Saturday, June 05, 2010

Group A preview

Group A is one of the most intriguing World Cup groups. It contains France, Mexico, South Africa and Uruguay. It is one of the few groups I can see any 2 of the 4 progressing from.


Strengths: France may no longer boast the so-called golden generation of Zidane, Trezeguet, Vieira, Lizarazu, Thuram and Desailly but make no bones about it - they have a quality squad of players. Evra and Gallas are very good defenders. Up front with Cisse, Govou, Gignac, Henry and Anelka there is talent all round. Midfield is their biggest strength featuring the exceptional Ribery. Toulalan is maturing into his defensive midfield role, Malouda is a classy player (quick, comfortable in possession and capable of providing a killer final ball) and Valbuena the newcomer is an exciting prospect. He is not expected to be in the starting line-up but he proved his worth scoring the winner in a recent friendly against Costa Rica. Not to mention Gourcoff, French Player of the Year.

Weaknesses: They are inexperienced and undecided in their goalkeeping department. Lloris and Mandanda played 6 games each in qualifying and they have both featured in friendlies. Both are only just into their double figures in terms of appearances for the national side. Expect Lloris of Lyon to start. Whilst France have talent up front none of them except Henry have been prolific in an international jersey. France will probably play with one main man up front. - this used to be Henry but he has been relegated to the bench with Anelka to step up. Anelka has never quite reproduced the form and brilliance for France that he has shown a number of times for his club teams. Gallas, the mainstay of the French defence, will go into the World Cup lacking in match practise and potentially not fully recovered from the injury which has blighted his season. France may miss the excellent Lassana Diarra who is missing the World Cup through illness. Whether or not one can read much into friendlies is debateable but they have drawn with Tunisia and lost to China, the kind of form a team doesn't want heading into a world cup.

Formation: France generally employed a 4-2-3-1 in qualifying which proved to be rather stale. They look to have abandoned this in favour of a 4-3-3 formation which could be conducive to flair. Anelka will lead the line with Ribery and Govou supporting him on the flanks. Toulalan should protect the defence, Malouda will provide a good link between the midfield and attack and Gourcoff will be the dead ball specialist.

Manager: Raymond Domenech - he has been regularly and justifiably criticised for how he has performed in his managerial role - also a potential weakness for the French side.

Qualification: France finished one point behind Serbia in their qualifying group and in truth it was a patchy campaign overall. They needed to overcome Ireland in the playoffs. France won the first leg 1-0 and 90 minutes of the second leg finished 1-0 to Ireland sending them to extra-time. In truth Ireland had battered France but had been unable to convert a crucial second goal. With the game heading towards penalties Henry conjured up an assist for one of the most controversial goals in history. Henry blatantly handled the ball twice with his left hand before tapping the ball with his right foot across the goal to Gallas who was on hand to stab it home. The referee did not spot the infringement, the goal stood, and the whole of Ireland have had to suck it up since then.

World Cup pedigree: This is France's 13th (out of 19) appearance at a world cup finals. They have won the World Cup on one occasion (1998), lost in the final once (2006) and finished 3rd twice (1958 and 1986). The two excellent world cups they had in 1998 and 2006 came either side of their biggest disappointment. In 2002 they exited at the group stage - finishing last in a group with Senegal, Denmark and Uruguay, without even scoring a goal.

Chance of progression from Group A: 75%, probably in 1st place.


Strengths: Rafael Marquez is an exceptional and experienced central defender who has played many games for his club, one of the best in the world, Barcelona. He has excellent leadership skills and will be wanting to make an impression at what could be his last world cup. He is versatile as he can also play in the holding midfield role. Javier Hernandez is a very highly rated striker. He is only 22 years old but he has recently agreed to sign for Manchester United for an undisclosed fee (possibly in the region of 7-10 million pounds). He has scored 7 goals in 12 appearances for Mexico and averages just less than one in two for his club side in Mexico. Vela is agile and an attacking threat although his shooting is rather hit and miss. Giovani dos Santos is an exciting player. The squad has a nice mix of young talent and experience.

Weaknesses: Mexico will miss their biggest star Jared Borghetti, their all-time leading goalscorer. They are lacking in strikers who can convert their many chances, sometimes Vela gets in great positions with great service only to miss a great chance. Franco who plays furthest up the field is poor in comparison to players playing in similar positions for other teams. The highly capped Gerrardo Torrado in midfield is aging and not quite the player he was. The squad is a little too heavy with players based in the Mexican league which is not one of the strongest leagues in the world. Whilst they have a decent squad they only have 3 or 4 top quality players. Giovani dos Santos' angry outburst at the dropping of his brother Jonathan from the preliminary squad has the potential to destabilise.

Formation: Mexico are likely to play 3-4-3. In possession their 3 central defenders will spread wide at the back. As the attack moves up the pitch Marquez has freedom to push up leaving his other two centre-backs covering deep. They have players wide in all areas of the pitch as they look to stretch the play. In defence they have 5 men at the back as the 2 wing-backs drop into defence. Marquez can, if necessary, push further up in this situation to defend against any player 'playing in the hole'. It is a fluid formation which has the potential to create many goalscoring opportunities and it seems more dangerous than the 4-4-2 system he had inherited.

