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.

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