacking unit of historically high quality and they do look capable of setting off the odd firework. One question is how well Pinto can knit together a new defensive unit that compensates for cruel injuries and perhaps makes increased use of internationally experienced players. Another doubt is over the apparent openness in the centre of the field; with limited defensive resources in this department, Costa Rica could be overpowered by top class midfields. It’s worth noting, however, that they are not likely to face any truly top class midfields in this group.

Strengths: Lively forwards; range of options for changes of shape in midfield; a seriously impressive and underestimated attacking midfielder in Bolanos; solid keeper in Navas.

Weaknesses: Not much steel in the centre of the field; injuries and selection uncertainties in defence; despite the promise, a lack of genuinely world class players.

Young player to watch: Joel Campbell.

Verdict: Good enough to take points off anyone in this group, but very unlikely to take enough to progress. On paper, their counter-attacking 4-4-2 is most likely to trouble England, the most tactically open of the three big names in the group. But anything could happen in the next three games.


Barkley: this year's Gazza?
England, ah… England. The good news first. England have an experienced coach who knows the World Cup and whose approach suits the team. Roy Hodgson knows how to drill a team to make the most of limited resources and, all told, he did well with an unfancied England side at Euro 2012. His month with the side ahead of the world cup will be crucial. It’s also been a good year for English talent in the Premiership, with key spine members Steven Gerrard and Gary Cahill having especially good seasons while keeper Joe Hart recovered a lot of lost form. Meanwhile youthful attackers Daniel Sturridge (centre forward), Raheem Sterling (winger/inside forward), Adam Lallana and Ross Barkley (attacking midfield) all continued to mature with their clubs and, in Lallana’s case especially, began to flourish in a national shirt.

Defensively, England have lost some of the outright quality of days gone by, with none of John Terry, Rio Ferdinand nor, surprisingly, Ashley Cole in the 23 man squad. Cahill however has enjoyed a towering season with Chelsea, while Glen Johnson remains a potent threat attacking from right-back. On the left, Leighton Baines has a great final ball but can look defensively unconvincing against top opposition, while Phil Jagielka’s status as first choice partner for Cahill bespeaks a lowering of sights after the retirements of Terry and Ferdinand. Nonetheless, England will continue to be a tough side to break down, and they don't look likely to concede many.

Scoring them may be a different question. Hodgson seems likely to favour a 4-2-3-1 that may fall back to 4-4-2 when under pressure. Steven Gerrard at 34 still makes the deep midfield his own; his likely partner is the snake-hipped great white hope of the Emirates, Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere. One of the few England players with a real capacity for the unexpected, Wilshere is returning from injury but is an almost guaranteed selection unless he suffers a relapse. Ahead of this, there is the slight suspicion that Hodgson does not know his best lineup, so again the preparation period is key. One issue is the pressure that always exists in England, for the selection of those individuals whose recent club form has been best. This is likely to see a clamour for Hodgson to play Sturridge as the lone centre-forward, after his 21 league goals for Liverpool. But Hodgson would be better advised to stick with Danny Welbeck, a crafty player who has shown he can thrive as a solitary no.9 in the tough environment of international football. Behind the striker, Sterling, who offers superlative pace and energy, and Rooney are likely to start on right and left respectively, with Lallana in the central no.10 role; the more adventurous option of dropping Rooney and bringing the rumbustious, bull-like Barkley into play is unlikely to appeal to the conservative Hodgson.

Ultimately, it is difficult to see England’s playing staff as truly competitive with the best the world has to offer. There seems an enduring disconnect between the English mode of play and the international game. English club football being, as it is, very open, even the best English club sides tend to thrive on  counter-attacking, and the best English players are trained as counter-attackers; Rooney is an example. International football, famously cagey, is just not the same, and one suspects that the pace of England’s new generation – their main asset – may be neutralised by deep defences and keep-ball tactics. Even England’s best – Wilshere, Lallana and Barkley perhaps excepted – seem to need space to run into.

Much will depend on the result against Uruguay. If England arrive at the Costa Rica game needing a win to go through, they will get one. Meanwhile a win against the guile of Italy seems a long shot, a draw eminently feasible. Man for man, England are much better than Uruguay except in one crucial area: Cavani and Suarez against Cahill ad Jagielka. It will be a nervous ninety minutes.

Strengths: Youth and a relative lack of fear or onerous expectations. Experienced coach and well organized tactics. Player form. Pace in attack.

Weaknesses: Tendency to select eleven players rather than a team, particularly in the attacking segment. Simultaneous defensive retirements. Lack of that final bit of quality that breaks a good team down.

Verdict: Quarter finals. Probably have enough to get by Uruguay and Italy, and will have a good chance against whoever they face in round 2 from the fairly weak Group C. A meeting with the Dutch, Spanish or Brazilians then seems likely, and that will probably be that for England.


Verratti: the latest model
The old adage is that Italy come into their own at tournaments, and can be counted on to reach the later stages no matter how mediocre they may look on paper. The truth is a little different. Yes, Italy have been in the final of five major tournaments since 1982, and they’ve won the World Cup more often than anyone except Brazil. But let’s not forget that they bombed out at the group stage in South Africa in 2010 as reigning champions, that they followed their appearance in the Euro 2000 final with elimination in the World Cup second round by South Korea, and that they failed to get out of their group at Euros ‘96 and ‘04. In short, Italy’s tournament record is highly volatile, with really poor performances often following directly after stellar. The best generalization we can make is that the longer Italy stay in a tournament, the better they tend to get. Traditionally cautious Italian tactics are suited to cagey knockout games; Italy thrive in tight situations and don’t get impatient or nervous if they fail to take the lead quickly.

Matches however are won and lost on the field, not in the pages of history. As if to emphasise the point, Cesar Prandelli’s current iteration differs from Italian sides past. There’s no catenaccio here, for a start; Prandelli adopts a style based on possession and pressing higher up the field. And unlike the great sides of the recent past, this Italy team has its most prized talent in attack, not in defence. The main question is how the coach, who is known to be fond of tactical tinkering, will choose to select and arrange his forwards. It’s almost certain that Mario Balotelli will be first choice in a central role. Europe’s top scorer in the qualifying round, Balotelli seems to thrive playing for the Azzurri, even as his club form continues to be fitful. Prandelli has arguably become more cautious, tactically, since Euro 2012, where he used two orthodox strikers. At the World Cup he seems likely to favour a 4-3-2-1 in which the “two” behind Balotelli are more midfielders than strikers. That means perhaps a substitute role for Ciro Immobile, a 21-yearold striker, capped once, who has made the provisional squad on the back of a fine season with Torino. Immobile is an all-round centre-forward who, despite his unpromising name, gets around the box and can score from anywhere. His potential is enormous; forget Luca Toni, Pippo Inzaghi, or even Christian Vieri, Immobile could be Italy’s most complete no.9 for a very, very long time indeed. But for now he’s probably edged ahead of veteran Antonio Cassano either as first choice backup to Super Mario, or his partner if two strikers are used. Giuseppe Rossi and youngster Mattia Destro are the other centre-forwards in the provisional squad.

Prandelli likes wingers, albeit those of the dart-from-outside-to-in school, like Emanuele Giaccherini, rather than traditional touchline huggers. In a 4-3-2-1, at least one winger is likely to be included in the two behind the striker. Giaccherini himself has dropped out of contention, but but the provisional squad still offers wide men Antonio Candreva, Alessio Cerci, and Lorenzo Insigne to choose from. None of these guys is yet a clear first choice, so this will be a key decision for Prandelli. Cerci, or the “Italian Messi” as he’s known on YouTube, may have played his way into pole position on the back of stellar form with Torino, but Insigne, a diminutive box of tricks at five foot four, is also staking a strong claim. It’s most likely that alongside one winger will play someone like Claudio Marchisio or Alberto Aquilani, an attacking midfielder who can drop back to add numbers in the middle when Italy are on the back foot. That’s probably necessary to protect playmaker Andrea Pirlo, still a great puller of strings at 35 and the major source of supply for the striker(s) and midfield runners. His passing remains peerless, as do his set pieces, but Pirlo has lost some dynamism to age.

