World Cup 2014 is still fresh in our memory. So what new did we come across? Which teams impressed us with their discipline or attacking flair? And which managers did impress us with their tactical maneuvering? Debojyoti Chakraborty analyzes all these and more here with GT.
With the FIFA 2014 World Cup finally coming to a close, there has been a great deal of debate going on about whether this World Cup was the greatest ever. There were several indications that it was definitely one of the best in post world war era. If on the one hand we had loads of goals (at least in the group stages), plenty of drama and endless emotions, captivating us for more than a month, on the other hand we also witnessed some fascinating tactical battles throughout the campaign. Let us take a look at some tactics that left a lasting impression.
Germany started the competition in 4-3-3 formation with Philipp Lahm, possibly the best right back in the world playing as midfield anchor. Joachim Löw had a fluid front three of Mesut Özil, Mario Götze and Thomas Müller with the licence to roam and interchange at will.
Germany stormed through to the second round but looked slow and susceptible against an attacking opponent. In the round of 16 match against Algeria, the German full backs –Höwedes and Shkodran Mustafi, centre backs in their club teams, started venturing forward but without any substantial impact. It exposed their centre backs and Löw , the mastermind, unleashed Manuel Neuer in an extremely aggressive sweeper keeper role. It was a move which could have backfired but he trusted his keeper who never let him down with 17 perfectly timed clearances outside his penalty box. Germany, however, looked more threatening and settled as Lahm moved to his natural right back role to replace the injured Mustafi, thus paving the way for Sami Khedira in the midfield. The latter added much needed pace in the Die Mannschaft middle third while Bastian Schweinsteiger looked far more comfortable in the deep ball playing role than his captain – the move ultimately elevated Germany to another level but happened more by chance than planning.
Löw made another decisive switch in the next match against France by introducing an out and out striker in Miroslav Klose upfront. He provided a focal point to the German attack, and allowed Müller to start at his usual right hand channel and drift inside. Although Klose had little impact on the game in the attacking third and more precisely, inside the penalty box, he helped push back the French centre backs, and thus freed up the space for German midfielders to maintain the goal threat.
With Khedira getting ruled out during warm up and his replacement Christoph Kramer having a poor game before leaving the field due to an injury , Germany were set back in the final with the shortage of central midfielders. Özil had to fall back to the midfield trio where he was never at ease. Löw though had the final say as his super subs André Schürrle and Götze combined to clinch the title.
Germany had a very peculiar team – from an ultra-modern goalkeeper to the old-fashioned goal poacher. But just like the previous two winners Italy and Spain, Germany also had a variety of attacking threats– they seemed to find a goal scorer from virtually every corner of the field during critical moments. Joachim Löw should be credited for not only winning the World Cup, but also nurturing so many young talents en route.
Alejandro Sabella made a huge tactical error as he started the campaign with a 3-5-2, but he quickly went for damage control at half-time. With Bosnia and Herzegovina using only a lone striker upfront, Sabella spared an extra man from the back to add more solidity and control in the midfield. Lionel Messi definitely enjoyed the hybrid 4-3-3 formation and his own false 9 role.
Sabella drastically changed things around in his next match and moved to a 4-2-4 system against an Iran side expected to sit back and defend for their lives. Iran showed tremendous discipline and robbed Argentina of any space. Once again Argentina failed to impress.
Finally Sabella addressed the core issue, albeit through an injury to front man Sergio Agüero. Ezequiel Lavezzi was introduced and though he did not produce a tangible end product, he was honest in his wide position and provided a proper 4-2-3-1 balance to the team which gave Messi the licence to roam around. Messi, as expected, was heavily marked throughout the World Cup. However, he constantly managed to drag at least two of the opponent midfielders out of position, which was opening up a vast area between the lines for others to drift into. Unfortunately, more so after the injury to Ángel di María, none of his team mates managed to take advantage. All of Argentina’s movements were distressingly linear playing into opposition hands.
Messi dictated much of the tempo for Argentina. His reserved, calculated and sudden burst of speed while attacking meant that Argentina’s tempo changed from the qualifiers, where they preferred breaking quickly. This tactical shift was very critical for La Albiceleste – the more classic eloquent Latin American display with Messi playing an archetypal Argentine #10 devoid of any strong European influence.
Pegged by injuries to key players, Sabella opted for Lavezzi and Enzo Pérez– a central midfielder –on the wings, semi final onwards. Lavezzi, a forward, was naturally more effective venturing forward. It showcased how two makeshift wide players, given virtually similar roles, carried them out quite differently. Especially against Germany in the final, Sabella missed a trick by not asking Lavezzi to stick to the right side taking on an uncomfortable German left back Benedikt Höwedes, a right central defender.
In the finals against Germany, Sabella made an inexplicable change at half time, a switch which tilted the balance of the game in Germany’s favour – in came a half fit Agüero for a very lively Lavezzi and Argentina changed to a midfield diamond. They lost all the width and pace down the flank, and played to the German hands by being extremely narrow in the central areas. Sabella opted for a star player sacrificing the team shape and it cost him the World Cup.
Louis van Gaal deployed three centre backs with a high-risk strategy – high defensive line, ready to keep possession in deep areas in own half and launch direct balls forward bypassing the opponent midfield and defensive lines. There was clear instruction for two outside centre halfs to track down the two most forward players from the opponent team, even if it meant going beyond own midfield line. This paved the way for a high pressing game with an open channel for kick starting quick counter attacks.
This strategy had some loopholes though. Australian midfielders were ready to make runs deep from their own half to exploit the zone vacated by Dutch centre backs high line. But this, in effect, opened up the game more as Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben found themselves one on one against the opponents’ mid fielders. Van Gaal closed down the game by bringing in a pacy winger Memphis Depay to keep the Australian full backs more occupied. A change of formation to 4-3-3 also deprived the Australian front three any open space, resulting in a slower game, where gap in quality eventually won.
One masterstroke by van Gaal was using Dirk Kuyt, a forward by position, as an auxiliary wing back. It allowed the Oranje to transit seamlessly from a three centre back to classical 4-4-2 during different phases of the match. This was pretty apparent in the round of 16 match against Mexico. After a stalemate in the first half where both the teams cancelled each other out in a 3-5-2 set up and were producing a slow drab game, Van Gaal switched Kuyt to a conventional full back and introduced an out an out winger. The team played an immensely attacking 4-2-1-3 formation, though at the cost of a weaker midfield , as the Dutch won the game through wide areas by pushing the opponents’ wing backs even further – rather 3-4-1-2 to very attacking 4-2-1-3.
A very courageous move was already made by substituting Van Persie for Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, a natural penalty box poacher, perfect for getting on the end of crosses. But the move of the match came during the water break, after which Kuyt moved upfront from his right-back position, with Georginio Wijnaldum covering the right of the pitch. This tactical switch resulted in the late Dutch dominance and a 2-1 comeback win.
The Dutch were good against teams taking the game to them which meant more space to work in counters. But in the quarter final they faced Costa Rica, a mirror image of themselves, albeit with less attacking flair and prowess. It could have produced a stalemate but not with Netherlands involved. Van Gaal moved his wing backs further up to push back the opposition wing-backs, stretched his forwards with Wesley Sneijders’ across the pitch and kept the Costa Rican centre backs occupied to basket their build-up play.
Costa Rica were content at keeping their shape at the back, and hence did not have anything to offer going forward. The Dutch were controlling the game but had a redundant defender in a 3 v 1 at the back, with none of the three centre backs stepping up into midfield to dictate the game. The Oranje, surprisingly took second half of the extra-time to address this issue, but rightfully changed from a 3-4-3 to a 4-2-4, with and Huntelaar coming on up front at the expense of Bruno Martins Indi.
Then came the most talked about substitution of this World Cup. within the 119th minute, van Gaal substituted sub goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen with Tim Krul. It was more of a psychological move than anything else : Krul is not a penalty specialist, but the iotasub convinced Costa Rica that he was.
And what an inspired substitution it was! Except for the first kick, Krul came out of his goal every time the striker walked towards the penalty spot to place it, normally walking to one side. Then Krul dived in the opposite direction of his walk. And Krul guessed it right every time, saving two in the process.
Netherlands were brilliant throughout the tournament, with van Gaal relying upon an uncommon, tight man-marking system. He was refreshingly flexible to change his formation each game to match his opposition midfield, with wing backs dropping back to have an overload in defence.
Luiz Felipe Scolari changed the way his three attacking men lined up, a tactic that surprised everyone. Oscar, most effective when operated centrally, was drifted to a wider role on the right. Neymar loves to operate from left but he was effectively used as a support striker to centre forward Fred. Hulk, who started right behind the lone striker Fred during, last year’s Confederations Cup win was shifted to the left wing. This change may be due to Neymar’s increased stocks since last year which prompted Big Phil to offer his star player more time with the ball. But this overhaul complicated things for their most creative player, Oscar, who was visibly not comfortable playing out of position.
There is no denying the fact that nowadays Brazil lacks real skilful, creative, attacking footballers, and Scolari, hence, rightly set up the Seleção as a primarily counter-attacking team. He showed his experience by playing a midfield shuttler in Ramires and sacrificing one of the front men against teams fielding three men at the back. But sometimes he was let down by the inexperience of Neymar, who played more like a second striker than a number 10, making himself vulnerable to marking.
In the annihilation at the hands of Germany, everything that could go wrong for the hosts went wrong. The most perplexing decision was the inclusion of Bernard in the starting XI. There has been questions on whether it was solely because he is a local Belo Horizonte boy, and Scolari, having lost Neymar already, was desperately trying to cash in on his popularity. The whole team performance was bizarre. Brazil were atrociously broken into two sections –six defenders, four attackers, and no midfield link between them. The defence could not pass the ball to the attackers, and the front four could not retain possession much longer to ease the pressure on the back six.
In the second half, Scolari made some changes – Paulinho and Ramires replaced Hulk and Fernandinho, switching to more of a 4-3-3, with Luiz Gustavo behind Ramires and Paulinho. In hindsight, this is probably the team and shape Scolari should have started with.
Chile were one of the most versatile sides in the tournament. Jorge Sampaoli dished out a midfield diamond with plenty of variations. Marcelo Díaz, the holding midfielder would often drop deep making it a three centre back allowing the full backs to operate more like wingbacks. From there, long diagonal switch of play across the width of the field was one of the characteristics of quick Chilean counter attacks. Up front, at top of the diamond, Jorge Valdivia played further up more like a false nine rather than in a number 10 role. Striker duo of Alexis Sánchez and Edurado Vargas regularly drifted wide dragging the opponent centre halves with them and creating space for Valdivia to run into. Sampaoli also proved his worth as a clever tactician by introducing a fast, direct centre forward Jean Beausejour late in matches and switching to more traditional 4-3-3 to exploit tiring defences.
At times, Chile showed they can be reactive and can adapt very quickly. Sampoli fielded 3-4-1-2 against Spain, to replicate the Dutch pressing game against Spain. He was not copying blindly though – Chile were cautious, giving due respect to Spain as often they sat back deep to form a five man defensive line. But they overloaded when attacking and quickly changed play by passing the ball from one flank to another, a highlight of their famous win.
Jose Pékerman, the veteran Argentine coach, was widely expected to field a narrow 4-2-2-2 in the World Cup but was handicapped by last minute injury to star forward Radamel Falcao and shifted to a 4-2-3-1 formation. Star of the campaign was James Rodríguez – not only he dazzled forward but always came deep to collect the ball and play some glorious through balls. Rodríguez was thought to be uncomfortable in a converted winger position but he showed tremendous adaptability and his longitudinal awareness was absolutely brilliant. It also helped that they had two skilful full backs in Juan Camilo Zúñiga and Pablo Armero who besides providing width and making overlapping runs, were comfortable with the ball deep in opponent territory, holding and dribbling past defenders. Colombia displayed tremendous discipline with the back four and the two holding midfielders, and lit the stage with Rodríguez and another trickster in Juan Cuadrado. But they suffered up front as both Jackson Martínez and Teófilo Gutiérrez failed to impress. Had they got a decent striker in the final third to support Rodríguez, Colombia might just have gone all the way.
Costa Rica shocked everyone the most with their honest and disciplined display of tactical football. Jorge Luis Pinto, in his second stint as the national team coach, deployed a back three in a counter attack based system. This was in stark contrast to all other teams in the tournament having a three centre half system – Netherlands, Mexico et al were comfortable with the ball, pressed higher and had a possession based approach. On the other hand, Pinto’s team defended deep and relied on direct counter attacks – not through long balls but refreshingly eye catching speedy passing to wide areas. Sometimes they did press high up but generally they allowed the opponent teams to come at them, get exposed at the back and then break free.
Costa Rica were brilliant at setting up off side traps – their tally of 41 successful traps till the quarter final stages was more than double of the second ranked team (Germany) in this category. It shows how cohesive their defensive unit was. But the same unit struggled to switch to a conventional flat four after going down to ten men against the round of 16 match against Greece. Pinto’s tactical shift to 4-4-1 took a while to get going as the wing backs continued to play very wide instead of playing close to the centre backs. They eventually rectified themselves by playing narrow, helping out the stoppers and leaving the flanks to be taken over by the wingers. They eventually won the match on penalties, but did not have enough tricks up their sleeves to progress further in the competition.
Didier Deschamps succeeded in bringing France out of the 2010 World Cup debacle and spearheaded a well-knit unit. France’s star performer was Mathieu Valbuena who occupied the right-sided position in a three men attack but often drifted inside into pockets of spaces in more central positions. He carried out the double role of a right winger as well as a perfect #10 – on top of a midfield diamond – with aplomb.
But Deschamps struggled to fit in his striker duo of Karim Benzema and Olivier Giroud in the starting XI efficiently. First of all, Valbuena had to be shifted in the left wing where his utility was compromised. Then, Giroud could not hold up the ball up front effectively enough, and often he mistimed his runs to create space for others. Benzema also became less effective whenever asked to operate from the left in a 4-3-3 system, did not offer any width at all, and could not go behind the last defender into goal scoring positions. In effect, his narrowness resulted in Valbuena’s diminished return.