Manager: Javier Aguirre took over from Sven Goran Erikkson after the team under his tutelage had a poor start to their qualifying campaign. Without knowing much about him he appears to be doing a reasonable job.

Qualification: After a poor start Mexico ultimately qualified in second place behind the USA. For a fairly decent team like Mexico they are lucky to have an easier route to the finals than many due to their Geograpghy.

World Cup pedigree: After being disqualified from competing in qualification for the 1990 World Cup tournament for fielding over-age players in an under 20 tournament they have not only been in every tournament since, they have qualified for the 2nd round. They are bidding to be the first team to do so on five consecutive occasions. On each occasion they also fell at the 2nd round hurdle. Their best showing is reaching the quarter-finals in 1970 and 1986 (when it was held in Mexico).

Chance of progression from Group A: 60%, probably in 2nd place.

South Africa

Strengths: Being home nation is a huge strength. No home nation has failed to make the knock-out stages of the World Cup and the massive support and buzz from the home fans will inspire them to play at their highest level. They may also get a (subconscious) helping hand from the referees. In 2002 South Korea made the semi-finals in part due to some shocking decisions that went their way. Not necessarily saying it's a FIFA conspiracy but home advantage is important in many ways. Their best player is Steven Pienaar of Everton who is a quality midfield general. Other talented players include the attacking fullback Masilela of Maccabi Haifa and the skilful winger Modise of the Orlando Pirates. Striker Mphela has a good record of scoring goals for South Africa. They are also currently on a run of eleven matches unbeaten.

Weaknesses: Firstly, South Africa have very few players considered top quality by world standards. Indeed their players are a mixed bag whose names won't strike fear into the opposition. Many of their players play in the South African league and therefore lack in experience at playing top competition domestically. Benni McCarthy, South Africa's all-time leading goalscorer and the man who was expected to lead the line at the World Cup, has not been selected. It is easy to see why as he was deemed too large and unfit, backed up by him having had very little playing time for West Ham United. South Africa have not had as much international competition as the other nations by virtue of not having to qualify for the world cup. Thus some of the squad lack match practise.

Formation: I think South Africa will play with a traditional 4-4-2 formation.

Manager: Carlos Alberto Parreira is Brazilian born and has previously led 4 teams to 5 World Cups. He took Brazil to victory in 1994 and the quarter-final in 2006 and managed Kuwait, UAE and Saudi Arabia at the 1982, 1990 and 1998 tournaments respectively. He is an experienced manager being in the business for 43 years including 11 spells as an international manager. Will his experience help South Africa? That is the burning question.

Qualification: As hosts they are the only team who didn't need to qualify.

World Cup pedigree: South Africa did not attempt to enter the first 7 tournaments. They were banned for the next 7 due to apartheid. In the last 4 they did not manage to qualify in 1994 or 2006 but made it in 1998 and 2002. On both those occasions they didn't make it through the group stages. In 2002 they were very unlucky - missing out by the narrowest of margins. They finished on equal points (4) with Paraguay and both had a goal difference of zero. The difference was Paraguay had scored and conceded 5 whilst South Africa had scored and conceded 4 times. The most beautiful moment for me of course was when Lucas Radebe, possibly my favourite ever player - true gent and Leeds legend, powered in a header in their 3-2 loss to Spain.

Chance of progression from Group A: 45%, probably miss out.


Strengths: Uruguay have a talented forward line. Forlan has been on great form for Athletico Madrid (for whom he averages more than a goal every two games), Suarez scores for fun for Ajax and Abreu is also prolific, currently 1 goal behind Scarone's all-time record for Uruguay. A superb front line, they will be hoping for good service! They have two good holding midfielders which gives them solidity, Gargano is particularly highly rated in this regard.

Weaknesses: A lack of creativity in midfield. They have picked 3 inexperienced keepers to take to the World Cup and who will start in the first game does not appear to have been resolved. They are an inconsistent team who are capable of victories against quality opposition and stumbling against weaker teams. In terms of general quality in their squad they do not match up to a number of teams at the World Cup.

Formation: Uruguay have experimented in qualification with 4-4-2, 4-3-3 and latterly 3-5-2. They are likely to line up 3-5-2 at the World Cup which would not be common. If they do it will be interesting to see how effective it is against 4-4-2.

Manager: Oscar Tabarez. An experienced manager who was also at the helm for the 1990 World Cup.

Qualification: Uruguay finished 5th in South America and were forced to playoff against 4th in Central America - Costa Rica. They won 1-0 in the first leg and drew 1-1 in the second.

World Cup pedigree: Uruguay have a very mixed World Cup pedigree. They won the tournament in 1930 and 1950 but did not enter in the two in between (1934 to protest against the European teams who boycotted in 1930 and 1938 to protest against the World Cup being held in France when it was supposed to alternate between South America and Europe). 1950's victory in the final against Brazil was one of the World Cup's biggest shocks. Since 1950 they have finished 4th twice (1954 and 1970), knocked out in the quarters once (1966), knocked out in the second round twice (1986 and 1990), knocked out in the first round three times (1962, 1974 and 2002) and failed to qualify six times (1958, 1978, 1982, 1994, 1998 and 2006).

Chance of progression from Group A: 55%, could miss out at a whisker.

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