With Prandelli likely to be cautious in the pressure setting of a World Cup, expect relatively solid and unexciting choices alongside Pirlo in a midfield three; Daniele De Rossi’s experience makes him an assured starter while Riccardo Montolivo may take the other berth. It’s possible that Italy could even drop into a 4-2-3-1 formation with another holding player sitting deep beside Pirlo; Prandelli seems to have some interest in this option as his provisional squad includes not only established “holder” Thiago Motta, but also Romulo, another defensively-minded Italo-Brazilian. With none of the other teams in Group D posing proven threat in midfield, however, it’s not obvious why such defensiveness would be required - unless Prandelli wants to man-mark Suarez, which seems unlikely. One player to watch is Marco Verratti, a clubmate of Motta’s at Paris St-Germain, who is seen as a potential replacement playmaker when Pirlo retires. He may get game time.

In defence, Gianluigi Buffon can still be relied upon in goal, while in front of him are likely to be Juventus club-mates Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini. These two are solid enough defenders who have been at the heart of Juve’s domestic success, but they are probably not up to the illustrious standards of the greats of the recent past, like Cannavaro and Nesta. Backup will come from another Juventus man, the world cup winner Andrea Barzagli, Gabriel Paletta of Parma, and Inter’s Andrea Ranocchia. If things look settled in the centre then the opposite is true of the fullback positions, which are the hardest of Prandelli’s selection decisions to call. The number of wide defenders included in the provisional squad, and the widely differing selections in the last few international fixtures, suggest that the coach himself isn’t sure who he prefers. At right back, either Ignazio Abate or Christian Maggio is likely to get the nod, while at left back (where Chiellini can also step in) Mattia De Sciglio probably has the edge over Manuel Pasqual. Uncapped Torino fullback Matteo Darmian also made the provisional squad.

To conclude, then, this isn’t, by any means, a classic Italy squad, and it has very material weaknesses.. The midfield is somewhat one-paced and, save for the ageing Pirlo, is short on real creativity; but these are fairly familiar Italian issues. Much newer worries are defence and team selection. Tactically, Italy can be expected to be sound on the back foot, but the fundamental quality of defensive personnel is a notch or two lower than in Azzurri sides of the recent past. Italy didn’t really distinguish themselves as a difficult side to score against in any of Euro 2012, the 2013 Confederations Cup, or World Cup qualifying. Meanwhile, there are question marks over the right formation for midfield and attack – not that Prandelli seems to feel obliged to settle on one in particular – while at fullback and in some of the attacking positions, selection is uncertain and the options inexperienced. The decline of Italian football has been overtalked, and amid all the match fixing and doomsaying about the demise of Serie A as a world class league, it’s worth remembering that the Italian system still churns out technically assured, tactically astute and supremely confident footballers in number. But a detailed analysis of their position puts Italy’s apparently unquestioned status as Group D’s hot favourites in doubt.

Strengths: One of the world’s best playmakers (still) in Pirlo; big tournament experience in all departments of the team; a decent spine (Buffon/Chiellini/Pirlo/Balotelli); intelligent and tactically flexible coach.

Weaknesses: Lack of creativity throughout side; selection and formation uncertainties; somewhat mediocre defence; Pirlo ageing and midfield generally short of mobility. Italy might be vulnerable to rapid incursions through their midfield by ball-carriers, and if they get caught out it’s not clear they have what it takes to really chase a game.

Young player to watch: In principle, Verratti, but 21-year-old fullback De Sciglio looks likely to get more game time; in the Italian manner, the defender could turn out to be the man to keep your eye on.

Verdict: The ease of their passage has been overestimated by pundits, and Italy are in every bit as much trouble in Group D as are England and Uruguay. Faced with either the energy of Cavani (who made his name scoring hatfuls against Italian defences) and Suarez, or the pace of some of England’s youngsters, and they might be undone. A good shout for elimination in the group


Is there life without?
Since Luis Suarez turned his knee just under a week ago, the key question has been – can Uruguay cope without him? The livewire forward, England’s footballer of the year, seems to carry all of his country’s World Cup hopes on his shoulders. The bad news for Uruguay’s rivals in Group D however is that yes, in all probability, they can cope.

Uruguay are insisting that Suarez will make the squad and, although he seems unlikely to face Costa Rica in their opening game, he could well be fit to return against England. Coach Oscar Tabarez will be hoping he is, for there is nothing that an international team needs from a forward that Suarez doesn’t bring. Pace, mobility, creativity, finishing; commitment and (sometimes even controlled) aggression; the ability to change the shape of play on a whim. Suarez has it all and, notwithstanding Edinson Cavani’s outlandish price tag, he is comfortably Uruguay’s most dangerous player. He led their goalscoring in qualification. However, this Uruguay side look to have enough in them to manage in his absence. It’s not specifically about who will step up to replace him as an individual. Cavani’s work rate and eye  for goal make him well placed to cope without his injured partner, while Suarez’ direct replacement will probably be either the veteran Diego Forlan, or Palermo’s pacy Abel Hernandez. Although Hernandez has a bit to do to establish that he has the quality for tournament-level play, his mobility, tenacity, and 7 goals in 11 internationals should mean he gets game time, with Forlan used sparingly. But it’s really Uruguay’s team qualities that can be relied upon to guide them if their best player is unavailable. A gritty and determined unit who know how to make the most of limited opportunities, Uruguay look to have what it takes to dig out a goal or two when needed – which should see them right, provided the defence holds up.

That, however, is a rather questionable proposition, and Uruguay will be glad if their rivals, pondering the impact of Suarez’ injury, omit to focus on exploiting a defence that was distinctly porous in qualification. The journey to Brazil was a wretched one for the men from Montevideo. While the team as a whole remains a tightly-knit unit who play with something of the togetherness of a club side, thumping away defeats (including four-goal concessions to Bolivia and Colombia, and three let in in Argentina) suggest a brittleness on the back foot. Even with impressive home form, the Uruguayans were only able to sneak into the finals via a playoff. At first glance it’s not obvious why there should be problems at the back; central defender Diego Godin has been in excellent club form this season, scoring in both the La Liga decider and the Champions’ League final for Atletico, while colleague Diego Lugano is ageing, but still a steely presence. Fullbacks Martin Cacares and Maxi Pereira are dependable top-level performers with Juventus and Benfica respectively, and it’s worth mentioning that the core of this unit played throughout the 2010 World Cup, in which Uruguay escaped their group without letting in a goal. So too did goalkeeper Fernando Muslera. With a  proven record of fierce competitiveness and with their defensive star, Godin, in the form of his life, it’s hard not to reach the conclusion that Uruguay’s defence will likely be more solid under the spotlight of the World Cup than it was in the qualifiers. Tabarez, in his provisional 25-man squad, included relatively little defensive cover for a team that invariably plays a flat back four. Jorge Fucile is a dependable campaigner, but Liverpool’s Sebastian Coates is something of a forgotten man despite his talent, and 19-year-old Jose Maria Gimenez is a very fresh face at centre-back, with only 16 club games to his name.

With 4-4-2 usually the preferred formation, midfield razzamatazz is not what Uruguay are about, but a change of formation might be on the horizon. The typical Uruguayan midfielder is energetic, primarily defensively minded, technically solid rather than stylish, and with solid European club experience. The team’s usual method of progress through the middle third is an organised forward rush rather than anything especially subtle or tricky. Tabarez’ provisional squad contains no less than four central midfielders cut from the same cloth; first choice Egidio Arevalo Rios is arguably a more limited player than any of Walter Gargano, Diego Perez or Sebastian Eguren, but is preferred for his tactical discipline. On the right, the safe choice is Alvaro Gonzalez, not an overly technical player but one who can get into dangerous positions while offering defensive cover too. A more attacking option would be Cristian Stuani, a midfielder with the penalty box instincts of a classic poacher, while Alejandro Silva is a squad option who may travel.   The left midfield slot is the property of Cristian Rodriguez, a winger whose close control is one of the side’s most reliable creative assets.