But Benzema playing as a wide man was even more problematic due to his minimal defensive contribution. Against less disciplined teams such as Switzerland (at the group stage) this approach was still workable, since Swiss right-back Stephane Lichtsteiner was regularly getting caught in the French half and Benzema could exploit the space in counter-attack. But against more tactically sound sides like Nigeria in the round of 16 match, Efe Ambrose had a more balanced role to carry out. He attacked the French left wing with no one tracking him and combined well with Peter Odemwingie to create problems for Patrice Evra.
Les Blues were playing a lop-sided 4-4-2 and were going nowhere. Deschamps addressed the issue by taking off Giroud, introducing Antoine Griezmann, and shifting Benzema upfront in a classic 4-3-3. This move changed the game – Griezmann’s directness and verticality in possession proved decisive as he linked well with both Benzema and Valbuena. France won courtesy a Paul Pogba header from a corner but ran out of ideas in the quarter final against eventual winner Germany.
Marc Wilmots biggest tactical genius was perhaps the use of his substitutes. In the opener against Algeria he struggled in the first half with a 4-4-1-1 and an inept toothless attack. At the half time, Kevin de Bryune was shifted to a central position, and Belgium now had a potent target man with super sub Marouane Fellaini playing as the second striker. Fellaini did not disappoint and pulled Belgium level with a brilliant header.
Wilmots then put up an example for everyone – he did not hesitate to start with Divock Origi upfront, ahead of his number 1 striker, an underperforming Romelu Lukaku in the knock out stages. But he was not stubborn to prove himself right as he changed things whenever required. The round of 16 match against USA was turning out to be a frustrating one for the Belgian faithful. USA kept on losing the ball frequently and Belgium kept on squandering chances against an impregnable Tim Howard. Wilmots could do nothing much but still he shook things up by introducing a bit of pace by introducing Kevin Mirallas in place of Dries Mertens. In extra-time Lukaku was called off the bench to inject even more pace upfront at the expense of Origi. And Belgium finally got the crucial breakthrough as Lukaku teed up De Bruyne on the break. Ten minutes later the reverse sequence happened and Lukaku’s cameo helped Belgium overcome a stubborn USA side. Belgium created a lot in the match, but a clinical striker made all the difference late in the match.
Wilmots was handicapped with the lack of natural full backs – everyone in his back four was a centre half. So there was no consistent overlapping runs, no overload in the wide area and one cannot succeed at the World Cup without such a basic weapon.
England coach Roy Hodgson excited all of us with four attackers in a 4-2-4 system. But obvious downside of this formation was lack of defensive responsibilities and less protection for full backs which cost them a lot. Also Wayne Rooney’s positioning was an issue – he was shifted constantly during and in between matches from either flanks to the behind the striker position. World Cup was no place to decide the best position for the team’s most influential player.
Paulo Bento used Cristiano Ronaldo more as a second striker and shifted Raul Merieles towards the left to cover for his vacated space. This was effectively a 4-4-2 but with neither forwards tracking back, it was always a lost battle in the central midfield where the opponent always created a 3 on 2 overload.
Greece are one of the most defensive sides the World has ever seen. But they showed their attacking flair too against a 10-man Costa Rica while trailing by a goal. Like any other side, they introduced strikers, moved up the # 10 to play more like a 4-2-4. But they did not simply hit the long balls – instead they pushed the ball wide, stretched the play, forced Costa Rica to work hard, tired them out, and lashed some brilliant crosses into the box. They were patient throughout and finally were able to equalize.
This World Cup saw a return of three centre back formation. But at the end, many of the teams shifted from 3-5-2 to 5-3-2 as the wing backs were instructed to be more responsible defensively. At the end of the day, it was evident that the same system could look very different by the roles carried out by individual players.
Another notable aspect was that how cagy an affair it can become when two sides fielding the same 3-5-2 formation lock horns (Uruguay vs Italy in the group stage, Netherlands vs Costa Rica in the last eight). Strikers become well marked by the insurance of an extra sweeper; there is no free width to be exploited as the wide areas are well guarded by the wing backs creating 1 v 1 all the time. Midfield area becomes too predictable and three CMs cancel each other out.
As we advanced in the tournament, teams got more cautious. Full backs / wing backs were instructed to track their opposite numbers more closely rather than being used as an outlet for attack. This reduced the possibility of having a 2 v 1 overload in the opposition wide areas and the game got more predictable. Same was the scenario in the middle of the pitch – the midfield triangles were formed much lower; sometimes entirely well within own half by the central midfielders and very few ambitious balls were played forward. As a result goal scoring opportunities diminished and so did the goals.
At the end of the day it really comes down to the individual players. The coach can always come up with the best of plans to tackle the opponent. But it depends on the players’ adaptability and discipline if they can execute that plan. And how well individuals can execute the tactics differentiates the winner from the rest of the bunch.
Spain: Creaking at the Top
It’s been barely two weeks into the greatest spectacle of football and we have seen it all — complacency, aggression, surprise and, of course, shock! Here Debopam Roy analyses why the Spanish Armada sank.
It’s been a rollicking World Cup so far with goals galore but before the second week is over, we have already seen two former World Cup champions go out and are sure of the demise of a third. The most shocking has been the exit of current World and European champions Spain. In fact, they have maintained the trend that in the 21st century, no European team, while defending the World Cup has made it beyond the group stage. France started this ignominious trend in 2002. Italy followed in 2010. And now the armada too has fallen.
The Armada Sinks
So complete has been the Spanish domination of world football in the last six years that they have won every major trophy in that time losing just one game (against Switzerland in the 2010 World Cup opener). From there, to be out in 180 minutes is easily the biggest shock in this World Cup. So what went wrong for the Spanish? On closer analysis one can point at these factors.
Team Formation was awry: The striker position has been problematic for Spanish managers ever since Fernando Torres went off the boil. The best striker since then has been David Villa but at 32, he is a peripheral figure in this team and was supposed to be an impact sub. Vincent del Bosque never tried Villa’s angular runs in this World Cup, instead he has tried out his club mate Diego Costa who had scored more than twice the number of goals Villa did at Atletico Madrid this season. But Costa had only played twice matches with the Spanish team before the World Cup. His club form was under a manager who orchestrates a completely different sort of tactics to the tiki taka of La Furia Roja. For a seasoned manager like Del Bosque, it was astounding that he didn’t try out the striker-less false 9 formation with which he had won the 2012 Euro. Cesc Fabregas, did come on but only as a second striker to support either Costa or Torres.
The Xavi factor: Xavi Hernández has been operating the springs which has run the Spanish (and indeed Barcelona) clock for six years. In this tournament, he played the first match and had 91% pass accuracy. But critically he had only two through balls and no key pass in the entire match. In fact, only three of his passes actually were completed where the target was inside the opponent’s penalty box. That is as damning a statistic as any. Del Bosque dropped him for the second match.
The question of width: Spain had no width at all in their match against the Dutch. The wingbacks were supposed to provide the width between them. In the horror show against the Oranje, Cesar Azpilicueta had two crosses from wide areas – one more than Jordi Alba, the left back. That number improved to six with three crosses each in the second match. Just to give a comparison, in the Euro 2012, the Spanish team averaged 16 crosses per match. When Xavi was sacrificed in the second match, Pedro was brought in – evidently to provide width but he had no successful crosses despite having three take-ons. With no width, Spain didn’t have any alternative if the opponent crowded the middle third to spoil the tiki taka rhythm.
No More Saint:3, 2, 1. what comes next? The answer is 7 and counting. Iker Casillas is one of those handful players who have won everything there is to win as a player at club and national level. He had only conceded three goals in Euro 2008, two in 2010 World Cup and one in Euro 2012. This arithmetic progression ended spectacularly when he conceded five in the first match. Except for the goals by Arjen Robben, culpability can be put on the captain for each of the rest. He gifted the fourth, missed the flight on the third and despite the superlative dive from Robin Van Persie on the first, Casillas’ position was all awry on the first. Not that he was helped much by his defence. The first choice pairing of Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique were slow, kept a wide chasm between them and seldom provided the solidity that one Carlos Puyol always provided. On both the goals from Robben as well as the third Dutch goal, the defence was at sixes and sevens. So piqued was Del Bosque that he dropped Pique for the second match and brought in Javi Martinez, but clearly there was no understanding between him and Ramos either.
Missing Hunger: Casillas had famously commented that La Decima is more important than the World Cup. This group of players has been winning trophies at club and national level for so long that they assumed that just turning up would be sufficient and did not care about intensity. Robben’s pace, Van Persie’s finishing and the intensity of every Chilean showed that up. Somehow the Spanish were complacent and not playing with their heart in it. Evidently the Madrid players were sated with their Champions League win, the Barcelona players apart from Iniesta had a mediocre season and the only Atletico player to start the games, Costa was awful.
Del Bosque misses a beat: It is not new. In 2010, Marcello Lippi had filled his team with his 2006 trophy winning side without bothering to include fresh faces. The result was getting dumped out from a group consisting of Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia. Vincent Del Bosque wasn’t so radical and did include some youngsters like Javi Martinez, Koke, David De Gea and Azpilicueta. However, only Azpilicueta and Martinez started. The manager also didn’t use the mature players well. Players like Santi Cazorla and Juan Mata could have been the creative spark that Spain has lacked. The continued faith on Torres in spite of him having poor club seasons meant that other strikers like Alvaro Morata, Markel Susaeta, Alvaro Negredo and Roberto Soldado were left at home.
It is the end of a generation of tremendously gifted players. One would be surprised to see the likes of Casillas, Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Villa or Torres in Spanish colours again. Spain has been winning the European competitions across age levels too and the supply line is already there.Spanish infrastructure and youth development system is still churning out talents aplenty. This disaster does not point to the overall failure of the system, rather augments the point that some of the stars have been persisted with beyond their shelf life. They need a new manager with fresh ideas who could frame a team with the likes of Koke, Thiago Alcantara, De Gea, Iker Munian and such players. They may not herald another generation of tiki taka domination, but they could well make for a strong Spanish team to Russia in 2018.
Asian and African teams in World Cup
Soumyadip Das takes a look into the performances of the Asian and African teams in World Cup Finals.
When it comes to World Cup, everybody talks about Brazil, Italy, Germany, Spain, Argentina, France i.e. mainly Latin American and European nations. The main reason is that all the previous editions have been won by only eight teams from those two afore mentioned continents – no team from any other continent has ever won the World Cup. Teams from Africa, Asia and North America have failed to put up a consistent fight at the biggest level, let alone winning it. Asia and Africa are having four and five representatives respectively in last few World Cups. But, they are yet to reach the final of World Cup. Till date, the best performance from an Asian team was South Korea’s semi-final appearance in 2002. And a few African teams like Ghana (in 2010), Senegal (in 2002, that too in their first World Cup appearance) and Cameroon (in 1990) have played at the quarter-final stages. But as a whole, their success is very much limited.
Many experts and journalists attribute this continuous failure to their lack of technique and temperament. While the European or South American teams are excellent in skills as well as fitness, African and Asian teams are not as good as them in terms of technique. In 2010 quarter-final match between Ghana and Uruguay, Asamoah Gyan of Ghana missed a penalty in the extra time when the result was 1-1. That penalty would have sealed the match for Ghana and they could become first team from Africa to reach the semi-final. Some people say that they were unlucky, but according to many, there was lack of temperament and that’s why they were out of the World Cup. On the other hand, they are very inconsistent too. Senegal reached quarter-final of 2002 World Cup, but since then they have not been able to qualify in any other edition.
In this year’s World Cup, Cameroon showed they are just the shadows of once Indomitable Lions. They crashed out of the group stages losing all three matches and conceding four goals in two of those matches. Ivory Coast, considered by many as the best African side, again could not cross the final hurdle.They conceded a silly penalty in the dying seconds of the last group match against Greece.The golden generation could not handle the pressure and keep the composure and paid the ultimate price for that – a return ticket to home. Ghana showed promise for the future but could not break into the knock outs from a tough group. But Nigeria and Algeria made it a memorable edition for Africa as the first time in history, two teams from the continent made it past the group stages.
One reason for the African teams’ under achievement over the years has been explained quite well by the legendary German footballer and manager Franz Beckenbauer. He said that African teams are mostly individualistic which has been their biggest problem. With his vast experience in FIFA as an executive, he observed that most of the African players, who play in the World Cup, play their club football in Europe. Despite of that, they look to play individual games rather than team game. They don’t unite themselves to succeed at the biggest stage.
In the other age group tournaments, the scenario is little different. Take for example the U-17 World Cup, Nigeria and Ghana have won it four times and two times respectively. Even in U-20 World Championship, they have done quite well. Now the question is what happens to them after that? Some experts say that in a poverty-stricken continent like Africa, if some players get huge money from the reputed European clubs, they consider it as an unbelievable achievement. As a result, they don’t practice that hard and soon find themselves out of the team. Also, as their economical condition is not very stable, they don’t get the extra-ordinary training facilities. As a result, their fitness and strength don’t reach up to the World-class level.
The overall performances of the Asian teams are even worse than the African teams. Only South Korea reached the semi-final in 2002 when they were the co-host. But that remarkable success was very much under the cloud. They beat Spain, Italy with some controversial decisions in their favour. Apart from it, Japan and Australia (Since 2010, they play as an Asian team) have reached the round of 16 in a few occasions, but never went beyond that. The reason is most probably their inferior technique compared to the other teams and their lack of hunger for success. Australia, in 2006, met with Italy in the round of 16. After playing a great match, in the extra time they conceded a controversial penalty and lost the game. Some experts say that Australia should have won the match much before the extra time. But, due to some poor finishing from Aussie forwards, they couldn’t win the match.
Australia, after being migrated in the Asian Football Confederation, has put a good show at the international level. But they suffered this time from being drawn in a really strong group. But, it has to be said, they did make themselves count – especially in the match against the Dutch –even after conceding three goals en route all the group match losses.On the contrary, Japan and South Korea have stagnated over the last few years. They squandered the chances of having a decent run after being put in very reasonable groups and managed only a draw a piece in the group matches. May be they fell short of the physical demands of the modern game. That is where Iran’s performance caught the eyes. They had a memorable match against Argentina and only a late Lionel Messi magic robbed them off a historic point in World Cup. They had to win against debutants Bosnia and Herzegovina in their last group match to qualify for the knock outs but again their gap in class proved their nemesis.
