From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.33 :: NO.23 :: Jun. 10, 2010

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WORLD CUP SPECIAL - 3 / TEAM ANALYSIS

Mexican burden on Blanco

Thirty two teams are in the fray for the 19th World Cup. In this second part of team analysis, A. Vinod takes a look at 12 of them, including host South Africa.

For South Africa, as the host country of football's show-piece event, this could very well be its finest hour. But the home side is unlikely to gain any new followers with great football, given the difficulties it is bound to face in Group A.

In fact, home advantage is the only one that the home team has as it checks itself into its third World Cup, its earlier appearances having come in 1998 and 2002. As host, South Africa was blessed with a direct entry, but the advent of France, Mexico and Uruguay into its group has dampened its spirits somewhat. Its preparations have also been far from satisfactory.

True, the South Africans did perform well on home soil in the Confederations Cup last year, finishing a respectable fourth. But the failure to qualify for the 2010 African Cup of Nations and the poor results in friendly matches (eight defeats in nine matches) over the last few months have only left Bafana Bafana fans in a mood of despair.

Among players in the South African side — to be led by the country's most capped player, Aaron Mokoena — Everton's midfield maestro Steven Pienaar is the prized asset, especially in the absence of Benni McCarthy, whose appearance in the World Cup is still a subject of conjecture. Pienaar, who has reinvented himself and matured into an all-round player, should be assisted well by wing-backs Sibonisa Gaxa and Tsepho Masilela and the youthful Teko Modise, not to leave out Kagisho Dikgacoi.

The team will be under the Brazilian coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, who is back after a two-year gap, replacing countryman Joel Santana. The widely-travelled Parreira who helped Brazil to the game's ultimate prize in 1994, indeed does bring a lot of experience, but it remains to be seen whether his brand of defensive football will go down well with the home team fans.

A good start is imperative for the Rainbow Nation to avoid the dreaded tag of being the first host to fall at the first hurdle as it starts its campaign against Mexico on June 11 and follows it up with encounters against Uruguay (June 16) and France (June 22) in the group phase.

Mexico: A consistent qualifier from the Central American leg, Mexico will be making its 14th appearance in the World Cup in South Africa. However, it was a rocky road for the Mexicans, who at one stage looked like missing the boat for the first time after being disqualified from the 1990 World Cup.

Under the former England boss, Sven-Goran Eriksson, the Mexicans were far from impressive in the second phase of the qualifiers before scraping through to the final round on goal-difference ahead of Jamaica. Their erratic form continued in the final round as well which led to the dismissal of Eriksson and the appointment of Javier Aguirre, under whom the Mexicans will be making the trip to the once dark continent.

The unflappable Aguirre has not only restored the confidence of the side by putting together a bunch comprising bright young talents and seasoned stars, but also given hope of a new uprising of Mexican football at the World Cup. The objective of the side will now be to progress beyond the Round of 16 and emulate the performances of the 1970 and 1986 squads, which though playing at home, made the quarterfinals.

The Mexicans, usually, play the 4-3-3 formation relying on quick passing and carrying forward the attack with the help of the midfielders and overlapping defenders. While the attack is their strength, the main worry for the Mexicans has often been their porous defence.

Veteran playmaker, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, who was coaxed back from retirement by Aguirre during the qualifiers, is certain to be the key to any Mexican success on African soil. The 38-year-old will be making his third World Cup appearance and has in him the experience and craft to motivate his younger team-mates such as Guillermo Ochoa, Efrain Juarez, Andres Guardao and Giovani dos Santos to put their best foot forward for their country's cause, led by Rafael Marquez.

Mexico cannot be complaining about being drawn in Group A, although, having to play against host South Africa in the World Cup opener may be bothersome. Still the team has the required substance and experience to move ahead.

Uruguay: Twice champion of the coveted prize, in 1930 and 1950, Uruguay will be travelling for the World Cup for the 11th time, having missed the opportunity to do so in 2006.

The return to the World Cup was sealed, however, only after a tough play-off against Costa Rica after the Uruguayans had finished fifth in the South American qualifiers. And while the South African sojourn could well be the path of recovery for the country of a little over three million die-hard football fans, the draw nevertheless cannot be described as easy.

For, simply said, the Uruguayans have to put it across France and Mexico in Group A, not to forget the home country, if they have to realise their ambition of making it into the round of 16. And this looks to be a tall order for the side, given its weaknesses in both offence and defence, which was quite apparent in the qualifiers.

The side, still, on its day can give its rivals a run for their money, riding on the back of its experienced trio of Diego Forlan, Diego Perez and Sebastian Abreu, who all featured in the Uruguayan squad at the 2002 World Cup in Asia. The others to watch out for are skipper Diego Lugano, who plays in the midfield and likes to combine his skills in defence when not overlapping and Luis Suarez, who time and again has proved to be the perfect foil for Forlan upfront.

The side will be in South Africa under the stewardship of veteran Oscar Washington Tabarez. He is coaching the Uruguayan World Cup squad for a second time since 1990. The 62-year-old is hard-working and a man of few words.