That – with a more creative middleman sitting alongside Arevalo – looks like Tabarez’ ideal formation, but with a flat midfield four and a deep defensive line, it could be difficult for Uruguay to link defence with forwards, a problem that’s only likely to get worse if the wide-roving Suarez is injured. Tabarez and his players have proven tactically flexible in the past, with a particular interest in 4-3-3 as a backup formation, and we could see that this time, with either Forlan or one of the attacking midfielders brought into the front three. Stuani might be useful in that role, as might Nicolas Lodeiro, a creative midfielder who often plays alongside Arevalo but has something of the no.10 about him. Although not quick flat out, Lodeiro has a useful change of pace and a good final ball, and his left footed trickery may be Uruguay’s best creative weapon. If 4-3-3 is used then Alvaro Gonzalez is likely to play, to avoid leaving Arevalo and the defence exposed, while there is the possibility of deploying winger/wingback Alvaro Pereira on the left if a more direct alternative to Rodriguez is required. Southampton’s Gaston Ramirez is likely to be used as attacking support from the bench if a change of shape is required.

Uruguay’s trajectory remains difficult to predict, and their prospects in this World Cup are somewhat on a knife-edge. On the one hand the attack seems both bereft of its talisman and short of quality support from midfield; on the other hand, Uruguay’s determination and teamwork, combined with the hardly-shabby resources of Cavani, Forlan and Hernandez, should be enough to get goals. Meanwhile, the team’s famous organisation and never-say-die attitude have to be set against the lack of defensive solidity shown in qualifying. On the whole, with such an experienced unit, one suspects Uruguay will be able to step up for the cup, and it’s significant that when their backs were to the wall chasing a home win against Argentina, in the last qualifying game, they delivered. They also performed solidly in the 2013 Confederations Cup, although clean sheets were hard to come by.

Strengths: Tournament experience; club-like team spirit and determination; energy, work rate and mobility; star players Godin and (if fit) Suarez are in stellar form.

Weaknesses: Workmanlike midfield; Suarez’ injury, and uncertain tactics and selection if he doesn’t play; worrying deterioration in defence in last two years.

Young player to watch: Like many at this world cup, it’s not a young side, but 23-year-old Abel Hernandez is a lively player. If Lugano falters in defence, the very inexperienced Gimenez might get serious game time.

Verdict: Should be able to amass enough points to escape this group and may have what it takes to out-grind Italy. Likely to then peter out in either the second round or quarters.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

The Football Hipster World Cup Preview: Group C

Hello and welcome back for the latest instalment of Football Hipster, the world cup preview that takes a clear working day to read. Group C seems to be one the pundits think they’ve got taped. Either Colombia have got this one in their pocket, with a Drogba-inspired Ivory Coast slipstreaming them into the second round, or alternatively, it’s all about Radamel Falcao, and how his right knee will determine all hopes in Group C.

Actually it’s a good deal more complicated than that. This is a wide open group in which anyone can beat anyone. It features three teams with relatively strong attacks and weak defences, and one, Greece, who are the polar opposite. There’s a lot of wily tournament experience at work here, with Colombia’s the only squad not well equipped with World Cup veterans (and even they’ve managed to recall 42-year-old Faryd Mondragon). Japan, with their attractive, pacy side and commitment to rapid possession football, have what it takes to be the hipster favourites that Chile were last time. Read on to find out where we think the chips will fall in what will undoubtedly be one of the best groups for neutrals.


IIIIIIIIIIIII need to knoooow nooooow.....
Colombia have not been to a World Cup for sixteen years, but as has often been the case when they qualify, they’re being tipped for great things in many quarters.  It’s not going to be straightforward, however. Rug-haired frontman Radamel Falcao ‘s cruciate injury in January is a crying shame, for both Colombian and neutral fans, threatening to deny one of the finest strikers of his generation a chance on the world cup stage in his prime.

Falcao may well still travel, but should he be absent then the team’s main talisman is his clubmate, playmaker James Rodriguez, who arrives in imperious form from Monaco. A baby-faced no.10, who wears his first name on his shirt and has one of the best final balls in the business, Rodriguez could scarcely be cooler if he moonwalked backwards through defences sporting a nattily cocked fedora while singing the chorus to John Newman’s “Love Me Again”. 

Coach Jose Pekerman prefers to play a front two, sometimes becoming a three, so with Falcao struggling the pressure is on him to find alternatives who can function as a unit. Fortunately Colombia have a range of explosive strikers to call on, albeit not all established as international goalscorers. In pole position is Falcao’s regular strike partner, Teo Guttierez. A fierce and brave penalty box warrior whose club form has dipped slightly this season, Guttierez may be a little short of world class in terms of technique, but he knows where the goal is. So does regular reserve Jackson Martinez, a 27 year old who scores obscene numbers of goals for Porto but has struggled to make a national starting slot his own. At least one of Dortmund signing Adrian Ramos, and Europa League-winning Sevilla frontman Carlos Bacca, is also likely to travel; possibly both of them if Falcao drops out.  It’s quite a roster, and raises the possibility that Falcao, whose goals-to-games ratio for Colombia is “only” 20 in 52, may not be as indispensable internationally as he is at club level, where he has averaged more than a goal every game-and-a-half since coming to Europe. Another intriguing option in the provisional squad is Udinese forward Luis Muriel, who has five caps to his name. Quick with or without the ball and with every type of finish in his locker, Muriel is the death of offside traps, even if he sounds like he should join Jostein Flo and Darren Eadie in the front three of an all-time Cleaning Ladies XI. He might make a good recipient for Rodriguez’ slide-rule through-balls.

In midfield, Colombia have plenty of comfort on the ball, but perhaps a slight lack of top quality in the engine room. One of their most potent weapons is the blistering pace and wicked crossing of Juan Cuadrado, who along with Rodriguez and Fredy Guarin in the centre makes up Colombia’s triad of European-based creative talent. To that list we may soon need to add Porto’s Juan Fernando Quintero, a diminutive attacking midfielder with a neat change of pace and a nice line in ferocious free kicks. Colombia tend to get weaker towards the back however, and the ball winning heart of their midfield lacks the class found further forward. Edwin Valencia is a favourite of Pekerman and will probably start; unspectacular but dependable, he may be accompanied by the similarly minded Abel Aguilar, depending on tactics, or by the energetic Carlos Sanchez. The other options for central midfield are fairly workmanlike. On the left, Pekerman could deploy veteran Mainz midfielder Elkin Soto or he might opt for Victor Ibarbo, whose rangy, all-arms-and-legs power running has seen him compared to Faustino Asprilla. His finish isn’t quite up to his dribbling, so he is best deployed wide or on the left of a front three.

In defence the lynchpin is Mario Yepes, 38 years old but a world cup debutant. He is likely to be one of the oldest outfielders at the World Cup, but he still holds down a first team place at Atalanta and his leadership is critical. There’s a superannuated quality to Colombia’s defence, with 35 year old Luis Amaranto Perea the first choice partner for Yepes. This raises the question of whether mobility and pace will be a problem for Colombia at the back. Perea in particular does still possess decent acceleration but recent form has suggested the pair are waning. Reliance on these two has somewhat stymied the development of the next generation but it is fairly clear that the coming men are Milan’s Cristian Zapata – who has nine years’ solid experience in Italy behind him – and Carlos Valdez of San Lorenzo. Neither of these lacks pace, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if one of them makes a starting berth his own at the World Cup. Maintaining a solid unit at centre back is important for Colombia as their first choice full-backs are frustrated wingers who like a good charge forward; both Camilo Zuniga on the right and Pablo Armero (seen this year in the Premiership with West Ham) have a lock-down on their starting positions. Of the backup options the most intriguing is Eder Alvarez Balanta, a tenacious young ball-playing centre-half whose forays forward can cause both delight and alarm.

The good times also roll for golden oldies in goal, where Faryd Mondragon – old enough at 42 to have played behind the late Andres Escobar -  has made the cut. The main in possession however is very much David Ospina, a real strength for the team in qualifying.