Overall, we can see that some Asian and African teams have reached up to a certain stage in the World Cup. But they have been failed to reach the final and also they haven’t been able to do that consistently. There is no doubt about their potential as they are very successful in the age-group tournaments. But there is a pressing need to change in their training facilities as well as their technique and attitude. Only this can help them to achieve better results in the days to come.
Qualification Scenarios for Second Round
Debopam Roy looks into the qualification scenarios for the second round of the World Cup 2014.
We have finished 2 rounds of the FIFA World Cup 2014 and teams go to their last group stage match with round of 16 qualifications at stake. Some of the teams have already exited – World Champions Spain and former champions England most notable among them. One more former champion is sure to join them as only one of Italy or Uruguay can qualify. To avoid any team having undue advantage these last couple of matches in a group will be played simultaneously. While teams are scratching their heads to figure out what they need to do – not only to qualify but to get an easier opponent in the next round – we look at each of the groups and the qualification scenarios.
The top two ranked teams from each group would qualify. Following factors will be taken into account in the sequence provided to decide the ranking of teams in each group:
Points in all group matches, with three points awarded for a win, one point for a draw and none for a loss.
Goal difference in all group matches
Goals scored in all group matches
Points in matches between tied teams
Goal difference in matches between tied teams
Goals scored in matches between tied teams
Drawing of lots
Cameroon has been eliminated in Group A. All 3 other teams can qualify for the second round. In the final round of matches, Brazil play Cameroon and Mexico play Croatia.
Brazil Qualification:Brazil will qualify if they avoid a loss against Cameroon. If they lose to Cameroon, they would want a win for either Mexico or Croatia in the other group match. In case of a draw, Brazil would be eliminated. But Brazil should surely push for a convincing win to ensure they get the second best team from group B to face in Round of 16.But is it tempting? Especially if the team to face is Netherlands? Tricky question.
Mexico Qualification: Mexico will qualify as long as they avoid defeat against Croatia. If they are defeated, they would want Cameroon to beat Brazil by a margin which is at least 2 goals more than their loss margin. This would make Brazil’s goal difference worse than theirs. In case the goal difference is also same, and both Brazil and Mexico lose, Mexico needs to score at least 3 goals more than what Brazil has scored against Cameroon. If Mexico scores 2 goals more than Brazil and both the teams lose and also end up with the same goal difference? Can I be the lucky one drawing the lots?
Croatia Qualification: Anything less than a win will virtually see Croatia go home. In paper, they can still qualify with a draw, but then Brazil will have to lose against Cameroon.
This is the group that is already decided. Netherlands and Chile have already qualified. Australia and Spain have been eliminated. In the final round, The Netherlands will play Chile and Australia will play Spain.
The only academic interest is who will top the group. Whoever wins between the Dutch and Chile will top. In case it is a draw, Netherlands will remain on top owing to their superior goal difference. The prize for topping the group is not a small one though – avoid the hosts in the next round.
Colombia, the seeded team has qualified from this group. One of Ivory Coast, Japan or Greece will join them. In the final round of matches, Colombia play Japan and Ivory Coast play Greece.
Ivory Coast Qualification: Ivory Coast will surely qualify with a win. If results go their way – a high scoring win and Colombia suffering a loss to overturn a four goal difference – they can even top this group. If they draw, they would qualify as long as Japan does not beat Colombia with a margin of two goals or higher, or scores more than Ivory Coast’s last match in a one goal margin victory. If Ivory Coast loses to Greece, they will be eliminated..
Japan Qualification: Japan will qualify only with a win. Nothing less will suit them. Even then, Ivory Coast can ruin their party with a win of their own. If ivory Coast draws their match, Japan has to win by a margin of two goals or more or score two goals more than Ivory Coast in a one goal margin victory.
Greece Qualification: Greece will only qualify if they beat Ivory Coast. If Japan wins their game against Colombia, Greece has to better their winning margin by tree goals or more. A winning margin better than two by that of Japan will give rise to the unlikely scenario of drawing lots.
The group of death threw up an unexpected Reaper of Souls. Costa Rica, the rank outsiders beat 2 former World Cup champions – Italy and Uruguay to qualify for the second round. Those two meet in the final round to decide who will qualify. England has been eliminated.
It’s a simple do-or-die match. Whoever wins – Italy or Uruguay, will qualify. If it is a draw, Italy would qualify. The situation is so weird in this group; winner of that match may well qualify as the group winner – if England can upset Costa Rica and then depending upon the goal differences – and then have to face the second best team from Group C.
This is the first group where each of the 4 teams has a chance to qualify. In the last round of matches, France play Ecuador and Switzerland play Honduras.
France Qualification: France’s missing out is only a mathematical possibility and will need a goal rout. For France to not qualify, first Ecuador has to beat them by 4 goal difference or more. Then Switzerland will also have to win against Honduras by at least 5 goals margin or score five more goals than France in a four goal margin victory. For every other scenario, France will qualify. If that happens, well, well, well!!! Anyway France looks set to top the group and avoid Argentina in the next round.
Ecuador Qualification: Ecuador needs to at least match Switzerland’s result in the other game to qualify. If both of them win, Ecuador can afford to win by one less than Switzerland’s winning margin. Anything worse and Ecuador will be out. If both Ecuador and Switzerland lose, then Switzerland Qualification: Switzerland needs to better Ecuador’s result to qualify and score 2 more goals. So if Ecuador wins by 1 goal margin, they need to win by a 3 goal margin at least. If Ecuador has a draw, the Swiss would need a victory of any margin to qualify. If Ecuador loses, then even a draw would be sufficient. Switzerland can qualify even after losing: if Ecuador loses by two goal margin worse than that of Switzerland, they themselves do not lose by more than two goals to Honduras…whole lot of complex scenarios will arise.
Honduras Qualification: Honduras would need to win against Switzerland by at least 3 goals and hope France beats Ecuador by 1-0 or more than a goal margin.
3 teams at 6:There is a possibility that France, Ecuador and Switzerland may end up at 6. This may happen if both Ecuador and Switzerland win. France has a far superior goal difference and goals scored tally. In such a scenario, everything will depend on how many goals Ecuador has scored against France. A small win for Ecuador may not be enough as Switzerland may win big against Honduras and pip Ecuador.
3 teams at 3: This can happen if France and Honduras wins. Then Ecuador, Switzerland and Honduras would end up at 3 points. As long as margin is 2 in the Honduras Switzerland match, the advantage is with Switzerland. If they lose by a three goal margin, they would be out.
Argentina has already qualified from Group F and Bosnia Herzegovina has been eliminated. One of Iran or Nigeria will join Argentina. In the final round up, Argentina play Nigeria and Iran take on Bosnia Herzegovina
Nigeria Qualification:Nigeria just needs a draw to qualify. If they lose by two goal margin or more, they would want Iran not to win. If Nigeria lose by a single goal margin, they would not want Iran to win by more than one goal margin. If both Nigeria lose and Iran win by one goal margin, then Nigeria has to equal the number of goals scored by Iran. If the number of goals scored by Iran is more than that of Nigeria by one, then it would be draw of lots. Anything’s worse for Nigeria and they will be out. A surprise win for Nigeria will however make them top the group and force Argentina to take on France in round of 16.
Iran Qualification: Iran would hope Argentina beat Nigeria by 1 goal or more and then win against Bosnia. The complexity will be the same as that of Nigeria.
Again another group where every team is alive with a realistic chance of going through to the second round. Germany faces USA in their last match, which will see at least one – or both – team to the second round. Elsewhere Portugal takes on Ghana.
Germany Qualification: A draw in this match will set both Germany and USA through to the next round making the other match insignificant. That, or a German victory will give them the pole position. Surprisingly, Germany can even be knocked out! For that to happen, Germany has to lose and Ghana-Portugal match has to give us a winner. Then these two results should be against Germany to overturn a 5 (if Ghana wins) or 8 (if Portugal wins) goal difference. Anything less, and Germany will be safe.
USA Qualification: A draw will be enough for USA to sail through. USA can be eliminated with a loss, if Ghana-Portugal match does not produce a draw. Then these two results should favour Ghana or Portugal to overturn a 2 or 5 goal difference respectively over USA. Anything less, and Germany will be safe.
Ghana Qualification: Any result in the USA-Germany match will be curtains for Ghana. If Germany wins, Ghana will qualify with a victory margin of two goals or more. If both Germany and Ghana win by one goal margin, then Ghana has to outscore USA by two goals. In case USA wins, Ghana has to win and overturn a 5 goal difference – a near impossible task. Portugal Qualification: Portugal are almost out of it. Any result in the USA-Germany match will be all over for them. Even if that match has a winner, Portugal has to thump Ghana to overturn a whopping 5 or 8 goal difference (depending upon who wins the other match, USA or Germany).
No one is eliminated from the group. Belgium has qualified from this group and will face South Korea in their last group match. Algeria will take on Russia to complete the group.
Algeria Qualification: An outright win will be enough for the North African nation. That will be a huge result for them and a loss for Belgium will most likely hand them a pole position. A draw will also do if South Korea wins by less than three goal margin or wins by three goal margin but does not outscore Algeria by three goals. Algeria can also progress with a loss if the other match does not produce a result.
Russia Qualification: To qualify, Russia has to win and also ensure that South Korea does not win by a better goal margin than its own. If South Korea betters its winning margin than that of Russia by two or more goals, then Russia will be knocked out. If the winning margin difference is against Russia by one goal, then Russia has to outscore South Korea by at least three goals. If, in a bizarre scenario, South Korea’s winning margin is one more than that of Russia and also Russia outscores South Korea by two goals, then we have no option but to draw lots.
South Korea Qualification: South Korea has to win to qualify. But even then, they will be knocked out if Algeria beats Russia. Life will not be easy otherwise too. Complexities of a Russia win are already discussed. A draw in that game means that South Korea has to win by a margin of four goals or more, or at least a margin of three but outscores Algeria by three goals.
All the teams in Brazil have played at least one game by now. This has been one of the most exciting World Cups for ages. Let us try to hand pick some of the raw talents which are or will be making their names in this tournament. Debojyoti Chakraborty dons the Scout’s hat in Goalden Times.
Choosing only five from an ocean of talent is not easy. Still, we have tried our level best to offer you with a collection which will excite you. Please bear in mind that we wanted to introduce you to some of the hidden gems. So we have not chosen anyone playing in the top – or mostly watched – European leagues. So players plying their trade in England, Spain, Germany or Italy have been kept out. Again, we wanted to give you a good account of players whom you would get to see a decent amount of time. Hence we have ensured all our picks are featuring in their country’s first XI, or at least have chances to be on the pitch for a significant amount of time. Now sit back, relax, and enjoy. Follow football, follow us.
Name: Alan Dzagoev
Age: 23 (DoB – 17th June, 1990)
Club: CSKA Moscow
Jersey No: 10
Position: Attacking Midfielder
Alan Dzgoev, true to his jersey number, is a perfect number 10. He is agile, always looking for the ball and has an eye for goal apart from creating opportunities for others. However he is not a one-trick pony and is versatile enough to feature anywhere in the midfield, including the wide areas.
Dzgoev, of Georgian origin, started his senior career in Russia with a bang as he bagged the Best Young Player award at his first season in 2008. He was soon inducted in the Russian national team at a tender age of 18 – youngest ever as an outfield player – by then coach Guus Hiddink. His moment of international recognition came in 2012 as he topped the goal scoring charts in UEFA EURO 2012. He has nothing to prove but this World Cup can see him emerge as a new player altogether.
For the first time, Dzgoev will have to shoulder the responsibilities of Russia. He will be the focal point of attack, and being the artistic playmaker he is, he should be able to amaze the fans with his brilliance. Dzagoev’s technical skills, his comfort in possession and ability to pick out a decisive pass makes him a potent weapon for Russia. But he has been slightly off the mark in last couple of years. This World Cup is going to be a make or break opportunity for him at the biggest stage. This will be a golden opportunity for this young boy – yes, he is still only 23 – to take his game to the next level.
Watch out for this gem of a talent. His total gameplay – vision, fitness and maturity – should be a handful in weeks to come.
Name: William Carvalho
Age: 22 (DoB – 7th April, 1992)
Club: Sporting Lisbon (Sporting Club de Portugal)
Jersey No: 6
Position: Defensive Midfielder
Portugal’s Angola-born William Carvalho, even at his young age, has a strong frame. He is a product of the Lisbon based club’s youth academy and has regularly featured for the national side in different age levels.
At over 6 feet, Carvalho is a strong boy and uses every bit of his physicality in his holding midfielder role. But that is not all – he is sharp with the ball at his feet. His positioning is remarkable and covers up for his slightly sluggish pace. Carvalho generally plays as the midfield anchorman in a three-man midfield where his role is to shield his back four. But he is also adept playing as the defensive cover in double pivot system where he looks to snatch the ball away from opposition as well as lays the foundation for his more advanced partner to venture forward.
Portgual has mourned for a true aggressive defensive midfielder for years. Carvalho, though with a handful of caps with him, is just the right player to solve that puzzle and this is the reason he might just feature regularly for the Seleção. Carvalho still needs to work on set pieces and could use his physic to a great advantage during aerial battles. But he already has suitors from some of the top clubs – most notably Manchester United and Chelsea – and a good showing at the World Cup will not do his stocks any harm.
Name: Bruno Martins Indi
Age: 22 (DoB – 8th February, 1992)
Jersey No: 4
Position: Centre Back
Again, we have a footballer born in a different country and playing for a different one. Bruno Martins Indi though knew little about it as he moved from Portugal to Netherlands when he was three months old. He came through the ranks in Feynoord and opted to play for the Oranje.
Coming off a depressing childhood, Martins Indi is surely on the right track. A tall, lanky lad, he is now a solid member of the Feynoord back four. And though he regards himself as a stopper, Martins Indi is versatile enough to play either as a left full-back or as the left sided centre back in a three-man defence. Sometimes this multi-faceted nature of his game seems to confuse managers as he has been switched around across different roles in Feynoord.
