Many people consider Brazil to be a close second (if not a co-favorite), particularly given Spain’s penchant for failing to live up to expectations in big tournaments. But this team has enough experience and got over the hump with its 2008 Euro victory to be the single favorite for the World cup.
Brazil – While Spain could be characterized as playing the traditional South American style of beautiful, flowing soccer, Brazil, once the epitome of that style, has converted to a tougher, defensive minded, win at all costs European style of football under Dunga. I think the biggest piece of news most Americans saw about Brazil was the choice to leave former stars Ronaldo and Ronaldiñho off the squad. But they are old (Ronaldo) and out of shape (Ronaldiñho), and the team will be better off for it. In fact, Brazil fans are probably more upset about the lack of some of the younger up and coming talent playing in Brazil.
But, there are concerns with the Brazil. Is Kaka in form? Is he healthy? He had a poor season with Real Madrid. How much is this team relying on Robinho to score goals (who had a very hard time even seeing the field this year with his club team)? They have a fairly difficult draw (Portugal and Ivory Coast), particularly if Drogba is able to play for IC as reports are now indicating. There is now even a recent scare over the health of their goalie.
But, as with any other sport, defense wins championships and their defense is solid. And while their group draw is tough, they are still head and shoulders above Portugal and the Ivory Coast. If Kaka can find his form and Robinho and Fabiano can find the net, Brazil is certainly the team most likely to challenge the Spanish ascendancy.
England, Argentina, and Netherlands – Based on the bookies’ estimates, England and Argentina are the next two favorites, but I’m not buying it. Beyond Spain and Brazil, I can’t see another “favorite”. And if I did, it would be The Netherlands, not the England or Argentina.
England has significant question marks. How is team chemistry? You don’t have your team captain get his teammate’s (now ex-teammate) girlfriend pregnant without some sort of lingering chemistry concern. Their second captain has now been ruled out of the Cup. Can Gerrard step up and wear the band? Is Rooney healthy? He’s been carrying lingering injuries since February. If Garreth Barry is banged up, who steps into the defensive midfield position? That is the underrated key to England’s success. Barry has the discipline to hang back in the defensive midfield allowing both Lampard and Gerrard to rift more forward into attacking positions. The other key questions to the Three Lions’ success are for more obvious: Can Rooney go at 100% and can Ledley King/Michael Dawson/or someone else pair with John Terry at the back for a strong central defense. Luckily, England has an almost free pass into the round of 16 given their easy group draw (more on that later).
Argentina also got lucky with an incredibly easy group (Greece, South Korea, and Nigeria). Under the legendary Diego Maradona, Argentina almost didn’t qualify. He’s failed to figure out how to use arguably the best player in the world (Lionel Messi) effectively. He also made some questionable selections in his team selection. I think based on their easy draw and lucky group line-up (their round of 16 opponent should also be fairly weak), they can easily make the round of 8. While anything can happen at that point, I would not feel comfortable placing the money on Argentina.
The Netherlands may very well be the 2nd most fun team to watch (see below) in the tournament after Spain. While they have some question marks at the back, no one can question their ability to score goals. The key question with the Dutch is if they can get over their own hump of failing in big tournaments. They blew through the so-called “group of Death in Euro 2008 at a combined score of 9-1 only to lose in the quarters. But their easy group draw and the ability of many players to score at any time makes the Dutch fully capable of winning the Cup. In fact, I like Dutch as a slight sleeper pick right behind Spain.
It is very difficult to identify dark horses in this tournament because after the couple favorites (and the Dutch in my book), many of the teams are fairly equal. Additionally, the lack of a real Group of Death and really only one group where there are 3 world class teams, it is difficult to identify the teams to get over that group stage and make a run. Additionally, one of the most overplayed angles of the tournament leading up to the draw was the likely success of the African teams given the home continent advantage. However, I don’t see that happening. A combination of bad draws, injuries, and the fact that many countries just aren’t that close geographically means it is unlikely that more than a team or two from Africa (if that) will advance. Given that, here are a few teams that are probably not in the top two in their group but could still advance:
Ivory Coast – This is the easy one. If they were in any group, and maybe even if Drogba were even 100% healthy, the IC would not qualify for a dark horse. The IC is actually not even the African team with the highest FIFA ranking (goes to Cameroon), but if Drogba can play, the IC has at least a chance against anyone. If he plays, I like them to advance over Portugal, and even if he doesn’t, I think they still have a chance to take 2nd from the Portuguese. In fact, if Drogba can get to 100%, I think they are the “dark horse” for the title.