The expectation of great things from Colmbia at this world cup may prove a little hard to justify, but they will probably escape their group. Five points would be a reasonable total to expect, with Japan’s pace and precision probably having the greatest potential to unsettle the elderly Colombia defence; the likes of Giorgos Samaras or an ageing Didier Drogba, on the other hand, are unlikely to cause Yepes or Perea sleepless nights. A second round tie against whoever emerges from the carnage of Group C will give the Colombians a roughly evens change of making the quarters.

Strengths: Loads of options in attack, even without Falcao; pace to burn on the flanks; solid goalkeeper; wily and experienced coach.

Weaknesses: Uncertain selection in the absence of Falcao; weak midfield engine room; slow central defenders; weight of history.

Young player to watch: This is 22-year-old Rodriguez’ first step onto the world stage and it could be his breakthrough to superstar status.

Verdict: A solid bet for the quarters.


"Ivory Coast and Japan, you say? Could be Wurst..."
Since their unlikely Euro 2004 triumph, Greece have been to international football as Wimbledon to English in the 1990s; a jarring combination of unattractive, opportunistic football on the one hand and optimistic team spirit on the other. Greece today are not the same side that won in 2004  under Otto Rehhagel, with only a couple of veterans remaining from those days, but it all still comes back to a solid defence. 
What has often been overlooked is that there’s real quality at the heart of the defensive unit, as well as just pluck and tenacity. Lynchpin of the defence is Sokratis Papastathopoulos, a one man commentator’s nightmare who is a regular with Dortmund. He’s joint first name on the team sheet with Roma’s Vasilis Torosidis at right back. Papastathopoulos will probably be partnered by Dimitris Siovas, while dashing wing-back Jose Holebas will hold down the left flank and get forward to mount attacks from the back. Loukas Vyntra, with 47 caps,, gives another option if either experience at right back or a bit more pace in the centre is required. Coach Fernando Santos has mostly gone for experience with the remainder of his defensive squad, which includes utility defender Giorgos Tzavellas (26 years old) and centre-back Vangelis Moras (32). However youth is represented by up and coming centre-half Kostas Manolas, a potential stalwart of future Greek teams.

In midfield, Santos has been working towards a more attacking mindset, but the default option remains a hard working central trio comprised of a slow but crafty “quarterback” partnered by a couple of steely characters with the countenance of JK Rowling’s dementors. It’s very unlikely these days that Euro 2004 veterans Giorgos Karagounis (37) and Kostas Karagounis (34) will start a game together; most likely Katsouranis, who captained the team through the latter half of qualifying, will start, with Karagounis introduced if a change of tempo is called for. Although the safety-first option is to make up the middle three with Alexandros Tziolis and sometime full-back Giannis Maniatis, there are, increasingly, more attacking options in Santos’ locker. At the front of the queue is Panagiotis Kone, who can be relied on to inject some brio if only by virtue of his hair/beard combo, which place him somewhere between David Beckham and Xerxes I of Persia. Kone is capable of playing out wide, but his party piece is arriving late into the box to score, something which may suit Greece’s opportunistic style. Quick-footed dribbler Giannis Fetfatzidis, who also packs a lethal shot, and skilful central midfielder Andreas Samaris, have also made the 23-man final squad, although curiously the twinkle-toed Sotiris Ninis – probably the attacking midfielder most used by Santos in qualifying – has not. He has not played a great deal of first team football this season after returning to Greece on loan from Parma.

Up front the names are familiar. Giorgos Samaras plays a utility forward role, but the burden pf goalscoring falls on hard working and aggressive forwards Dimitris Salpingidis, Fanis Gekas and, increasingly, Kostas Mitroglou, though the latter is struggling his way back from injury. This bunch may be getting on – not even Mitroglou is really a spring chicken – and have more (and worse) facial hair than a David Bellamy lookalike contest, but they usually turn up a goal when it’s needed (and more than one often isn’t).

One look at Greece’s qualifying record shows where the team’s strengths still lie, for all the talk of an attacking revival under Santos. Greece qualified by doing what they are good at, which is not conceding goals. Second in their group, they scored less than half the goals that first placed Bosnia did, but they conceded just four in ten games. Admittedly, advancement via the playoffs came via a rather uncharacteristic 4-2 aggregate win over Romania. It’s unlikely that we’ll see a major change of plan from Santos in taking on a Group C in which the fear factor will be real; Greece are good at keeping games tight and at keeping their nerve. The attacking options are more likely to be wheeled out if a step up through the gears is required; but it’s not entirely comforting to know that your coach’s main option if he needs to chase a game is to bring on a 37 year old perambulatory playmaker. Anything is possible in Group C; Greece will be Greece, and they will hope it’s enough.

Strengths: Quality in defence; organisation; high quality playmaking from Katsouranis and Karagounis; counter-attacking forwards who know their job; coolness under pressure.

Weaknesses: Probably not good enough at scoring goals to get past teams who can move the ball around them; one-paced midfield and no real idea of how to harness more attacking resources; Samaras will be tired from his Eurovision campaign.

Young player to watch:  There’s little real youth in the Greece squad but with the defence the key area of the team, Kostas Manolas could be a man of the future.

Prediction: Likely to put up a better fight than Greek teams past have done at world cups, but probably outclassed in this group. 

Ivory Coast

I still got moves
The Ivorian media were generally pleased with the world cup draw, with correspondent Lassina Kone commenting “God smiled on us”. There may be more cause for concern than they realise. The Ivorians take what was, without doubt, an exceptional generation of players, but with time drawing on, the suspicion is that destiny may have passed Drogba & Co. by.

It is trite football lore that Didier Drogba has now lost much to age, and it is telling that he is no longer playing at the cutting edge of club football. He remains dangerous, and will be first choice to lead the line, but he will not instill fear as once he did. In a likely 4-3-3 the wider forwards are likely to be Gervinho on the left and Kalou on the right. Gervinho has been in useful form at Roma but struggles for consistent productivity while Kalou, dangerous in qualifying, looks a little short of the quality that cracks open top defences and is, in any event, hardly the kind of touchline-hugging winger who might drop crosses on Drogba’s head or boot. Wilfried Bony, a target man of infinite bustle and no little finesse, has the potential to replace Drogba and he may start to find favour in this world cup, possibly as a substitute, to supply some dynamism. Backup options Lacina Traore, Serdou Doumbia and Giovanni Sio have not established themselves in the elite club leagues, and look to be makeweights. This is not a team with lots of goals in it.

Assured of a place in the middle of the park is the only one of the Ivorian golden generation still in his prime – Yaya Toure, a late bloomer at 31. Having finally found a club whose football suits his all-action style, Toure has been on phenomenal form with Manchester City this season, and much will depend on whether he can take games, and his team, by the scruff of their necks. The rest of the central midfield is likely to be defensive in inclination, but none of the options is entirely convincing; Didier Zokora is ageing, Cheick Tiote perhaps a little raw and reckless for international football, and Romaric a dependable but unspectacular player – save for his occasional howitzer free-kicks. With coach Sabri Lamouchi a devotee of 4-3-3, the midfield is likely to be Toure plus one of the foregoing three. It is difficult to see a compelling Plan B in the middle of the park. The main options for a change of style are Max Gradel - now established at St. Etienne but probably most suited to a wide midfield or orthodox right wing role that Lamouchi’s system does not allow – or the exceptionally quick, but inexperienced, Mathis Bolly.

In defence, Sol Bamba, Didier Zokora and Kolo Toure have been familiar faces for a long time now, but whether they still constitute a top class defensive unit by World Cup standards is open to question. Zokora and Toure have 225 caps between them but both are in decline, with Zokora now at Trabzonspor while Toure has struggled to hold down a place at Liverpool. These are nonetheless likely to be the starting twosome in the centre, with young Serge Aurier on the right. Left-back is up for grabs, with the veterans Arthur Boka or Siake Tiene fighting for the spot, or possibly Frankfurt’s Constant Djakpa. There are some encouraging signs of a new generation emerging in defence, in the form of Aurier, Brice Dja Djedje, and midfield/defence utility man Jean-Daniel Akpa-Akpro contending for a spot in the final 23. These guys are likely to be understudies for now. In goal, Boubacar Barry is in firm possession of the gloves, but is not the most convincing of international ‘keepers.