Martins Indi started becoming a regular feature for the national team during the World Cup 2014 qualifying campaign and has done nothing wrong since then. He has a strong aerial presence and uses it to good advantage at either end of attack. He has a good burst of pace, looks composed with the ball at his feet and a very good passer of ball – all ingredients for a ball playing centre back who can play out from the back. Martins Indi seldom dives into a tackle. Actually he rarely needs to as he read the game very well and more often than not, intercepts key passes. These are the qualities that have prompted people calling him the next Jap Stam.
To be honest, Martins Indi has not yet been tested against world-class strikers in the Dutch League. This World Cup would be a big opportunity for him to test himself against the best in the business and see where he stands. And this over-my-dead-body mentality bloke seem to be nicely poised at that.
Name: Serge Aurier
Age: 21 (DoB – 24th December, 1992)
Country: Côte d’Ivoire
Jersey No: 17
Position: Right Back
Serge Aurier is a technically sound full-back who plays for the French club Toulouse. He was once pondering the option to play for France and rejected the Lions in 2010. But things have changed for good as he made his debut for the African nation a year back.
He has been a regular starter for his club side and is regarded by many as the best right-back in France. Aurier seems to possess all the qualities required to succeed at even higher levels. He is pacy, a superb athlete, has the engine to run up and down the right flank throughout the match and can deliver killer crosses in crunch situations. He is more of a modern day right-back with an eye for attack. Last season he racked up six goals – all from open play – for Toulouse and this aspect of his game would fetch him few millions more in his impending summer transfer deal.
Still he is very much a work in progress. Aurier is a born leader and a fighter to the end. But even after six years of top-level professional football, he is a bit temperamental and a regularly gets cautioned for that. He needs to curb his enthusiasm and understand the match situation a whole lot better. Besides, he might be caught on the defensive side with his all attack mentality. But with age on his side, this World Cup would be a great learning experience for him.
Name: James Rodriguez
Age: 22 (DoB – 12th July, 1991)
Jersey No: 10
Position: Left Winger
James Rodriguez has been hailed as one of the most exciting talents going around. He has shone for Portuguese club Porto where he won the LPFP Award for Breakthrough Player in 2011-12 at the age of 20. He has continued to impress and so much so, French side Monaco did not hesitate to lash out a mammoth €45 million for his transfer in 2013.
Rodriguez can play anywhere in the middle of the park. His versatility to constantly switch positions from either left to right as well as through the centre makes him a very difficult player to mark. He is an all-round player – very sharp, speedy, and strong.
His tremendous speed, playing style and trickery make him a successor to national legend and icon Carlos Valderrama. Like him, Rodríguez too is often deployed in a playmaker role. A natural shooter and prolific with his accurate passing, his stats have been phenomenal so far – both in terms of scoring goals as well as providing assists. In spite of having a deadly left foot, Rodriguez controls the ball just as well with his right foot – quite uncommon, especially among players of his age group.
Rodriguez gave a man of the match performance in his national team debut in late 2011 against Bolivia. Since then, it has been impossible to think about the Colombian side without him. He made a telling contribution in the World Cup 2014 qualifying match against Chile. Trailing 1-3, Rodriguez scored twice from the spot and earned a place for Colombia in the finals after 16 long years.
At 22, Rodriguez ticks all boxes for an emerging star. One thing he could work on is his aerial ability. He can definitely use his 6 foot height to his advantage. Also he can improve on his physique so as to stand up against big, sturdy defenders. But no doubt, he will raise a few eyebrows this summer in Brazil.
Road to the World Cup – Brazil
With the football World Cup, 2014 a couple of days away Tamal Kanti Santra looks into the preparations of the host nation and the options available with Scolari to give Brazil the best possible chance in winning their 6th trophy.
“Only three people have ever silenced 2,00,000 people at the Maracana with a single gesture: Frank Sinatra, Pope John Paul II and I.” –Alcides Ghiggia, scorer of the winner in the decisive final round match against Brazil helping Uruguay win the 1950 football World Cup.
Generations have passed since the 16th of July, 1950, but the Seleção faithfuls still remember each and every moment of that eventful day. The decisive goal from the Uruguayan Alcides Ghiggia shattered the hearts of millions of Brazilians who dreamt of lifting the FIFA World Cup trophy in their backyard. 63 years on, the fire stills burns within the Pentacampeões to lift the coveted trophy in front of their home crowd. As the World Cup returns to the Mecca of Football after 64 years, the Brazilians have got another opportunity to fulfil their dream.
After a string of disappointing performances in consecutive World Cups in Germany, 2006 and South Africa, 2010, the Confederação Brasileira de Futebol (CBF) required a proper roadmap to give the Brazilians a decent chance of lifting their sixth trophy in Brazil. As Carlos Dunga resigned after the quarter-final exit in South Africa, the reins of the Brazilian National Team were handed over to the then Corinthians coach, Mano Menzes. The Brazilians progressed little under him. The fans did not find his football attractive enough. Finally, after a disappointing couple of years, compounded with a series of poor performances in the Copa America, 2011 and London Olympics, 2012, Mano Menzes was shown the door on November, 2012. With less than two years remaining for the World Cup, the Brazilians were in disarray. After a lot of deliberations, Luiz Felipe Scolari was appointed as Brazil’s new manager on November28th, 2012. The legendary Carlos Alberto Parreira, coach of the 1994 World Cup winning Brazil team is also assisting Scolari as the technical director. People expected a lot from Scolari. The last time Brazil won a World Cup in Japan-South Korea, it was under the veteran Luiz Felipe Scolari.
Being the host nation, Brazil automatically qualified for the World Cup, 2014. The only effective way of measuring their progress was a few remaining international friendlies and the Confederations Cup, 2013. With very little time in hand, Scolari started rebuilding the team. His first match as the coach of Brazil saw the team slump to a 2-1 defeat to England. Leading up to the Confederations Cup in June, 2103, Brazil dropped to their lowest ranking ever, 22.
A very few believed the Brazilians could defend the Confederations Cup against the mighty Spaniards. However, their performance in the tournament surprised a lot of people. They reached the knockout stage defeating Japan, Mexico and Italy convincingly. In the semi-final they defeated the Copa America champions Uruguay. The final was a mouth-watering clash against Spain. The Brazilians dismantled the Spaniards with relative ease. A mesmerizing performance from Neymar along with a couple of goals from Fred saw the Spanish slump to a 3-0 defeat. Neymar was adjudged the player of the tournament.
In the Confederations Cup the Brazilians gelled as a team and the fans saw how destructive this bunch of players can be if they played up to their full potential. The magic of Scolari seemed to work again.
The Current Squad
Goalkeeping has always been an area of concern for the Brazilians. The current first choice keeper Julio Cesar, 34, performed well in the Confederations Cup. He was named the best goalkeeper of the tournament. However, the recent developments around him have been an area of concern. With QPR getting relegated to the Championship and Julio Cesar failing to secure a move away meant he won’t be playing in a more competitive league which would have helped him to be on top of his game. He was not even guaranteed a first team place in QPR. Eventually he was loaned out to Toronto FC in Canada. Jefferson, 30, captain of the Brazilian club Botafogo FR is a strong contender for the number one spot. He has been a consistent performer in the Brasileirão and features regularly in the Brasileirã, Team of the Year. Victor, 31 from Atlético Mineiro was selected for third goalkeeping position in the final 23-man squad.
The core of the defence has been built around Thiago Silva and David Luiz with Daniel Alves on the right and Marcelo on the left. Thiago Silva, 28, from PSG has been leading the Seleção for the past couple of years. His performances with AC Milan made him a transfer target of the top European clubs. But, he made a shock move to big spenders PSG in 2012. PSG lead by Thiago Silva was crowned the champions of France. The French League is not the most competitive league in Europe. The UEFA Champions League was the only place where he could test his defensive skills against the top clubs of Europe. David Luiz, 24 from Chelsea was one of the star performers for Brazil in the Confederations Cup. His goal-line save in the 3-0 triumph against Spain was spectacular. His ability to adapt to the centre half or the central defensive midfield position makes him a good addition to the squad. He even took some wonderful free-kicks for Chelsea. But, he is not one of the strongest defenders in the world football. For Jose Mourinho, David Luiz is not his typical no-nonsense center back. However David Luiz strengthened his defensive skills under Mourinho in a more physical English Premier League and helped Chelsea keep 18 clean sheets (highest in the league) and concede only 27 goals (lowest conceded in the league).
Dante, 30 from Bayern Munich & Henrique, 27 from Palmeiras are the other options for the centre back position. Dante played an instrumental part in Bayern’s 2013 Champions League triumph. His regular appearances for Bayern under Pep Guardiola in the Bundesliga helped him strengthen his defensive skills. He is now regarded as one of the finest defenders in Europe. Henrique from Napoli in the Brasileirão is a formidable centre back who can also double up as a central defensive midfielder.
Marcelo, 25 and Daniel Alves, 30 are the two first choices left and right wing-backs for Scolari. Marcelo for Real Madrid has been a consistent performer. His ability to move forward through the wings makes up for his lack of defensive skills. He has consistently been used as an attacking option through the left wing. Alves is a key member of the Barcelona squad. He is equally good while defending or moving forward. His exploits on the right wing and ability to provide accurate crosses in the box makes him Scolari’s first choice wing back.
Maxwell, 32 from PSG and Maicon, 33 from AS Roma are good options with Scolari for a more defensive left and right wing-back position. Maxwell has also played as left defender during his tenure with Ajax, Inter and Barcelona and also brings in vast experience of playing at the highest level for the top clubs of Europe. Maicon, after his move away to Manchester City from Inter Milan, failed to live up to the expectations. He struggled to get in the starting eleven and finally moved away to AS Roma, Italy in 2013 to have regular playing time. He helped AS Roma to a second place finish in the Italian Serie A 2013-14 season. He prefers the right wing back position and was called up for the international friendlies against Australia and Portugal.
Traditionally Brazil has produced some of the finest midfielders in the history of the game. The current crop of midfielders are good, but they are not of the class we have witnessed in the recent past. With Ronaldinho and Kaka nowhere near their personal best, the midfield was becoming an area of concern where the Brazilians traditionally excelled. With limited resources Scolari started working on the midfield. Ramires, 26 from Chelsea, Paulinho, 25 from Tottenham Hotspur & Luiz Gustavo, 26 from Wolfsburg are entrusted upon with the defensive midfield duties. Ramires is a regular in the Chelsea squad and has the ability to accelerate swiftly to begin an attack. His speed and agility gives him the ability to fall back quickly and land crucial interceptions to break any attack. Paulinho’s impressive performance in the Confederations Cup interested a lot of top European clubs. He finally secured a move to Totenham Hotspur from the Corinthians in 2013. His box-to-box movement and powerful running makes him a complete midfielder. Luiz Gustavo played a very important role in the Confederations Cup final against Spain. His strength in the air and ability to break attacks did not allow the Spanish midfielders to get into a rhythm. He also played a crucial part in Bayern Munich’s success last season. Bayern’s recent purchases forced him to move away to VfL Wolfsberg to have regular playing time. The impressive performance of Fernandinho, 28 as a defensive midfielder for Manchester City forced Scolari to include him for the International friendlies against South Africa and Croatia. His wide range of passes along with his ability to play box-to-box gives him the capability to participate in attacks as well as the defence.
The attacking midfield is headed by Oscar, 22, from Chelsea. Oscar is one of the finest midfielders in Europe. His quick accurate passing, sleek movement in the box and dribbling skills makes him a potent weapon to complete an attacking move. He has successfully cemented his place in the Brazilian starting line-up. Hernanes, 28, from Internazionale, Bernard, 21, from Shakhtar Donesk and Hulk, 27, from Zenit Saint Petersburg are the other options in the attacking midfield. Although Hulk plays as a centre forward for his club, Scolari uses him as a right attacking midfielder. His is now linked with a move to Chelsea in the English Premier League Hernanes, who played for Lazio and Inter last season, is a seasoned professional. Hernanes mostly plays from a central attacking position and has the ability to lay out accurate passes to the wingers. Bernard is the most promising player of the lot. He possesses quick feet and is an excellent dribbler of the ball. Bernard brings in a lot of pace from the right wing and can easily penetrate strong defensive line-ups with ease. He has already secured a €25 million move to Shakhtar Donetsk away from Atlético Mineiro. Willian, 25, from Chelsea has been a revelation. He has been a work horse for Mourinho. His fast and penetrating runs from the wings helped Chelsea unlock stubborn defensive line ups. His willingness to help his team even in the defense makes him a classic Mourinho favourite. His recent exploits with Chelsea as already earned him a position in the final 23-man Brazilian squad for World Cup, 2014.
Fred, 29, from Fluminense is the first choice. He is the typical striker, always exploiting spaces between defenders in the box. His physical power allows the midfielders to use long balls in an attack. His recent injuries ruled him out for three months and have created a problem for Scolari. A record 44 goals from Fred helped Fluminense clinch the 2012 Campeonato Brasileiro Série A. The other options for the strikers are Jo and Pato. Jo, 26, from Atlético Mineiro plays as a cover for Fred. With the limited opportunities he got he displayed great skill and composure and scored important goals. Alexadre Pato, 24 from the Corinthians is a talented technical striker, but has consistently under performed. He has recently been called up to the Brazilian squad due to an injury to Fred. With Fred recovering from his injury, Pato was finally left out of the final Brazilian squad. The developments around Diego Costa are quite interesting. Diego Costa has been instrumental in the success of Atletico Madrid in the current season and gradually established him as a striker in the Brazilian national team. He made his debut for Brazil on March 2013 against Russia. However, his willingness to play for Spain in the World Cup instead of Brazil prompted Scolari to express his displeasure.
