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

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