The Ivorian team as a whole looks like a somewhat lacklustre unit whose hopes remain pinned on the qualities of a star individuals Drogba and Yaya Toure. There’s a lot of experience in the team, but there are limits to how far experience can go. It’s far from impossible that the team could be roused to a group-winning performance, but on the whole the omens aren’t good. Lacking some of the dynamism of great African teams past, the Ivorians could be undone by either the explosive attacking of Colombia or the precision of Japan. Another factor is coach Sabri Lamouchi’s  inexperience; at 42, this is his first managerial position. There is real player power in the Ivorian squad; while this is generally combined with a real sense of togetherness, the implications if a raw young coach tries to impose changes on the team in response to challenge are unclear. There remain doubts over Lamouchi’s own tactical flexibility, with a firm preference for 4-3-3 on display so far despite many suggestions that the team’s resources would be better deployed in 3-5-2.

Strengths: Experience; on field leadership; team spirit.

Weaknesses: Lack of top quality throughout the midfield and defence; inexperienced coach; over-reliance on individuals; lack of a Plan B in terms of personnel or tactics.

Youngster to watch: Serge Aurier, an impressive right back who will get game time and maybe earn a big money move from Toulouse.

Verdict: Out in the group.


2014 Honda: a civic legend. In his home town. Presumably.
In recent years a reliable source of quick, energetic and technically sound players, Japan are often questioned along rather stereotypical lines over their ability to cope with the physical wham-bam of European and African football. This time there should be little ground for such naysaying however, as Japan arrive with one of the best passing sides in world football. Their accurate, possession based game should be ideally suited to the conditions in Brazil and they boast 12 European-based players in their squad, with a number based at top tier clubs. Attention from the pundits is limited as yet, but fans looking for an outside tip for the semi-finals could do a lot worse than consider Japan.

Precision is the watchword in the forward half of the field where a gifted generation is approaching its prime. Real goal threat will come from the interactions of golden boy Keisuke Honda, of Milan, with Shinji Kagawa to his left and reliable goalgetter Shinji Okazaki on the right. That may well be the team’s front three, or alternatively a centre-forward may be brought in in front; it’s likely to be form man Yuya Osako, whose career in Bundesliga.2 has got off to a solid start. Strong, quick footed Yoichiro Kakitani may be an intriguing alternative however; he has played most often as an attacking midfielder but has many qualities of a target man. Experienced attacker Yoshito Okubo, a fairly conventional no.9, is also in the final squad, which coach Alberto Zaccheroni has already announced.

The midfield pivots around a deeper-lying partnership of Yasuhito Endo and Makoto Hasebe, who have the vision and composure to make the play. Endo is 34 but plays a game that gets better with experience; a bigger concern perhaps is a knee injury that cost Hasebe much of his season. Japan do have other alternatives in this department however, in the form of Toshihiro Aoyama or Hotaru Yamaguchi, neither greatly experienced but both offering mobility and grit. Hiroshi Kiyotake, a winger/advanced midfielder with good Bundesliga experience, gives other attacking options.

In defence, first choice starters Atsuto Uchida and Maya Yoshida have both overcome injuries to make the squad. Along with Yasuyuki Konno, Yoshida’s likely partner at centre-half, and left-back Yuto Nagatomo, it’s a seasoned unit, although only Nagatomo has world cup experience. They’re backed up by Standard Liege keeper Eiji Kawashima. The defensive supporting case consists of experienced utility man Masahiko Inoha (19 caps) and reserve centre-back Masato Morishige (2 caps), plus some promising members of the next generation in German-Japanese fullback Gōtoku Sakai (8 caps) and wingback Hiroki Sakai (no relation – 12 caps). Particularly impressive about Japan’s defence is the amount of top flight European club pedigree on display from the likes of Kawashima (Liege), Uchida (Schalke), Nagatomo (Inter) and Yoshida (Southampton). On the face of it, this isn’t a team which should be taken by surprise by foreign attacking wiles. However, on the field, Japan’s performances of late have been erratic to say the least. Friendly results in the last couple of years, like a 4-0 loss to Japan, a 4-2 loss to Uruguay, and even a 3-2 win away to Belgium, suggest that if anything keeps Zaccheroni awake at night it’s the flakiness of his back line under pressure from the best.

One of the untold stories of World Cup 2010 was how desperately unlucky Japan were in not reaching the quarter-finals, losing out on penalties to a lacklustre Paraguay in the round of 16. This is a better Japan team, and, on its day, the First XI is one of the crack units of international football, a focused, possession-hogging side with the guile to unlock the toughest of defences. And it won’t, frankly, face the toughest of defences in this group. It’s also an increasingly experienced team, with plenty of veterans of South Africa and a number of players operating near the top of the club game. The question marks are over the defence, plus a few injuries that may have robbed key players of sharpness. Most of the backup options are inexperienced. Committed to attacking play and quite likely to win games by the odd goal in seven, Japan have what it takes to get out of their group, and become a new fan favourite in so doing.

Strengths: Pace, mobility, and ability to work possession; tournament experience and big club pedigree.

Weaknesses: Surprisingly brittle defence; fitness worries; inexperienced second string.

Young player to watch: Yuya Oasko is currently playing in Bundesliga.2 but if he takes the opportunity that is likely to come his way in Brazil, he may not stay there long.

Verdict: Perfectly capable of getting past the Ivory Coast into second here, and oughtn’t be scared of anyone they might face in Round 2, either. Beyond that it will get tougher but if you wanted an outside tip for the semi-finals, you could do worse.

Want more world cup previews? Don't fear we've got long form previews of Group A and Group B here.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

The Football Hipster World Cup Preview: GROUP B


Of the Ramsay Street Kennedys?
Facing a tough group that leaves them little obvious chance of doing anything beyond avoiding embarrassment, Australia – under respected A-league coach Ange Postecoglou - have jettisoned a lot of the older hands that guided them at world cups past. There’s no space even in the provisional squad for Chelsea goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer or 96-cap Watford defender Lucas Neill. This is a transitional side and the tournament gives a number of emerging players to gain experience and show their talents to clubs in the major European countries.

Australians, we all know, are culturally more comfortable playing sports where you get to use your hands, and unsurprisingly therefore their goalkeepers are among the best of the new generation. Mat Ryan, of Belgium’s Club Brugge, is leader of the pack that has displaced Schwarzer since 2010. In front of Ryan, the strongest suit of the defence may be rampages down the flank from the mobile Ivan Franjic, a wingback with the physique of a road cyclist. Pundits are tipping Ryan McGowan and Matthew Spiranovic to form the centre-back pairing with Dutch-based Jason Davidson on the left. These four have 37 caps between them (17 of which are Spiraovic’s), a stat which neatly sums up where Australia are. Centre backs Spiranovic and McGowan in particular have had varied careers to date, each having a spell in Europe before building careers in other leagues. It’s a unit with some potential but that clearly needs bedding in.

Postecoglou relies slightly more on experience further forward in the team. Most of their  proven resources in this department are hard working midfielders of a fairly defensive persuasion, such as Crystal Palace’s dependable Mile Jedinak, Melbourne Victory’s Mark Milligan or Brisbane’s Matt McKay. Newcomer Joshua Brillante, named in the provisional squad, also fits this mould. Australia will look to Mark Bresciano to make the play from deep; he has great experience in Serie A, but at 34 seems almost easing into retirement with a club spell in Qatar. More attacking options in midfield are limited by the absence, through injury, of Robbie Kruse. The left-sided Tommy Oar is a regular with FC Utrecht, and as a starter in a decent European league he’s a rarity in this squad. Tomas Rogic and Dario Vidosic give other options; the former in particular has talent, but has some developing to do and hasn’t broken through at Celtic. It’s in midfield that the influence of the Croatian diaspora in Australian football is most evident.

There are a couple of members of the old school left up front, as well, especially Tim Cahill who is still the main goal threat. Australia’s Plan A is essentially to land the ball on his forehead within a few yards of goal, and see what happens. If the front of Cahill’s skull happens to be unavailable for any reason then his lanky colleague Josh Kennedy may be able to deputise. Familiar to millions from his world cup campaigning, Kennedy’s club career has been peripatetic. With deep lying striker/wide forward Matthew Leckie, and this year’s A-league top scorer Adam Taggart, also likely to travel, Australia may be able to develop other routes to goal, but this will depend on the team coalescing into an attacking unit.