The 21-year-old prodigy from Santos is the most talked about player in recent times. Amid intense speculation he finally moved to Barcelona in the summer of 2013. Scolari built the Brazilian Team around him. He prefers a position on the left wing but has been given the freedom to play a broader role in building attacks. His exceptional dribbling skills along with his clinical passing and creativity have been instrumental in Brazil’s recent success. He started the Confederations Cup with a stunning volley and capped it off with another brilliant performance in the final against Spain. He continued is impressive performance against Australia and Portugal. Neymar’s blistering pace and ability to spread quick passes makes him extremely dangerous against opponents. His recent involvement with Barcelona gave him an opportunity to work with some of the best midfielders of recent times along with one of the best players of all time, Lionel Messi. Although he did not have a great season with Barcelona, this experience in Europe would help him immensely in preparing for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
The recent development in the Brazilian squad under Scolari is a positive sign for the Seleção. Scolari has managed to take the team in the right direction. In such a short span of time he guided the team to a third consecutive Confederations Cup victory. The continuous improvement in his squad was visible in the international friendlies against Australia, Portugal and Chile.
With a pool of talented players, Luiz Felipe Scolari has managed to transform the Brazilian National Team to a formidable force. The recent international friendlies against Switzerland (0-1 defeat), Australia (6-0), Portugal (3-1), South Korea (2-1), Zambia (2-0), Honduras (5-0), Chile (2-1) and South Africa (5-0) are a proof of the progress they are making under Scolari. Scolari revealed is final 23 man squad on 7th May with only 2 friendlies remaining against Panama and Serbia. The Brazilians regrouped after three months since their last match against South Africa. However, they were right on top of their game against Panama where they won 3-0. Neymar was again the star of the match where he scored one and assisted one. Hulk, Dani Alaves and Willian also scored one each. The match against Serbia displayed another very important side of this Brazillian squad. The found it very difficult to work the Serbian midfield and defence, but they persevered and kept their composure. They took their time to play the ball around and finally broke the deadlock with a solitary goal from Fred with an assist from Thiago.
Scolari worked his magic again. He managed to build a closed-knit team from the same bunch of players who were struggling to play some quality football less than 2 years back. Scolari converted his 23 players into a happy team where the players are enjoying each and every moment with each other on and off the field. They have truly established them as the favourites for the tournament.
Brazil has suffered a lot while trying to organize the World Cup, 2014, touted to be the greatest show on earth. People have objected to the exorbitant amount spent preparing for this gala event while a vast majority still lacks the most basic infrastructure to get through the day. Amidst all this chaos, the millions of Brazilians once again are dreaming of seeing their team winning the coveted trophy in Brazil. The euphoria of seeing their beloved team lift that trophy in Brazil will be worth all the hardship endured.
Goalkeepers: Julio Cesar (Toronto FC), Jefferson (Botafogo), Victor (Atletico Mineiro)
Defenders: Marcelo (Real Madrid), Daniel Alves (Barcelona), Maicon (AS Roma), Maxwell, Thiago Silva (both Paris St Germain), David Luiz (Chelsea), Dante (Bayern Munich), Henrique (Napoli)
Forwards: Bernard (Shakhtar Donetsk), Neymar (Barcelona), Fred (Fluminense), Jo (Atletico Mineiro), Hulk (Zenit St Petersburg)
H Is For Hurrah
Belgium presents one of its strongest ever teams in the World Stage and finds themselves in a relatively easy group. Group H previewed by Debojyoti Chakraborty
Group H is the most sought after one for off the field reasons. It is scheduled to start the last giving more time to teams to assess the conditions and also take a good look at the other groups. Matches are going to be played in the southeast of Brazil where the weather is the least punishing and the venues – Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte – are all close to each other, thus requiring minimal travel.
Finally when the lots were drawn, Group H featured four teams who are not outright favourites. But that does not take anything away from the competitive nature of the group. Belgium has been labeled the ‘dark horse’ of the competition whereas Russia always springs in a surprise or two. South Korea has been a very honest performer over the last few editions and then Algeria brings in the African combativeness to complete the group.
Belgium is making an entry into the World Cup after a hiatus of 12 years. For a country of great footballing heritage that is a stretch too far. They saw the worst of times in 2007, slipping down to their lowest ever FIFA ranking of 71 in June 2007. The Red Devils were going through a torturous phase which saw them missing out FIFA as well as EURO competitions. But their rebuilding phase seems to be finally over. Their young brigade – the golden generation – under the guidance of Marc Wilmots achieved their highest ever FIFA ranking (5th) in October, 2013. Now they are all set to prove themselves at the biggest stage.
Les Diables Rouges topped their group in qualifying ahead of Croatia, Serbia and Scotland with a near flawless display. Barring a couple of draws – one at the onset and one when their fate was sealed – they triumphed against all the obstacles that came their way.
Wilmots, all time leading goal scorer for Belgium in the World Cup, is not a shrewd tactician, but he gets the most out of the bunch by giving the young group confidence. Moreover, not only has he instilled discipline in the squad, but also shares a credible rapport with his players.
Apart from genetically having some giants, Belgium has a plethora of talent to choose from. Most of their star players ply their trades across top leagues in Europe – mostly England – and some of them are most sought after. Captain Vincent Kompany of Manchester City forms the backbone of the defense with Tottenham Hotspur’s Jan Vertonghen. In attack, they have one of the most lethal young strikers in Romelu Lukaku. He showed his class and composure in the penultimate qualifying match in Zagreb by scoring a brace and sealing the World Cup berth. But he may not be the best player in a star-studded team, with stiff competition from Atletico Madrid’s shot stopper Thibaut Courtois and Chelsea’s midfield lynchpin Eden Hazard. The team is not only about style and creativity – it also boasts of solidity in the midfield in the form of Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini and Spurs’ Mousa Dembele. So it is going to be a deadly combination of steel and skill this time round for the Devils.
There is a lot of hype surrounding this team and it is up to the manager to ensure his troops remain grounded. A young side with lots of expectation, this Belgium side can really go places if they can hold onto their nerves. At an average age hovering around 26 that could a challenging task. But if we consider the talent at display, truly the Belgian supporters have every reason to be optimistic. Pole position in the group would be their first objective which should enable them to avoid Germany and then they can set their sights on at least matching their best campaign of 1986.
Like Belgium, Russia are also making a comeback at the World Cup finals since 2002. They showed glimpses of promise in EURO 2012 but fizzed out after a resounding 4-1 win against Czech Republic. They drew the next match against Poland and got eliminated after losing to Greece in their last group match.
Russia bounced back in the World Cup qualifying campaign and topped their group. That is commendable as their group featured Portugal. They started with four outright wins before seeing a little slump in form and lost the next two matches. They did not look back since then though and only dropped a point in their last match when their qualification was already secured.
The squad is made up of mostly home-based players including former Sevilla forward Alexander Kerzhakov, the only Russian player to have appeared in the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan, and former Chelsea winger Yury Zhirkov. Only surprise inclusion is experienced forward Pavel Pogrebnyak, who at 30, is currently playing in the second tier of English football with Reading. Capello has his authority stamped throughout the squad. He has not hesitated to shut the door for moody players, even if they are stars like Andrei Arshavin.
Managed by Fabio Capello, as usual, Russia are hard to break down. Their defense, a sore thumb in the past, is now a strong foundation. Russia conceded only five goals in qualifying and had clean sheets in fiveout of 10matches. Capello has also adopted double pivot in a typical 4-2-3-1 system instead of a traditional Russian 4-3-3 formation. The midfield will look upon CSKA Moscow man Alan Dzagoev – their only bright spot in EURO 2012 and a classy No 10 – who has been shifted from wide right to a more central, and natural, position by Capello. However, he needs support from Roman Shirokov, Igor Denisov and Viktor Fayzulin to hold fort and create a spark. Their attack is also a decent one, always looking for lateral and diagonal movements to create space for each other. But without a proven goal scorer around, they would need to look for scorer from different parts of the pitch.
Capello has friendlies against Slovakia, Norway and Morocco to expose his team to contrasting playing styles ahead of the World Cup. He would like to forget the ghosts of 2010, especially against Algeria as his then England team could not break the dead lock. Russia has a tough fight in hand but they would want to ensure they put up a good show before hosting the cup in 2018. Their primary objective would be to qualify – for the first time after the Soviet Union era – for the knock out stages. In that process, if not the players, their veteran coach definitely lends them a cutting edge.
Algeria bowed out of World Cup 2010 group stage with a gritty performance. They did not fare too well in the 2013 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) either.
But Algeria put up a fantastic show in their World Cup qualifying campaign. They easily won their group ahead of Mali, Benin and Rwanda winning five of the six matches. Then they got a tough draw in the final play-off against a Burkina Faso team – finalist in AFCON a year ago – in tremendous form. Algeria felt the heat in the first leg but scored two crucial away goals in a 3-2 loss. The Fennec Foxes then showcased a professional display to win 1-0 at home, thanks to a winner from skipper Madjird Bougherra, and sneaked ahead on away goals.
While many still remember their dull and scratchy affair in the 2010 World Cup, this version of Algeria is a much improved one. Much of the credit goes to manager Vahid Hilihodzic who has integrated some promising young players, especially in attacking areas. That is the reason talented players like Yacine Brahimi, Islam Silmani and Sofiane Feghouli have been well complimented by the physical influences of skipper and tough tackling defender Madjird Bougherra and Adlene Guediora.
They have a young striker in Nabil Ghilas, who is spoken about highly in his new club Porto. Ishak Belfodil is their famed big man with a good touch whose breakthrough season at Parma lured Inter to go for him. There he could form a potent partnership with his former Bologna teammate, midfielder SaphirTaider.
But the defence is still very much a work in progress and Halilhodžić will have headaches ahead of their fourth World Cup bow. He will still be expecting his players to work hard, maintain the shape, be stubborn – just like the notoriously difficult-to-breakdown side four years back.
This is a young and developing team and has little experience of big games within their ranks. So Algeria would first look to better their disappointing World Cup show in 2010, where they failed to net a single goal. They have a history of pulling off World Cup shocks which could create some entropy in the group. In the past, they have stunned eventual finalists West Germany in 1982, given Brazil a tough fight in 1986 and held England to a draw in 2010. Not much beyond is expected of them this time too.
South Korea made its debut in World Cup 1954 but could not re-enter the finals for the next 32 years. But since then they have been permanent guests at this mega event, mostly though without making any significant impact. In recent years their dominance as the best Asian team also has come under question. South Korea had an indifferent AFC Asian Cup in 2011 where they failed to reach the final for the second time in a row.
South Korea had a shaky World Cup qualifying campaign. In the third round group matches, they were shambolic on the road. Taegeuk Warriors drew with Kuwait and lost to Lebabon, two teams as low as 95 and 146, respectively, in FIFA ranking. The loss against Lebanon was too bitter a pill to swallow and, consequently, coach Cho Kwang-Rae had to make way for Choi Kang-Hee. However, their sheer experience and perfect home record ensured South Korea would get the top spot from the group. In the fourth round group South Korea were drawn in a much tougher group consisting of Ian, Uzbekistan, Qatar and Lebanon. South Korea stuttered throughout the campaign and never looked like a champion team. They lost their last crucial match against Iran – second time in the round robin league – to hand them the pole position and then somehow scrapped through on goal difference ahead of Uzbekistan.
It was a let down for the team considering they were only one goal away from landing into further complicated routes of qualification through a couple of play-offs. Failure to put up a string of good results hampered consistency in the team selection and a reliable starting XI always eluded South Korea. Choi Kang-Hee stepped down and then came in the captain of 2002 World Cup campaign – where South Korea famously reached the semis in their home ground – and former manager of gold medal winning U-23 team of 2012 Olympics, Hong Myung-Bo.
Myung-Bo started revamping and a number of emerging stars were indicted. Bolton Wanderers’ Lee Chung-Yong has been appointed as the leader of the pack and the team boasts of home-based proven goal scorers like Kim Shin-Wook and Lee Keun-Ho.
Known for playing neat and tidy football – though sometimes without any end product or much penetration – there are some decent players in the middle of the park, notably Mainz 05’s Koo Ja-Cheol, Cardiff City’s Kim Bo-Kyung and Swansea’s Ki Sung-Yueng who can even double up as a ball-playing centre-back.
Most notable of the new players, though has been Bayer Leverkusen’s record transfer signing Son Heung-Min who has seamlessly become the team’s backbone.Heung-Min, at only 21, is a delight to watch. Quick and two-footed, he can set the stage on fire on the back of a decent domestic season.
South Korea has an outside chance of making it through to the next round. The match against Russia might well seal their feat. But even then they will be hard pressed to go beyond the second round as the German powerhouse might welcome them with open arms.
Last time Belgium met Russia in a World Cup, it was a thrilling 3-2 win for the Red Devils in 2002. The winner came in the 82nd minute. The scorer? Current Belgian manager, Marc Wilmots.
G is for Gruelling
No Group in World Cup is easy. G has an ensemble cast with no team favorite for the 2nd spot. Goalden Times previews with Ankit Mitra.
Group G’s lineup boasts of one of the most consistent teams in World Cup history, the team of current World Player of the Year, the team with the best World Cup record from their continent, and a team which has regularly caused upsets in the competition. All the teams in the group had cleared the group stage in South Africa 2010 which speaks of their strength.
Die Mannschaft go into this year’s tournament as one of the favourites, though the very dilemma of how to play may be their undoing. They had an almost perfect qualifying record with nine wins from ten games scoring 36 goals in the process, which is the highest number of goals by any side in the European qualifying zone.
Germany, who once boasted of devastating strikers like Gerd Muller, Jurgen Klinsmann, Karl-Heinze Rummenigge and Rudi Voller among others, are right now frantically trying to decide who will lead their charge upfront. An ageing Miroslav Klose, current top goal-scorer for Germany (tied with Gerd Muller), is the only option for Löw considering that other strikers haven’t had the best of seasons lately. Mario Gomez (once considered a confirmed starter after Klose), Max Kruse were called up as probables but were not chosen. It is unfortunate that one of the more successful German strikers currently in the Bundesliga, Stefan Kiessling who would have been a logical inclusion, will not be a part of the team because of his personal issues with Löw. It brings back memories of how Stefan Effenberg was ostracized for non-footballing reasons from the German team in the late 90s and early 2000 and how that hurt them.