Serbia – They have a strong back line pairing with Premier League standouts Vidic and Ivanovic and an all name team candidate in Stankovic to manage the midfield. Group D (Germany, Serbia, Ghana, Australia) is a tight race for 2nd. Ghana advanced in the previous World Cup and Serbia has a reputation for failing under pressure. But I like Serbia as a team to advance and possibly even sneak a win in the round of 16.
How about U.S.A?
The U.S. lucked out with Slovenia and Algeria. In fact, I’d even say we lucked out with England as the premier team in the group and playing England first. England has a history of starting tournaments slowly. Combined with the issued I mentioned above, they are a beatable (or drawable) team. I still expect the U.S. to lose on Saturday, but think that advancing is still a probable outcome, though I will certainly be hoping for a 0-0 draw in the other match. If we do advance in 2nd, we have the benefit of playing the winner of group D (likely a beatable Germany team). Given that, I think the U.S. has a legitimate chance to match the 2002 quarterfinals performance. The key match will be the match against Slovenia. This match is a must win. Since Slovenia plays England last, and England may have clinched qualifying already, they will get an easier match against England. They also open with a likely win against Algeria. It makes the match against Slovenia an absolute must win.
Most people in the U.S. have heard of Landon Donovan. But here are a few other players to watch:
Tim Howard (GK) – Likely the best player on the team. Howard continues the tradition of true world class goalkeepers from the U.S. Goalkeeper is the only position where the U.S. has consistently produced world class talent over the past 15 – 20 years.
Clint Dempsey – The other most media targeted player on the team, Clint had a great season for Fulham and has had good performances for the national team lately. His (somewhat deserved) reputation is that he can get lazy at time and then produce moments of brilliance. I think the key to keeping Dempsey focused and in the game is actually to play him up front (he usually plays in the midfield), where he may see fewer balls, but have more scoring opportunities.
Defenders: Cherundolo, DeMerit, Onyewu, Bocanegra
Midfielders: Donovan, Bradley, Edu, Feilhaber
Forwards: Altidore, Dempsey
This linep-up is dependent on Gooch’s (Onyewu’s) health. If he really isn’t at 100%, you’re left with Goodson at the other centerback, but that doesn’t bring me nearly as much comfort as a healthy Onyewu. It also contains 3 central midfielders, but I would envision more of a 4-5-1 with Dempsey playing forward on the wing behind Altidore. Edu and Feilhaber and can interchange between playing back in a central defensive position and pushing a little more forward to create opportunities for Dempsey and Altidore.
Interesting games to watch, particularly on the weekends, in the group stage:
U.S. v. England (Saturday, June 12) – Dominance of the English speaking world
Argentia v. Nigeria (Saturday, June 12) – Can Argentina gel or will Africa claim a major victory?
Ivory Coast v. Portugal (Tuesday, June 15) – Key match for 2nd place in the toughest group
Netherlands v. Japan (Saturday, June 19) – Watch beautiful being played on the weekend
Brazil v. Ivory Coast (Sunday, June 20) – One of the best matches of the opening round
Players to Watch For:
Messi (Argentina) – Widely considered the best player in the world based on his club performance for Barcelona. Has yet to live up to potential for the national team.
Ronaldo (Portugal) – Probably the world’s most famous player in the tournament. Biggest challenger to Messi in the media based on club performance
Xavi (Spain) – The underrated component of Barcelona’s fearsome attack, he makes both his club team and his national team tick.
Sneijder, Robben, and Van Persie (Netherlands) – When all are healthy, they make up an incredible attacking trio
Kaka (Brazil) – When in form, one of the most exciting counter-attacking players in the world.
Group Stage Picks:
Group A – France, Mexico
Group B – Argentina, Nigeria
Group C – England, U.S.A.
Group D – Serbia, Germany
Group E – Netherlands, Denmark
Group F – Italy, Paraguay
Group G – Brazil, Ivory Coast
Group H – Spain, Chile