The Socceroos appear to be a team entering transition at just the wrong time. The old guard carried the burden of qualifying, but made heavy weather of it, and Postecoglou – only appointed in October 2013 – has elected to ring changes ahead of rather than after the tournament. In the long term that may well be for the best, but in the short term it leaves Australia a somewhat disjointed, and very inexperienced, unit facing world class opposition. A win and a draw is probably the minimum with which Australia can qualify, with a win and two draws a likelier requirement; either would be a near-heroic achievement for this squad.

Strengths: Element of unknown; some telling experience where it counts (Cahill, Bresciano); aerial threat.

Weaknesses: Transitional team; lack of top level experience; vulnerability to pace; lack of a change of gear.

Youngster to watch: Rogic could make an impact if he gets time on the field.

Verdict: Out in the first round; their impact, if they have any, is likely to be by spoiling other teams.


Get rrrrrrready to rrrrrumble....
Mercurial to the last, Holland followed the circus farce of their Euro 2012 with a qualification campaign of almost arrogant ease. Holland 2014 blend youth with experience, although unconventionally most of the experience is up front while the callow youth sit further back in the field.

At the back there has been a more or less complete changeover of personnel since 2012. The only survivor is centre-half Ron Vlaar, an imposing but rather limited figure who spends his working week frightening the lower half of the Premiership. Of the four keepers named in the provisional squad, only Swansea’s Michel Vorm is into double figures in international caps, but the likely starter is Jasper Cillessen of Ajax. Fullbacks Daley Blind (son and doppelganger of former international Danny) and Daryl Janmaat are relative newcomers to the national team scene, but have been starters for their clubs for some time. So has Vlaar’s likely partner, Bruno Martins Indi, who like Janmaat plays for Feyenoord. These guys have solid club experience, including European competition, but very little international exposure. The backup defensive cast, meanwhile – names like Terence Kongolo, Joel Veltman, Tonny Vilhena – are more or less complete newbies in the national realm. That Louis van Gaal has named eleven defenders in his provisional squad suggests that he may still be debating which men to take as reserves.

At the other end of the pitch the picture is almost completely reversed, and one has to blink twice at the number of seasoned international creators and goalscorers that Holland can deploy. Klaas Jan Huntelaar (34 goals in 60 appearances) and Robin van Persie (41 in 82) vie to be the team’s cutting edge, though neither has had a great season at club level, with Huntelaar injured for much of it. Milkybar-mopped utility forward Dirk Kuyt is still running every channel at 33, and has 98 caps. If Holland play a front three then one of the wider positions may well be taken by Jeremain Lens, a pacy forward who once scored from the corner flag, or 20 year old Memphis Depay, enjoying good form with PSV.

Backing all this up is a midfield that can choose from Wesley Sneijder (26 goals in 97 caps), Rafael van der Vaart (25 in 109) and Arjen Robben (22 in 73). The sheer quantity of both skill and goals in that threesome – not all of whom, admittedly, are likely to be on the field at the same time – is something to contemplate. They offer the serious possibility of being able to keep the ball off, and play around, Spain. Backing them up is world-cup-final-enlivening free range nutcase Nigel de Jong. None of these guys is exactly past it, either – if Sneijder or Robben, for instance, have passed their peaks then that’s only because they peaked so early and so high; both remain well capable of doing serious international damage. The coming generation in midfield looks strong, especially Davy Klaassen and Georginio Wijnaldum, but is likely to play a supporting role for now.

So, Holland in a nutshell; a defence some of whom, including the likely starting keeper, have barely a season of first team football under their belt; but a five-strong roster of world class attacking players who between them boast 420 caps and 148 international goals. If Holland share England’s problem – that the new generation, while numerous, does not look quite as good as the last – then at least they know the last generation set the bar high. That said, van Persie/Sneijder/Robben set have arguably underachieved both internationally and in their club careers – they have only two Champions’ League medals between them – and this may be their last chance. Van Gaal, meanwhile, showed in the 90s with Ajax that he can blend youth and experience in a winning mix.  

Strengths: Massive attacking resources; the usual high levels of technical finesse; perhaps the world’s best coach at the helm.

Weaknesses: I don't want to labour the point, but inexperience, and ultimately perhaps a lack of top quality, at the back. Also uncertainty as to best selection; lack of winning mentality. Unflattering kit (see below).

Does my chest look pigeon in this?

Youngster to watch: There are many, but Klaassen merits particular attention.

Verdict: Through the group, most likely after beating someone (probably Chile) 5-4. Likely to face Brazil in the second round, and to be eliminated.


Straight outta Cardiff
Tipped by some as dark horses for the World Cup prize itself – and therefore, if we may judge from history, virtually guaranteed not to win it – Chile have matured nicely since buzzing the 2010 tournament with their attacking play.

Rewarded for their progress with a tough group, Chile will need goals, and are without their traditional fulcrum. Accustomed to playing with Humberto Suazo in the target man role, they may struggle to cope with his absence through a shoulder injury. Although Alexis Sanchez, now a regular matchwinner with Barcelona, is a scintillating talent, he’s hardly a conventional no.9, and the search to replace Suazo’s penalty box bombast has so far alighted mainly on rather non-setting-world-on-fire options such as Mauricio Pinilla, Esteban Paredes or Gustavo Canales. Foregoing the target man, coach Jorge Sampaoli may opt for the pacy Eduardo Vargas, but his form has been relatively weak since a move to Serie A in 2012.

In midfield, Arturo Vidal’s knee injury, which has needed very recent surgery, is a real shame. Even if cleared to play, the Juventus man seems likely to be below his excellent best. There is still a fair bit of menace in the midfield, with Jorge Valdivia and Matias Fernandez offering some craft and creativity, Jean Beausejour and Charles Aranguiz some mobility and lung power. Additionally, being an aggressive team, not known for winning disciplinary plaudits, Chile naturally have plenty of choice in defensive midfield. British fans, however, should note that they play Cardiff’s Gary Medel in defence - presumably because it marginally reduces the chances of him getting sent off.

Medel’s partner at the back has typically been Marcos Gonzalez, now 34 years old. He remains favoured by Sampaoli, for whom he played club football, but spent a while this season without a club so may lack sharpness. These two sit in front of experienced keeper Claudio Bravo, who remains utterly in command of the no.1 shirt. Chile use their fullbacks to get width, and marauding right sider Mauricio Isla, of Juventus, is a quiet superstar for the national team. Eugenio Mena on the left is a capable partner. Enzo Andia, a youthful centre-back who already has several years’ experience at Universidad Catolica, was also brought into the provisional squad by Sampaoli.

Although on good form in recent friendlies – scaring Germany and easily beating England at Wembley – Chile struggled against the best teams in qualifying, losing twice to Argentina and heavily away to Uruguay. Although they scored goals relatively freely, they conceded too many. An adventurous and committed side whose exuberance quite often spills over into indiscipline, they probably lack the calmness under pressure that becomes important in tournament football, and they won’t be helped by injuries to two of their best players, Vidal and Suazo. In a tough group, Chile look like they will probably lose out.

Strengths: Team spirit; energy; loads of options in a buzzing midfield; the explosive skill of Sanchez; an impressive coach.

Weaknesses: Injuries, a leaky defence, and temperament. Angrier than a team of de Jongs with Deep Heat in their boxers, Chile enjoy a complicated relationship with the refereeing community.

Young player to watch: Chile have a team in their prime that have grown up together; if youth gets its head anywhere it is likely to be in midfield. Felipe Gutierrez, a left footed creator currently with FC Twente in the Netherlands, has made 16 appearances for the national side but awaits his breakthrough moment.

Verdict: To the disappointment of football hipsters everywhere, likely to be overcome by Holland and Spain in the group. It's not beyond Sanchez & Co. to spring a surprise however, particularly on Holland's sapling defence.