The midfield is where Germany’s resources are enviable. From the very experienced Bastian Schweinsteiger to the current young superstar Mario Götze, Germany has some of the best midfielders in the world at their disposal. Marco Reus is unlucky to miss out due to his last minute injury. But even then the likes of Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira, Andre Schurrle, Toni Kroos, Julian Draxler, Lucas Podolski, Thomas Muller can create another selection headache for Löw which many a manager would love to have. However, Germany have experimented a lot on its way to the World Cup with their midfield formation, once resorting to a striker-less formation with Götze in a false nine role. It can be said that for that reason they haven’t settled on a system and a first choice player list in this area. It may be their undoing as many of the players thrive under a different role at their club whereas they might have to play in a completely different way for the national team.
Defensively Germany is unpredictable and far from impregnable, as they were once considered. Playing a more fluid style has resulted in the defenders having to play much higher up. It’s not just the defenders who have to be comfortable on the ball, the goalkeeper too must exhibit such qualities. In Manuel Neuer, Germany arguably have the best goalkeeper in the world. However, his maverick ways make him prone to moments of madness which his coach doesn’t appreciate and hence the more pragmatic Roman Weidenfeller is on standby. Captain Philip Lahm will take his place in the usual right fullback position in which he is considered one of the best, but the central defensive pairing is an area of concern for Löw. Mats Hummels has returned after a long layoff due to injury and is yet to find the form that made him one of the hottest prospects a couple of seasons back. Per Mertesaker, in spite of his experience, may lose out to Jerome Boateng due to his obvious lack of speed, which has been exposed time and again by skillful speedy opponents. Boateng has played in the centre back role for a long time for his club – however he is still not as reliable in the role as the injured Holger Badstuber was.
Having come so close and then losing out in the last few editions have made a lot of fans pessimistic about their chances. But, Löw and his boys would love to do justice to their tag and bring home the gold.
The European ‘Seleccao’ go into the World Cup as underdogs with most pundits dismissing them as potential contenders for the crown. Their dire displays during qualifying and the fact they had to come through a play-off doesn’t excite a critic much about their chances. However, it is this very lack of pressure, sometimes mixed with underestimation that may turn out as the trump card for Portugal.
Today Portugal has been equated with Cristiano Ronaldo, and for good measure. The captain is not only the best player Portugal have, but is also the current holder of the World Player of the Year award. His influence on the game is such that at times he has single- handedly changed the morale of the team simply by his presence on the field. Cristiano leads from the front quite literally, and in all honesty he is Portugal’s only reliable option upfront. Strikers Hugo Almeida as well as Helder Postiga really haven’t shone or seemed dangerous in front of goal. Profligacy upfront has cost Portugal a lot in the qualifiers. However, in the World Cup there are no second chances so the lack of other options upfront besides their talismanic captain still is Portugal’s achilles heel.
Portugal’s midfield though less vaunted is actually full of quality. The obvious star is playmaker Joao Moutinho. Long overshadowed and underrated in the shadow of Cristiano, Joao is the actual man who conducts the team’s tempo. If Ronaldo needs to keep scoring, he has to depend on Moutinho for that final ball. Moutinho is ably backed up by the relentless veteran workhorse Raul Meireles, along with the experienced Miguel Veloso and Silvestre Varela. Young gun William Carvalho too injects that burst of excitement and youthful vigour in a very experienced midfield. Nani has had quite a few indifferent seasons. However, if he finds form, his trickery and skill with the ball will come quite handy.
Defensively Portugal have suffered due to absolutely unforgivable lapses of concentration. Pepe and Bruno Alves are a good pairing in the centre but their lack of positional awareness has cost Portugal dearly. But on their day Pepe and Alves are as solid as a rock, not considering they are also extremely good when coming forward during set pieces. Portugal have other options too like Ricardo Costa and Neto but manager Bento has generally favoured the Alves and Pepe pairing. Coentrao on the left full back position is essential for Portugal’s success. His combination with Cristiano in the left wing is Portugal’s most potent attacking option; especially, due to the fact that Portugal tend to play on the counter attack. Hence, the roles of Coentrao and Joao Pereira are vital for the team.
Portugal being vaunted as a one man show and unlikely to win, may come back to haunt their critics as they have the capability and potential to beat every team. However, being plagued by lapses of concentration and also a lot of profligacy on their own part may thwart the dreams of many Navegadore fans.
Klinsmann, who was at the helm of the German side in 2006, is in charge of the US team now and he had his critics questioning his ability after Honduras beat them 2-1 in the first match of the final round of qualifying in the CONCACAF zone. But his side came back strongly and won seven of their ten games scoring 15 goals and finally winning the group four points ahead of the runners-up Costa Rica.
Klinsmann’s US side is very strong in work ethics. Klinsmann has been a tough taskmaster and he has not hesitated to take the tough calls. He shocked the world by leaving out USA’s all time favorite player and leading goal scorer Landon Donovan out of the final squad. But that might just spur the chosen ones – Julian Green (a teenage prospect), MLS veterans Chris Wondolowski and World Cup rookie Brad Davisto put in a bit more to justify the faith bestowed upon them. Klinsmann has been instrumental in building a much deeper player pool, both through persuading dual-nationals (mostly German-Americans) to play for the US national team and giving a chance to the talented players from Major League Soccer in US who didn’t get a look-in in the earlier regime.
Goalkeeper Tim Howard is aging but still efficient. His defenders have experience in Bundesliga and England. Roma’s Michael Bradley will lead the diamond shaped midfield while the upfront will see Clint Dempsey partnering with the Sunderland man Jozy Altidore who had a terrific goal scoring run in the qualifying. In the wings, Julian Green, son of an American father and German mother, who spent part of his youth career at Bayern Munich, may emerge as a hot new prospect after the tournament. After having played for the German under 16, 17 and 19 side, he has opted to play for US at the senior level.
USA had been known for sitting deep, defending with gusto and sneaking in a few points here and there with their counter-attacking. Klinsmann’s current team is more ambitious and likes to keep the ball. But still they cannot boast of the athleticism of a Ghana side, a superstar leading their pack like Portugal or a rich footballing tradition like the Germans. Whether the German World Cup winner’s side can upset the Germans and others in the group is something that we all would wait to see.
Ghana has been the best team of Africa in the last two World Cups. In 2006, the beat Czech Republic and the USA but finally got eliminated by Brazil. 2010 was even more tragic for them. They again beat USA to reach the quarter final and almost became the first African team to make it to the semifinal but a handball on the goal-line by Luis Suarez prevented Dominic Adiyiah from scoring in the last minute and Asamoah Gyan missed the resulting penalty. Uruguay went on to win in penalty shoot-out.
Following their exploits in 2010 World Cup, they were expected to come to Brazil as the best African team ever. But sadly they have regressed following that stupendous campaign. They have faltered in the 2012 and 2013 African Cup of Nations – that too against Zambia and Burkina Faso, teams Ghana are expected to dominate. But they have shown glimpses of their strength in the World Cup qualifying campaign.
Ghana was drawn in one of the most difficult qualifying groups with the 2012 African champions Zambia, Lesotho and Sudan. They did extremely well to win five of their six games and were drawn against seven-time African champions Egypt. Winning 6-1 at home against them, the Black Stars ensured their tickets for Brazil.
The Ayew brothers are yet to ignite the big stage on fire. Wonder kid Isaac Vorsah has failed to progress as expected and finds himself missing from the Brazil boarding flight. Gyan is vying his trade in the middle-east instead of playing in a top European side. Still Gyan will definitely mean business upfront with able support from the midfield from the likes of Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari. Kevin-Prince Boateng with his all-round ability will be another threat. Gahana has very skillful wide men and one of them, the Olympique de Marseille winger Andre Ayew, may also emerge as one of the stars of the tournament. But Ghana’s fortunes will depend on the performance of versatile Juventus midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah. Asamoah can slot in effortlessly anywhere in the Ghanaian midfield playing in a 3-5-2 formation – be it a box-to-box central midfield role, anchorman, defensive left winger or the attacking lynchpin. Overall Ghana is a very strong prospect with key strength being industriousness and stamina. Their weakness is their temperament the fact that they lack experience at such a high stakes tournament and that they don’t have a player who can see the team through in dire situations. Also they could have done with a creative player in the central midfield role aka Yaya Toure of Ivory Coast or at least the experience of Nigerian John Obi Mikel. May be the return to form of Boateng may ease the burden on Asamoah and allow him to express himself more freely.
Germany and Portugal are the likely contenders to qualify from the group. However, both Ghana and USA may prove to be giant killers and cause an upset. There will be a number of crunch games in the group. The result of Portugal vs Germany will probably decide the group topper; the two teams met thrice in the last four major tournaments, with Germany keeping a 100 percent winning record. But this may be Cristiano’s last World Cup and he will be expected to be the man with a mission. Germany vs USA will be another interesting match with Klinsmann and Low in the respective dugouts.
Ghana and USA met each other in the last two versions of the tournament in the knock out stage with Ghana winning both the times. This will be the first time when they meet at the group stage. This match will also be a memorable one as it would see the Boateng brothers locking horns with each other.
F Is For Fortitude
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Group F features Lionel Messi led Argentina. But will they not face any challenge in the Group stage? Read on to know more with Indranath Mukherjee
They say that there are no easy games in World Cup, or in any major tournament for that matter. While that may be a tad exaggerated, Group F in FIFA World Cup 2014 is indeed tricky with the unpredictable Argentina, debutant Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nigeria – the exciting Super Eagles – and Iran, with the endangered Asiatic cheetah featuring in their away kits. Readers may note that all the four teams in the group had topped their respective groups in the World Cup qualifiers.
The winner of the group will face the runners-up from a relatively easy Group E but let us wait and watch how things unfold.
From Guillermo Stábile, Luis Monti to Juan Román Riquelme, Lionel Messi – with the plethora of talent that Argentina has, it is fair to say they haven’t played to their potential in over a decade in the FIFA World Cup. It was the genius of Diego Armando Maradona that took a not so great Argentina side to the final in 1990 World Cup when they were beaten 1-0 by the resilient Germans. Since then, Argentina has failed to go past the quarter final stage.
Argentina had a disastrous time in 2010 World Cup followed by 2011 Copa primarily because they didn’t seem to have any game plan. The men in charge, Diego Maradona and Sergio Batista, were both tactically poor. Alejandro Sabella, the current manager, looks more pragmatic and has the knack of grinding out results. La Albiceleste under Sabella had a good run in the qualifiers and finished top of the South American group ahead of Chile and Colombia scoring 35 goals and conceding only 15 in 16 matches. More importantly, Messi has been instrumental in the qualification and was the top scorer of the team with 10 goals. Fellow striker Gonzalo Higuaín scored 9. In Messi, Agüero and Higuaín, Argentina probably have the best front line. Forwards who will not make the first team like Rodrigo Palacio, Ezequiel Lavezzi are hunted by the top European clubs. Carlos Tevez has been in scintillating form with Juventus but expectedly not included in the final squad.
But as fellow author Gino had articulated nicely Attack Wins Games, Defence Wins Titles, Argentina’s defence is at best mediocre. Pablo Zabaleta is probably the best player among the back four but the Manchester City right back has not been the same player for the national team yet. Ezequiel Garay and Federico Fernández will probably make up the center back pair and one of José María Basanta and Marcos Rojo will start in the left. The bigger worry for Argentina in the defence is actually the man behind these four. Sergio Romero, Sabella’s first choice goalkeeper has been warming the bench for a while at Monaco. A local strapline in January, “How can Sabella sleep at night?” highlighted the fact that after six weeks on the bench, Mariano Andújar started a game only to concede four goals.
Will the midfield help to hide the weak defence? Very unlikely. Ángel di María is in the form of his life lately with Real Madrid but he adds more to the attack than defence. Javier Mascherano will have to hold the fort if the Albicelestes want to go far in the tournament. Fernando Gago was a key member in Sabella’s midfield but his recent injury is a blow for the team. He has been selected in the final squad and also made an appearance in the starting XI in the friendly against Trinidad and Tobago. Lazio’s Lucas Biglia and veteran Maxi Rodriguez will probably be the two main backups for Sabella in the midfield.
At the least, Argentina are expected to top the group. However, the irony is, anything other than winning the title will be considered a failure for Messi and company.
Bosnia as an independent nation will play its first major tournament in Brazil and don’t be surprised if they indulge in their attacking brand of football. Bosnia made it to Brazil by being the UEFA Group G winners, finishing ahead of Greece on goal difference. Just look at their astonishing statistics in the qualifying: 8 wins, 1 draw and 1 defeat. They scored 30 goals in those 10 games and conceded only 6.
The Manchester City man Edin Dzeko scored 10 goals in the qualifying stage for Bosnia and he is ably supported in front by the VfB Stuttgart striker Vedad Ibišević. Zvjezdan Misimović is the most capped Bosnian footballer and his partnership with the Roma attacking midfielder Miralem Pjanic adds flamboyance to Bosnia’s attacking football.
Coach Safet Sušić is likely to continue with his team’s attacking flair. In the national team’s official website he has been quoted saying: “We will play the way we have always played because it would be wrong to change our approach now, although we are aware that our style may be a tactical gamble.”
“When you have players like Pjanic, Misimovic, Dzeko and Ibisevic, it would be unfair to the game itself and the fans not to unleash all that talent.”
The Stoke keeper Asmir Begovic and the Leverkusen centre-back Emir Spahić lead the defensive set up and keep it rock solid.
Bosnia played Argentina in a friendly in November 2013 and lost 2 – 0 but when they start their World Cup campaign against them at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on June 15, expect them to be far more competitive. A very strong candidate for making it to the last 16.
Iran is a football loving country but for the Iranian fans none of the previous World Cups has really been a fairy tale. They have not gone past the group stages in any of their three earlier appearances. Iran’s world cup moment of glory was the 2-1 victory against USA in 1998. Ali Daei, Karim Bagheri, Mehdi Mahdavikia were the key players of the golden generation of Iran. The former Manchester United, Real Madrid and Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz is not that lucky to have got such a generation of gifted footballers, but he has managed his team reasonably well through the qualifying stage.
Iran had a fairly disappointing Asian Cup in 2011 where they were eliminated in the quarter-final after going down to South Korea. World Cup qualifying started really well for them though. With five wins and three draws and an average of nearly three goals per match till Round 3, Iran started struggling in Round 4 where they were grouped with South Korea, Uzbekistan, Qatar and Lebanon. They lost twice and drew once in the first five matches and qualification looked uncertain. But they came back to win their matches against Qatar, Lebanon and Korea Republic on the final day and booked their spot for Brazil.
Reza Ghoochannejhad, nicknamed “Gucci”, followed the path of Karim Bagheri to be the second Iranian to join Charlton Athletic in England in January 2014. He scored the winner against South Korea and has been tagged as Iran’s “golden boy” by FIFA. Javad Nekounam, nicknamed “Neku”, is the inspiring leader of the team providing the creative juice from the midfield with support from Andranik Teymourian, Ashkan Dejagah and Masoud Shojaei.
Qualifying from the group stage for the first time in the World Cup may be the right target for Iran this time, but it is not going to be an easy ride for them.
Nigeria had started their journey into the World Cup back in 1994 and they have been drawn with Argentina with unbelievable regularity since then. Even the current captains of the respective teams Lionel Messi and John Obi Mikel have been in a face off thrice in major competitions at different age levels: 2005 FIFA U-20 World Cup final, 2008 Beijing Olympic Football final and World Cup 2010 group stage in South Africa. All these results have gone in favour of Argentina, but Nigeria had established themselves as one of the most exciting teams in world football from the very beginning. They topped their group in 1994 which had the tournament’s eventual semi-finalist Bulgaria, Greece and of course Argentina. Rashidi Yekini, Jay-Jay Okocha, Daniel Amokachi and Nwankwo Kanu became fairly familiar names amongst the football followers across the world. In 1998, coached by the prolific Bora Milutinović, they made it past the group stage again causing a major upset beating Spain 3-2. But in their next three World Cup appearances, they have gone out at the group stage with fairly poor performances.
The current Nigeria team under the coach Stephen Keshi is expected to do much better especially after they won the 2013 CAF Africa Cup of Nations. Their performance in the qualifying was not earth shattering though. They were drawn in a relatively easy group with Malawi, Kenya and Namibia. With three 1-1 draws with each of the three opponents in the group and three wins they move to final play-off and faced the lowest-ranked team Ethiopia which they negotiated comfortably winning 1-2 away and 2-0 at home.
Victor Nsofor Obinna, now playing in Serie A with A.C. Chievo Verona (on loan from FC Lokomotiv Moscow), has scored 11 goals in 44 games so far for Nigeria but he has not been included in the final squad. So the Nigerian attack will have to depend on the likes of Victor Moses, Ahmed Musa and Emmanuel Emenike. The veteran keeper Vincent Enyeama and the captain John Obi Mikel will orchestrate the defence.
Nigeria starts their campaign in Brazil playing Iran in Curitiba on June 16th. If they get a good start, the next game against Bosnia will probably decide who joins Argentina to the last 16 from group F.
Even with Messi’s recent dip in form, Gago’s injury, Kun’s injury prone season, Argentina is likely to finish at the top of the group. The Bosnia versus Nigeria game will probably decide who else is joining them in the last 16. One huge advantage that the teams from this group will enjoy is that depending on how far they progress in the tournament, they will never have to play going any higher up the country than Brasilia.
Apart from Argentina-Nigeria match, all the other fixtures in the group will be between teams who have never played each other before, apart from a few meaningless friendlies. So be ready for some surprises and keen contests between different traditions and styles.
E for Enigmatic
Continuing with GOALden Times‘ World Cup group preview series, Tamal Kanti Santra brings you the dynamics of Group E.
The two European teams France and Switzerland will fancy their chances against the lesser known South and Central American pair of Ecuador and Honduras in Group E of the World Cup 2014, Brazil. While Switzerland qualified for the tournament easily by winning the UEFA Group E, France scraped through to the finals with a difficult win against Ukraine in the play-offs. Ecuador and Honduras also struggled to qualify for the tournament. Honduras pulled a spirited performance against Mexico in Azteca to confirm their qualification.
After a group stage exit in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the 1998 champions were desperate to get back to winning ways. Laurent Blanc was appointed the coach after the 2010 debacle to rebuild a squad for the Brazil World Cup 2014. He started his managerial stint by suspending all 23 players of the squad involved in an ugly incident during the 2010 World Cup where they refused training. As a result, Blanc lost his first match against Norway playing with a depleted team. The multi- ethnic nature of the French squad made it very difficult for Blanc to manage the French team. In April 2011, Blanc stirred up a controversy after he was accused of secretly agreeing to implement a quota system to limit the players of dual-citizenship in the French academies. Finally, he stepped down after a dismal 2012 Euro Cup outing and was soon replaced in July 2012 by Didier Deschamps, the captain of the French team that won the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 Euro Cup. Even a person of the calibre of Deschamps found it very difficult to get a cohesive unit up and running.
France was pitted against the reigning champions Spain along with Finland, Georgia and Belarus in the UEFA Group I for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Qualifying round. Only one direct qualification spot for the winners of the group made qualifying for the World Cup a very difficult task for Deschamps. Eventually, France struggled through the World Cup Qualification rounds and came second to Spain forcing them to the play-offs. They had to beat Ukraine for a place in the 2014 World Cup. Leading up to the play-off match against Ukraine, France lost all their matches against good opponents like Germany, Spain, Brazil and Uruguay but won convincingly against average teams like Georgia, Belarus, Australia and Finland. This has been the trend for France even in the qualifying rounds. They scored more goals than Spain in their qualifying group, but a draw and defeat against a formidable Spain forced them to the play-offs. France lost the first leg of the play-off away to Ukraine 2-0. However, they fought back and confirmed their participation with a controversial 3-0 win against Ukraine in the return leg at home.
The French side under Deschamps is still following the traditional 4-3-3 formation. The 23- man squad includes goalkeeper Hugo Lloris (Totenham Hotspur), who will lead the French team in the World Cup. He had a mixed campaign with Totenham Hotspur where he displayed his brilliance inconsistently. The defensive responsibilities lie on the young Rafael Varane (Real Madrid) and Eliaquim Mangala (Porto). The French defense may not have much to deal with during the group stage but needs to be much more compact and organized during the knock-out stage when they will face stronger opponents. The midfield comprising Blaise Matuidi (Paris Saint German), Yohan Cabaye (Paris Saint German) and Paul Pogba (Juventus) needs to perform consistently against good opponents to lead a successful campaign.
The forward positions for France have some of the finest players of world football. Franck Ribéry (Bayern Munich) and Karim Benzema (Real Madrid) are one of the most technically gifted players. The temperamental Ribéry has the unique ability to split defences by cutting in through either of the wings. His partnership with Arjen Robben for Bayern Munich was a spectacle to watch. The French team needs Ribéry, the most capped player in the current squad, to take more responsibility to take the team beyond the quarter finals. Karim Benzema has improved immensely as an out-right striker under the guidance of Carlo Ancelotti and French legend Zinedine Zidane while playing for Real Madrid.
With less than a month left for the tournament, the French team is again hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons. The exclusion of Samir Nasri from the squad prompted his girlfriend to go all out against the current coach. In spite of Nasri’s exclusion, the 23- man squad contains some of the finest players of Europe. The French team is unlikely to face any problems against Switzerland, Ecuador or Honduras in the group stage and should top the group. The recent 2-0 victory against Netherlands is a positive sign for the team. With a few international friendlies remaining against Norway, Paraguay and Jamaica, Didier Deschamps has a very difficult task at hand – that of carrying the form displayed against the Netherlands in to the World Cup.
The Swiss will be participating in the FIFA World Cup, 2014 for the 10th time, but they have never been able to come up with a strong team that could survive till the latter stages of the tournament. The last time they reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup was way back in 1954, when it was played in their own backyard. . The story is the same this time around. Although they are the only team in Group E who reached the finals pretty easily by topping their Qualifying Group, things are going to become extremely difficult here on.
Switzerland was placed in the UEFA Group E for 2014 World Cup Qualifying round with Iceland, Slovenia, Norway, Albania and Cyprus. They remained unbeaten throughout the qualifying round, thanks to a strong defensive line up. They won seven and drew three matches scoring 17 goals and conceding only 6, out of which they let in four in a single match against Iceland during a crazy 4-4 draw. Barring the match against Iceland, the Swiss conceded only 2 goals in 9 matches. They even defeated the Brazilians in a friendly in 2013, displaying how much they have improved.
The Swiss team is led by Gökhan Inler under the guidance of the German, Ottmar Hitzfeld, still considered the all-time best coach of the Bayern Munich. Hitzfield won 18 titles as a player and coach. This is his swansong tournament. Hitzfield has been the coach of Switzerland since 2008. The faith shown by the management towards Hitzfield provided stability and was instrumental in building a decent team which is at present ranked 8th in the FIFA Rankings. The 23- man squad has been greatly influenced by the U-17 World Cup winning team of 2009 and the runners-up team of the Euro U-21 Championship. Ricardo Rodriguez, Haris Seferovic were part of the 2009 U-17 squad and Xherdan Shaqiri, Yann Sommer, Admir Mehmedi were part of the 2011 U-21 squad. Granit Xhaka is the only player of the current squad who was part of both the U-17 2009 and U-21 2011 team.
Diego Benaglio (Wolfsberg) will be the first choice keeper. The central defence will be managed by Philippe Senderos (Valencia) and Johan Djourou (Hamburger SV) with Steve von Bergen (Young Boys) as a reserve. Both Snederos and Djourou have been playing for a very long time in England, Spain, Italy and Germany. The left-back and right-back position will have Ricardo Rodríguez (Wolfsburg), Reto Ziegler (Sassuolo) or Stephan Lichtsteiner (Juventus).
The Swiss boasts of a decent midfield led by Gökhan Inler (Napoli). Inler has been a key member of the Napoli side helping them to a third place finish in the Serie A along with the Coppa Italia triumph. The other players in the fray are Valon Behrami (Napoli), Granit Xhaka (Borussia Mönchengladbach) and the highly rated Xherdan Shaqiri (Bayern Munich). Both Behrami and Barnetta are experienced campaigners who have played at the highest level. Xherdan Shaqiri is the one to look out for. He has been rated as one of the most promising talents in Europe. He plays as a winger for Bayern Munich and is known for his creativity and speed.
The forward line is of average quality consisting of Admir Mehmedi (Frieburg), Mario Gavranović (Zurich), Haris Seferović (Real Sociedad) and Josip Drmić (Bayer Leverkusen). Drmić’s 17 goals in his first season with Nurnberg earned him a new five-year contract with Bayer Leverkusen. Out of the 17 goals scored in the qualifying round only three were scored by the strikers. Centre-back Fabian Schaer was the team’s top scorer with three goals. Given the quality of the strike force, the Swiss will probably play a single striker Drmić upfront with five in the midfield giving them more freedom to display their creativity. This team may be the strongest team ever in Swiss history. Under the able guidance of Hitzfield, Switzerland has everything to play for. They have a great chance in qualifying for the knock out stage, but will find it very difficult there on. A second place finish in the group is the most likely scenario, which will bring them face to face with Argentina in the round of 16.
Ecuador is one of the lesser known football playing nations from South America. They qualified for the tournament for the very first time in 2002 and their best ever performance saw them reaching the round of 16 in 2006. The 2014 World Cup will be their third time in the tournament. La Tri does not boast of any famous name of world football. Many players are from the domestic league. A few play in Mexico, Colombia and the MLS. The only known face is that of their captain — Antonio Valencia of Manchester United. However, this Ecuadorian side has made a name for themselves for their grit and determination. They prefer a more direct approach to the game using their physical strength as the most potent weapon. They fought hard in the qualifying rounds in the CONMEBOL group and finished fourth ahead of the reigning Copa America champions Uruguay on a better goal difference. Ecuador started their qualifying campaign with two wins and two losses out of the first four matches, but quickly turned things around with a string of good performances and remained unbeaten in six consecutive matches winning four of them. Suddenly they found themselves second in the group. However, they lost momentum and could not win any of the next four matches while losing two. A difficult 1-0 win against Uruguay in the penultimate match of the qualifying round ensured their qualification. In a recent international friendly against a strong Netherlands side, they drew 1-1.
Besides Valencia, the responsibility of the Ecuadorian midfield will be shouldered by Christian Noboa (Dynamo Moscow) and Jefferson Montero (Morelia). Frickson Erazo, in the defense has made a name for himself with his strong performance for Ecuador and was rewarded with a transfer away to Flamengo in the Brazilian League. The defensive line up also has veterans like Walter Ayoví and Jorge Guagua. The forward line will be spearheaded by Felipe Caicedo (Al-Jazira). Caicedo is a decent striker who had a stint with Manchester City between 2008 and 2011. During this period he was mostly loaned out to a few clubs in Spain and Portugal.
Ecuador could not win a single match away from home. But this is a group which does not have a clear favorite. So, with a little bit of luck, plus the advantage of playing in home continent – they might just cause an upset or two.
The Central American nation of Honduras will be playing their third World Cup in Brazil, 2014. They qualified from the CONCACAF finishing third ahead of the Mexicans. The 2001 third place finish in the Copa America was just the beginning of a major shift in attitude towards football in Honduras. In the following years, they consistently reached the semi-finals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, won the Copa Centroamericana in 2011, finished runners-up in 2013 and finished as the champions of the Central American Games in 2013. Luis Fernando Suárez was given the responsibility of the Honduras national football team in 2011. Los Catrachos started their World Cup 2014 qualifying campaign from the CONCACAF third round where they topped their group convincingly. They found themselves amongst United States, Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama and Jamaica in the fourth round from which the top three teams had an opportunity to qualify directly. Honduras started on a positive note defeating The United States and drawing against Mexico. They were inconsistent throughout their qualifying round and finished with four wins, three draws and three losses out of 10 matches. They scored 13 goals and conceded 12. The highlight of the qualifying round was the 2-1 win against Mexico in Azteca.
10 players in the 23-man squad play in the domestic league. The few known faces in the Honduras defensive line up are Maynor Figueroa (Hull City), Emilio Izaguirre (Celtic) and Juan Carlos García (Wigan Atheletic). Emilio Izaguirre features regularly in the Celtic team as left back and was named as the Premier League Player of the Year in 2011.