Sometimes, I even bore myself 
Spain have been “enjoying” the first signs of a fall from favour of late, as the global footballing public starts to realise that having one team full of interchangeable short men win absolutely everything world football has to offer is, well, rather dull. Meanwhile, Barcelona have been showing signs of becoming fractionally less awesome than they used to be. Their former High Priest, Pep Guardiola, has run into headwinds in Europe, his tactic of trying to win games by being really good seemingly unpicked by opponents who prefer to hide in their penalty box, sneak up, fart in his face and run away.

Amid all this, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Spain are still the team to beat in world football and that, as FourFourTwo magazine recently put it, their B team would have a fair chance of winning the World Cup – on paper, anyway. They remain the supreme practitioners of fast-cycling possession football and their ability to dictate the pace of games and make opponents work should be eminently suited to the conditions in Brazil.

Let’s look at the facts. An analysis of their squad demonstrates that Spain are really good. In particular, their midfielders are really good, with key trio Xabi Alonso, Xavi and Iniesta needing no introduction. The supporting cast – Sergio Busquets, Cesc Fabregas, Santi Cazorla, Jesus Navas and David Silva, also have the crucial quality of really goodness, the forwards, if Spain choose to use any, are mostly really good, and really goodness is on particularly fine show at goalkeeper, where all of David De Gea, Iker Casillas and Pepe Reina are so really good that it’s frankly unfair Spain get to keep them all, and they ought to have to give one of them to another country. We’ll get to the defence in a minute.

Seriously though, while Spain lack obvious weaknesses, there are some reasons why this tournament might be a bridge too far. Hugely experienced, and world class in their own right, as many of the midfield deputies are, the heart of Spain’s dominance and control has always been Xavi and Xabi Alonso, each of whom is, shall we say, getting on. Neither plays a game that relies on superlative athleticism, but Xavi in particular – the older of the two – is coming off the back of a wearing club campaign. In defence, there is a suspicion that Sergio Ramos is vulnerable while at right back there has been a changeover, with new boy Dani Carvajal very inexperienced, for all his talent. It is possible to see Spain becoming frustrated by bus-parking and maybe, just maybe, being hit on the break with pace and direct running – on the rare occasions they lose the ball. That’s the main hope for less-than-stellar opposition. On the other hand, Spain have never been great ballwinners, because they’ve never had to be, so if opponents such as the Netherlands or Brazil can play the possession game against them, they might be broken.

I’m not claiming that it’s actually likely to happen, but Spain might be worth a punt for the traditional big-name group-stage exit. It has happened to defending champions quite a lot lately. Being used to winning is a double edged sword; yes Spain have nothing to fear, but they've also nothing left to prove; if things start to go against them in their group, will these men who've won everything find it in themselves to rise up and chase one last medal? In truth, if it came to that, they probably would; Spain’s wise old heads are unlikely to panic and they showed, with a last-ditch qualifying win in Paris, how solid they are under pressure. They have done it all before, and their key midfield three alone have 335 caps between them. But worth a bet to come a cropper in a group that’s far from easy? Maybe. More likely they’ll win the group, get through round 2 against Mexico or Croatia and then get taken out in a later round – maybe by Germany on a revenge mission?

Strengths: Being really good at kicking the football to one another, rather than to the opposition, vaguely (but never too directly of course) in the direction of the goal. Experience and ability to dictate the play.

Weaknesses: Neither defence nor attack is as convincing as midfield. Ageing, and not accustomed to chasing games. The world may be starting to work out how to play them.

Young player to watch: Hey, this is Spain. Carvajal the only man you’re not likely to have seen 400 times before.

Verdict: Semis 

Overcome with the awesomeness of this preview? Check out our Group A Preview here

Friday, 16 May 2014

The Football Hipster World Cup Preview: GROUP A

Shouldn't you be at work?

Well anyway, good afternoon and welcome to the first in a series of eight group-by-group previews of the 2014 World Cup, starting today with the group the hosts, Brazil, must get through - Group A.

Don't be expecting fireworks here - this isn't the group of goals. Luis Felipe Scolari's Brazil 2014 are more like his solid 2002 version than the buccaneering 1982 or 1970 iterations. Their group-mates are mostly mid-table international sides; Croatia have craft and Cameroon a couple of lethal strikers, but if anyone is going to score freely it's probably the pacy Mexicans.


Best start at the top. The perceived advantage of hosting has seen Brazil installed firmly as favourites. And coach “Big Phil” Scolari, a Brazilian national treasure and himself probably the team’s biggest asset, is in confident form. Whether the Selecao can actually justify any of this, though, probably depends on a number of factors.

One is the ability to find goals in the quantity expected from Brazil. Their lineup of forwards contains few proven goalgetters at top level; target man Fred is a Scolari type of player, but fairly limited by the lofty standards that apply in a World Cup, while neither ex-Manchester City striker Jo nor new boy winger Bernard (who has played little club football in the last year) look likely to be prolific in the yellow shirt. Hulk, playing in his first major tournament despite several years of good club form in Europe, might just have what it takes to become one of the unexpected stars of this World Cup if things go well for Brazil. But as so often, most hopes rest on the number 10 – Neymar must deliver. A strong performance in the 2013 Confederations Cup and good form with Barcelona indicate that he may be able to do so, but we have to remember that this young man, though already a megastar, has never played on a stage this big before.

World Cup inexperience runs thoughout the squad in fact, and one other big question is how the team will gel and hold together under pressure. It must help that Scolari has been able to field a settled line up for a year now, although Brazil did not have the fortifying experience of a qualifying campaign. The midfield in particular, while typically smooth, appears to lack real veterans. But perhaps it would be best not to overplay this factor, as many of the lesser-capped players, like Manchester City’s Fernandinho or Chelsea’s Willian, are mid-career late bloomers rather than sapling youth. Meanwhile the defence is a relative strength, with Thiago Silva, Dani Alves, Marcelo and Chelsea’s David Luiz all among the world’s very best in their positions. The latter is probably the strongest of the side’s unusually large English-based contingent, although his club colleague Oscar looks to be a potential world cup star in attacking midfield. Goalkeeper Julio Cesar is hugely experienced, but probably good rather than great, and has not played much club football lately.

The biggest unknown factor is whether Brazil can make home advantage real. There is fear factor in Brazil, and the folk memory of defeat in the last home world cup in 1950. Enough teams have outperformed in home tournaments over the years however to suggest that stadia packed with partisan support do have an effect at international level, provided the team can stay on the front foot. Brazil can certainly be expected to take ownership of their group. Their second round draw looks tough, with the likelihood of facing Holland, Spain or Chile; things look slightly easier thereafter. Brazil could stumble, and if they do it may well be in the second round; if they get past that stage they will rightly be hot favourites.

Prediction: winners

Strengths: Settled team, winning coach, high quality and relatively experienced defence, Neymar’s good form.

Young player to watch: Brazil have a curiously Italianate reluctance to blood youth, sometimes, and there aren't many potential surprises in their squad. This could be 22-year-old Oscar's breakthrough.

Weaknesses: Lack of proven goalscorers. Midfielders and forwards mostly good, not great. Home advantage may turn on its head if the side go behind, especially in the knockout stage.


An initially solid qualifying campaign turned slightly sour towards the end for Croatia, who as usual are Eastern Europe’s best hope in the finals. Home defeat by group winners Belgium and a double defeat by Scotland forcing the Croats to fend off Iceland in a fairly kind playoff draw.

Although coach Kovac (himself a “water carrier” in his playing days) favours discipline ad organization, Croatia can make things difficult for themselves by conceding silly goals, even to weak opposition as the qualifying stage showed. Their draws often involved their letting slip a lead, their wins sometimes a recovery from behind. Their defensive line contains few players operating at the top of the European club game, but it does feature two hugely experienced campaigners in Dario Srna and Vedran Corluka.

In midfield, meanwhile, Kovac is perceived as rather under-using Luka Modric, who often plays deep, and Niko Kranjcar (who has been playing second-flight football in England this year) is often a sub. But it is an effective and crafty unit nonetheless, with a rising star in Sevilla’s Ivan Rakitic, holder of a newly minted Europa League medal. He and a deep-sitting Modric are more than capable of dictating the tempo.