The midfield consists of Wilson Palacios (Stoke City), Roger Espinoza (Wigan Athletic) and the experienced Óscar García (Houston Dynamo). Both Espinoza and Palacios play as defensive midfielders, whereas Garcia prefers the role of a winger.
The forward line up consists of Carlo Costly (Real Espana), Jerry Bengtson (New England Revolution), Jerry Palacios (Alajuelense) and Rony Martínez (Real Sociedad). Jerry Bengtson and Jerry Palacios are the favourites for the starting eleven.
Suarez made a name for himself by helping the Ecuadorian side reach two consecutive World Cups in 2002 and 2006. He has the ability to transform lesser known teams into a formidable force. With Honduras, he followed a simple 4-4-2 formation with a direct approach keeping a compact midfield and defense. In the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, they were knocked out of the group stage with two losses and a draw. They conceded thrice and could not score a single goal. Honduras is still in search of their first win in the World Cup. The kind of progress they have shown in the recent times, a series of spirited performances may take them to the knock out stage.
France and Switzerland are best positioned to finish the group as first and second. Switzerland may face some stiff challenge from Ecuador. It will be very difficult for Honduras to finish ahead of France, Switzerland or Ecuador. Honduras may not be able to get past the group stage, but will greatly influence which two teams qualify from Group E. In the 1982 World Cup, Spain finished second in the group due to a draw against Honduras, whereas the Swiss were knocked out of the group stage in the 2010 World Cup due to a similar result. Group E has been paired with Group F where Switzerland may face Argentina. France may get a relatively easier tie (Nigeria/ Bosnia and Herzegovina) and are most likely to progress to the quarter final stage where their campaign may end against Germany.
Switzerland and Honduras have again been drawn in the same group just like in 2010. It was a drab goalless draw, a game to forget. And that which sent the Swiss home packing after so much of early promise.
Ecuador’s World Cup spot sealing victory against Uruguay was dedicated to key forward Christian Benitez, who died suddenly in July from heart failure.
D Stands for Death
Debopam Roy previews the teams from the group of death.
Seven World Cups and 19 continental trophies distinguish the four teams in the group which has rightly been called the group of death. Of the 4 teams, one is a reigning continental champion, the other runner up at the continental championships. One is a perennial underachiever while the other is the rank outsider who has always punched above their cumulative weight.
Many consider this to be the year of the Los Charruas and not without reason. Their team was a young team on the rise when they lost the semifinals of 2010 World Cup to a Dutch team that was at the peak of its powers. They then lost the third place playoff to another powerhouse – Germany. Since then, Uruguay has only gone up achieving their highest FIFA ranking (#2) in 2012. They have won the Copa America and also boast the record of being the World Cup winner the last time it was held in Brazil.
However, their prospects would have to be tempered if their qualification campaign is to be considered. Till the sixth round, La Celeste was unbeaten and on top of group but then a 4-0 loss to Colombia derailed them. Bolivia beat them 4-1 and Argentina beat them 3-1 and Chile got better of them 2-0 and even Ecuador beat them 1-0 and last gasp wins over Argentina and Colombia allowed Uruguay to finish on fifth spot. That meant a playoff match against a team from Asian qualification campaign, and it was Jordan. Uruguay thumped them by 5 goals away and then played a goalless home leg to qualify through.
The team is built back to front so that it has a solid defence and midfield and an explosive forward line. The likes of Jorge Fucile, Diego Godin, Diego Lugano, Martin Caceres batten down the hatch of Fernando Muslera’s goal. However, Godin and Lugano are now getting on. Their lack of pack has often been exploited – 25 goals conceded in the qualifiers, of which 16 were on the road, shows that. Uruguay desperately need Sebastian Coates to return from his anterior cruciate injury and recapture the tremendous form of title clinching 2011 Copa America. The midfield has the steel of Walter Gargano, Diego Perez as well as the guile of Nicolas Lodeiro and speed of Gaston Ramirez. But the lynchpin of the squad is easily the formidable twosome of Luis Suarez, Uruguay’s all time leading scorer with 38 goals in 77 matches and Edinson Cavani. Both had extraordinary seasons with Suarez netting 31 goals in Premier League and Cavani 25 in his first stint in Ligue 1. It’s undoubtedly the deadliest strike duo in world football. Add in the wily Diego Forlan into the mix and the young turk Abel Hernandez and this is a forward line which has everything. Manager Oscar Tabarez has been at the helm since 2006 and has taken Uruguay to their best ever spell in world and continental football since the heydays. After Uruguay had missed out on three of the four preceding World Cups, , Tabarez almost by a wand, transformed their fortunes and Uruguay came fourth in the continental championships in 2007. Three years later, they repeated that fourth place in the biggest stage in South Africa and then won the Copa America in 2011. The progression thus says they would repeat that win now in the biggest stage in Brazil and Tabarez’s canonization would be complete. His tactical versatility even during away qualifiers and the Confederations Cup, where he shifted from his usual 4-4-2 to 3-5-2 and 4-3-3 to counteract the opponent has been one of the chief weapons. In 2010, Luis Suarez used his hands (with some thanks to Asamoah Gyan) to send Uruguay to their first ever semi finals since 1950. Can his goals give them their first World Cup since 1950?
They say that if the World Cup was held every 12 years then Italy would contest every final (1970, 1982, 1994, 2006). Going by that logic, 2014 is four years too soon. 12 years is also the time that would take for a new generation to come in and settle down. So Italy has roughly managed to get to every World Cup final when it has had an overhaul of a generation. Cesare Prandelli was the man who was tasked with this. After the debacle of 2010 World Cup when Marcello Lippi overstayed his welcome and his band of merry men, Italy went for a generational change except for two very distinctive figures – Andrea Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon. Both are certainly going to their final World Cup, and, along with Andrea Barzagli and Alberto Gilardino (if they are called up) they bear the only link to the team of 2006.
Indeed Prandelli has had quite the turnaround in fortune. After leading Azzurri, quite unexpectedly, to the finals of the Euros, it was a bit disappointing that Italy only finished third in the Confederations Cup. However, in the later tournament, Prandelli showed that the lessons from the 4-0 Euro final defeat at the hands of the Spaniards were well and truly taken. Italy only lost to eventual champions Brazil and held Spain goalless, losing in the tiebreaker in the semifinal. The experience of playing in the heat of Brazil would definitely help Lo Azzurri cope better than the other teams in the main tournament.
Looking at the World Cup qualifying stage, one would have to say Prandelli has broken new ground. Italy has been perennial slow starters as well as tense finishers. The 2014 campaign has been as smooth as one of Pirlo’s long range passes. Going unbeaten and qualifying with two games to spare, was quite an achievement. Second-placed Denmark was so poor that they were adjudged the worst runner up in European qualifying campaign and so failed to advance to the second round. But it has a different edge too. Once qualification was sealed, Prandelli experimented with the last two matches and rotated his squad. Italy failed to win either of them, lost vital ranking points, dropped out of the seeded places and now find themselves in the group of Death.
The new Azzurri have new heroes waiting to be unleashed. Ciro Immobile may have quite some puns on his surname but being the leading scorer in the Serie A at 24 is no mean feat. Just to put that into perspective, the last Italian striker to be capocannoniere in Serie A before his 24th year was one Filippo Inzaghi and the one before that was Beppe Signori. Both of them were part of the Italian squad that reached the World Cup final and had the tiebreaker settling the fate – once with heartbreak and other with joy. Immobile, though, would have to thank Torino teammate Alessio Cerci, who is having the season of his lifetime. At 26, he is a rare Italian forward who can burn the wings while still being creative ( nine assists this season) and prolific in front of the goal (13 goals). Then plying his trade for Napoli, Insigne is probably the closest Italy has to a true fantasista. Stephan El Shaarawy of Milan is returning after almost a season long injury layoff, and the Pharaoh would do well to get into the team. His teammate, Mario Balotelli though is sure to lead the charge of this young brigade. With Juventus winning a treble of scudetti, Italy is assured of a solid defence and midfield which have played together for long.
Overall, Italy will provide a vibrant new team that still has the engine room run by Pirlo and a solid defensive backbone. But are they equipped enough to break the 12-year cycle? Probably not. The key personnel in this team are either going for their first World Cup or their last. Most world cups are won when the majority of the team is in their peak between 25-32 years. So this maybe one World Cup too soon. But still this team has performed admirably and would definitely be there towards the business end of the tournament.
England’s participation in a global event has two characteristics – media hype and penalty anguish (England has only won one knockout match in a top tournament when it has gone to penalties) . Their press makes sure that the optimism is high for each “golden generation” and then when the team doesn’t come good, the recrimination is equally scathing. This time though there has not been too much hype. Part of it is to do with the understanding that success of English clubs in Europe doesn’t equate to success of the English national team in the World Cup. A chastening Euro where England neither disgraced themselves (unlike the 4-0 thrashing in 2010 World Cup) nor lit up the ambitions showed that the team is still quite far off the continental front runners – Spain, Germany, Portugal and Italy. In the 48 years since their lone triumph, England has managed to reach the semi finals only once.
The qualification campaign was more proof that England still aren’t what their scribes would like them to be. Despite going unbeaten, England failed to beat closest competitor, Ukraine across both the legs. And they were chased right till the last minute of their last match. Only a 2-0 win against Poland at home ensured England finished one point above Ukraine. The other jarring thing was that England couldn’t beat any of the other top three nations on the road. Roy Hodgson’s team at times played listless football and managed to get the result by luck or great goalkeeping exploits. Indeed one of the bright features was the defensive display and England conceded four goals – only Spain conceded lesser. They also scored 31 goals which would rank them third most prolific behind the Germans and the Dutch. But this fact should be tempered with the knowledge that 22 of those goals came in four matches against San Marino and Moldova. Indeed, if we take out the results of those two teams from group H, it is Ukraine who finishes above England both in points (11 to 10) and goal difference (+6 to +5).
In a twisted way though, this patchy qualification has for once ensured that the expectations are more tempered thus ensuring the squad goes to the finals in a better frame of mind. No more is it deemed that all English superstar players have to do is turn up at the biggest stage and the prize is theirs. They have to toil and graft, which they have shown they can do in this campaign and it will hold them in good stead in this group of death. Exiting at the group stage would probably be disastrous for the millions of fans and they would bank on the fact that the Italians are notorious slow starters and try to bag one of the top two spots.
One thing is for certain, if the team is to do well, Wayne Rooney would have to have an outstanding World Cup. The qualification campaign saw the Manchester United forward bag seven goals which were still four less than his Mancunian teammate Robin van Persie, the leading scorer in European qualifying campaign. Indeed if the support cast of Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge can support Rooney for the goals, then England probably has the defence in Leighton Baines , Gary Cahill, Joleon Lescott and Glen Johnson to hold on to those leads. Steven Gerrard is probably finally having the season he has always dreamt of. A Liverpool legend who just missed out in completing his trophy cabinet at club level as Man City won the league, he would elevate himself to an English legend if he can lead this English team to the Holy Grail.
When the other three teams in your group are former World Cup winners, all you can hope for is, you exit with some dignity. Costa Rica would expect nothing different and they might decide which of the three heavy weights go out at group stage by managing to sneak a draw or even a win against any of the three. But their qualifying campaign has been a fairy-tale and the confidence that they would gain from that may propel them to upset one of the group’s big shots.
Costa Rica has qualified for the World Cup three times before this and twice they had topped from the CONCACAF region. This included their maiden venture at Italia 90 when they beat Scotland and Sweden in the tournament proper to actually advance to the second round. Their performance in their next World Cup appearance was equally commendable. The Ticos lost 5-2 to eventual champion Brazil, drew 1-1 with eventual third place finishers Turkey and beat China 2-0. Still they finished third in the group and were eliminated only on goal difference as that 5-2 loss meant they would finish with an inferior goal difference to Turkey. Four years later they qualified as third team from CONCACAF and suffered a rambunctious 4-2 loss in the opening match to Germany but proved insipid in the other two matches against Poland and Ecuador. In 2010, Costa Rica finished 4th in CONCACAF and went into a two-legged play-off against Uruguay. The Ticos lost at home by a solitary goal and despite threatening a second goal which would have taken them through to the world cup, could only settle for 1-1 in the away match.
The 2014 qualifying campaign had the Ticos almost eliminated after two losses to Mexico in the 3rd round of CONCACAF qualifying campaign. A 1-0 win over El Salvador and 7-0 thrashing of Guyana pushed them to the fourth round. There they were a different force altogether and qualified with a couple of matches to spare. But goal scoring remains a problem – captain Bryan Ruiz scored only three goals during the whole qualifying campaign (10 matches) but that was enough to make him the top goal scorer for the team.
The team has its blend of experience and youth. Many of the first team play in top leagues of Europe and have honed their skill well in the best leagues. In defence, there is goalkeeper Keylor Navas from Levante who kept seven clean sheets from 14 qualifying matches, defenders Junior Diaz of Mainz 05, Christian Gamboa of Rosenborg and Oscar Duarte of Club Brugge. The best of the midfield play their trade in Scandinavia – Celso Borges at AIK and Cristian Bolanos at Copenhagen. But it is the forward line which has grabbed all the attention. 21-year-old Joel Campbell was signed by Arsenal and sent to Olympiacos. He showed his talent by scoring against Manchester United in the Champions League second round . Captain Bryan Ruiz has been a star for PSV after joining them on loan from Fulham. Alvaro Saborio Chacon is the most experienced and has scored 32 goals for his national team placing him third behind Rolando Fonseca and Paulo Wanchope in the all-time lists.
Costa Rica is managed by Colombian Jorge Luis Pinto who has experience of managing all over Latin and Central America, which included three titles in Costa Rica. He has been managing Costa Rica since 2011. He has made them defensively compact and pressing the opponents when not in possession of the ball. Since qualification, Costa Rica has been less than auspicious. Losses to Australia and South Korea sandwiched between a 4-0 thrashing from Chile. But they managed a 2-1 win over Paraguay in their last friendly. It would be a miracle if Costa Rica can manage to open their account in the group. Their best chance would be to catch either of the two European teams unaware, who are not used to the heat of Brazil. Even then, it would be a brave man who would bet Costa Rica getting to the next round.