Up front there is plenty of hard running and guile from Ivica Olic, Mario Mandzukic, and Hull’s Nikita Jelavic. This lot seem to make up in big match temperament what they lack in outright flair, especially Mandzukic who is prolific in the Bundesliga and did well at Euro 2012. Meanwhile it’s now or never for the more explosive Eduardo, who at 31 years old has a goal every other game at international level, but missed Euro 2008 and has otherwise flattered to deceive in tournaments. The Croats do also have some interesting youth options in midfield and attack, with Inter’s Mateo Kovacic probably the most exciting.

Croatia’s opening game against Brazil looks like a shot to nothing, in snooker parlance; they can have a go at the hosts without having to much to lose. Results against Cameroon and Mexico will be key. One senses that the African side do not have a lot to offer in this company, but the Mexicans could be a very different proposition.

Strengths: Technically solid midfield, promising youth, experienced strikers with a taste for the big occasion.
Weaknesses: Somewhat limited defenders; prone to mistakes; don’t always seem to know how to use their most talented attacking assets (Modric, Eduardo, and to a lesser extent Modric).

Young player to watch: enterprising Inter midfielder Kovacic.

Verdict: Not this time. Brazil will be too strong and if Mexico can use their mobile forwards to good effect they will give Croatia difficulties; an early flight home looks likely. Any kind of result in the opener against the hosts, however, will put Croatia on a roll.


African giants and regular world cup qualifiers Cameroon really scraped into the finals this time, relying on a retrospective overturning of their 2-0 defeat to Togo, who fielded an ineligible player, to scrape in via a playoff.

Superficially at least, the Indomitable Lions encapsulate the current predicament of African football. Their hopes are still pinned on an ageing talisman, with limited top tier talent in the generations below. Look a little closer, though, and things are not entirely as bleak as they first appear; in particular, there is great interest in the emergence of power forward Vincent Aboubakar, who has been on good form for Lorient in the French league this year. Six foot tall, explosively athletic and seemingly capable of being target man, poacher, and creator all in one, Aboubakar isn’t the overnight sensation he might first seem. His career prior to this season was not prolific and he has amassed 22 international caps with only two goals. Time to see if his form this year represents his true potential – if it does, and if he gets to play in his preferred central role, he could be a star. And the great Samuel Eto’o is not quite past it, himself – he has lost something to the advance of the years, for sure, but far from everything, as a tidy season with Chelsea has shown.

Other than Eto’o and Aboubakar, Cameroon’s attacking options are mostly makeweights, although Pierre Webo has his moments as an out-and-out traditional number 9.

In midfield Cameroon suffer from a surfeit of defensive midfielders of whom the best, given Alex Song’s flagging club form, is probably Stephane M’Bia. However, he does not tend to start games. He will face Sevilla midfield colleague Ivan Rakitic in the Croatia tie in Manaus. With bustling, athletic forwards and limited creativity in the middle of the park, it’s unsurprising that Cameroon adopt an industrious and fairly direct style. The defence is a relative strength, with an up and coming centre-half pairing in Marseille’s EUR10m-rated Nicolas N’Koulou and Galatasaray’s highly regarded Aurelien Chedjou.

Increasingly well organized on the back foot, but with little flair and a record of occasional disunity within the squad, in reality Cameroon don’t conform to too many African stereotypes. But in the face of their regular qualification for the world cup, it’s easy to forget how woeful their two last finals have been; they went out in the group stage in both 2002 and 2010 (failing to qualify in 2006) and in 2010 they lost all of their games. Quite a lot of the 2010 squad are still around, hopefully to learn from the experience. But in Croatia, Mexico and Brazil, Cameroon have once again been paired with teams who just look too strong for them.

Strengths: Defensive quality. A couple of dangerous forwards. Plenty of tournament experience.

Weaknesses: Record of failure at this level. Poor form, especially away from home; they recently lost 5-1 to Portugal. Precious little creativity or goal threat in midfield.

Young player to watch: undoubtedly Aboubakar

Verdict: Likely to fall at the first.


Mexico endured a torrid time in qualifying for this world cup, eventually reaching Brazil via a playoff with New Zealand after winning only two of ten games to finish fourth of sixth in their CONCACAF qualifying group. They endured a number of nil-nil draws as their attack misfired against middling-to-weak opposition.

The attacking weakness in the qualifiers looks like a case of choking, as on paper the side would seem to have goals in it. This is despite the absence of the stylish Carlos Vela, whose commitment to national team football has long been in question. Javier Hernandez may not be a regular starter with Manchester United at present, but the pacy and predatory forward has shown he can be a goal threat at tournaments. He struck twice in South Africa in 2010 and starred with seven goals as Mexico took the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup. The other likely options up front are Liga MX stalwarts without European experience, Oribe Peralta and Raul Jimenez, both reliable scorers for club and, in Peralta’s case, country. There’s also the option of no.10 Giovani dos Santos, now firmly established with Villareal after his disappointing spell at Tottenham. Emerging utility-forward Alan Pulido, who scored a debut hat-trick in a recent 4-0 friendly rout of South Korea, is also staking a claim.

Relatively workmanlike in midfield, Mexico in the middle of the park possess neither imposing physicality nor great guile. Potentially the best of the starters is Carlos Alberto Pena, a 24-year-old box to box midfielder nicknamed “Gullit”, who brings most of the muscularity that Mexico possess. His likely midfield partners Hector Herrera (of Porto) and Juan Carlos Medina (an anchorman just establishing himself internationally at 30) are energetic enough, but more creative midfielders Isaac Brizuela, Marco Fabian and Luis Motes are likely to get supporting roles at most. Width is a real weakness, and in this department Mexico offer little in midfield or attack – wide play is likely to come from wingbacks Paul Aguilar and Miguel Layun, neither of whom looks particularly strong at this level. It’s also in midfield that Mexico’s relative lack of European club experience is most pronounced, with Liga MX players dominating. It’s a good league, but doesn’t offer the exposure to top international players and tactics that European competition does.

Mexico’s clearest strength is the centre of defence where the stylish and hugely experienced Rafael Marquez, now at domestic club Leon after winning two Champions’ Leagues with Barcelona, will captain the side for a fourth world cup. His likely partners in the centre are both up and coming stars with European clubs - Hector Moreno is an established first teamer with La Liga’s Espanyol, and very much in the shop window this world cup, while 21-year-old Diego Reyes is a B-teamer at Porto but has Copa America and Olympics experience with Mexico. 90-cap Francisco Rodriguez is an able deputy, and veteran keeper Jesus Corona is a strength. Former Fulham left-back Carlos Salcido may also travel, his 119 caps adding more experience to the mix, as may the similarly experienced fullback/wingback Andres Guardado.

Experience in fact is one of Mexico’s strengths. Like many American nations, Mexico play a lot of tournaments, and a number of their squad have experience of some or all of the 2010 World Cup, the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup and Copa America, the 2012 London Olympics, and the Confederations Cup and Gold Cup in 2013. While there are old-stagers like Corona, Rodriguez and the peerless Marquez on hand to lend an avuncular word, Mexico also have younger players with massive international experience; Guardado has 100 caps at 27, Dos Santos 73 at 25. Victory at the Olympics in 2012 has given several of the younger players a taste of winning.

Notwithstanding all of this, Mexico are an erratic side, and they often struggle to make their identifiable strengths count. Hence the dreadful qualifying campaign. Their tournament performances are up and down; the Gold Cup 2011 and Olympic victories were followed by disaster at the Confederations Cup. Nevertheless, in South American conditions, Mexico’s attacking options, solid defence, and experience should give the an edge over Croatia in what looks like the battle for second place in this group.

Strengths: Solidity in central defence and attack; a good keeper; lots of tournament experience.

Weaknesses: Lack of pace and physicality; doubts over optimal selection in midfield; no established playmaker.

Young player to watch: Isaac Brizuela, the “Little Rabbit”, a quick-footed goalscoring playmaker who could also have played for the USA. Plays his club football with Toluca in the Liga MX. If he gets game time, he could impress the big clubs.

Verdict: Good enough for Round 2 if they can make the most of their resources for once, but unlikely to go further.