Nigeria: No longer the powerhouse they once used to be, the Nigerians struggled to get to their fourth World Cup; only doing so with a fortunate 3-2 win in their last game against Kenya in Nairobi. And long gone too is the golden generation of Jay Jay Okocha, Sunday Oliseh and Emmanuel Amunike, who together put their nation on the world map with their distinct style of attacking football.

However, the Super Eagles will not lack support in South Africa and could well soar again if they are able to stop Greece and South Korea in Group B, which is likely to be topped by Argentina. But then, the Nigerians have failed to combine well as a team during recent times. They also lack a leader and a player of real flair.

However, the team is certain to gain much from the experience of Premiership players like Joseph Yobo, Yakubu Aiyegbeni and John Obi Mikel, who, while playing alongside strikers, Obafemi Martins and Osaze Odemwingie, could prove to be more than a handful for rival defences. But the same cannot be said about the Nigerian defence which may well be over-run by Argentina and Greece.

Thus it is going to be quite a long haul for the team coach, Lars Lagerback, the former Swedish co-team manager with Tommy Soderberg, who was appointed only this February. His surprise appointment came about when Nigeria fell by the wayside at the 2010 African Cup of Nations under Shaibu Amodu.

The team can well be a dark horse for many, but still what could pull it down is the tendency of its players to play for themselves and the consequent lack of team-work.

South Korea: Asia's most consistent visitors to the World Cup, the South Koreans will be making their eighth appearance in the tournament and seventh on the trot. And in South Africa, they are bound to redeem some of the prestige lost in Germany 2006.

At home in 2002, when it had looked as if they would be ousted in the first round itself, the South Koreans had come up with a terrific show sweeping past European powerhouses Portugal, Italy and Spain to make the semi-finals.

However, in Germany 2006, it was back to square one as they lost in the initial group phase. In the qualifiers for this World Cup too, the South Koreans had a bumpy ride initially before sealing their qualification with two matches to spare.

Compared to 2006, South Korea looks to be a younger and dynamic side, confident of its potential. Led by the experienced Park Ji-sung, who plies his trade with Manchester United, there are quite a few talented youngsters in the team such as Lee Chung-yong, Ki Sung-yong and Lee Keun-ho who are playing in their first World Cup. The others who will be looking for a starting place in South Africa include Kim Jung-woo, Cho Won-hee, Oh Beom-seok, Lee Woon-jae and Kim Chi-woo.

However, South Korea's problem, shared by many of its Asian rivals, will be that of scoring goals despite creating chances aplenty. There are signs of improvement, with the emergence of Park Chu-young, but there is still the question of who will play alongside this Monaco marksman.

The team, under Huh Jung-moo, who had represented his country in the World Cup in 1986, served it as fitness trainer in 1990 and assistant coach in 1994, could also be under pressure due to its vulnerability at the back and its inability to convert set pieces, particularly when pitted against the experience of the Argentines, the Nigerians and the Greeks.

USA: The Americans did pull off a major coup in South Africa last year when they ousted Euro champion and favourite, Spain, and finished second best behind Brazil in the Confederations Cup. Displaying typical efficiency yet again, they hardly faced any trouble in their march to a 10th World Cup appearance by topping the CONCACAF qualifiers.

Drawn alongside England, Algeria and Slovenia in Group C, the Americans might be fancying their chances in South Africa of getting to the second round or do even better to overcome the disappointment of Germany 2006. The team cast includes an inspiring line-up of veteran European league players such as Oguchi Onyewu, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey who are expected to deliver the goods while playing alongside the Los Angeles Galaxy star, Landon Donovan.

The team, well-drilled under coach Bob Bradley, should also have no worries in goal or in the defence. However, the central midfield has often shown a lack of creativity, thus leading to a scarcity of goals. This, particularly, in the wake of the side being unable to find a suitable replacement for the retired Brian McBride.

America's weakness could also stem from its squad as a whole. The side has a small cadre of impressive individuals, who can't really be substituted. The lack of bench strength is also confirmed by the fact that the Americans used as many as 43 players during the qualifiers.

The lack of depth notwithstanding, the Americans would be fancying their chances against both Slovenia and Algeria at the group stage. A loss against England would be by no means a disgrace for Bradley and his men, though they would be opting for a tight defensive shield against the seeded team of this group. As someone who has been involved with football for long, Bradley is known to motivate his players with a calm demeanour and his presence on the sideline should be the best asset for the Americans in South Africa.

Slovenia: The road to South Africa for this tiny Alpine nation was a rocky one. Hardly anyone thought they would qualify after the Slovenes were drawn in the tough Group 3, which included the Czech Republic and Poland, of the European qualifiers.

Yet, upsetting all calculations, the Slovenes finished runners-up of their group behind Slovakia to set up a clash against Russia in the play-offs.

Here again, Slovenia proved all critics wrong by downing the star-studded Russia!

The Green Dragons will be featuring in their second World Cup, after that disastrous debut in 2002. The team might seem quite mediocre when compared with the rest of the European qualifiers as very few members of the side have built significant international careers for clubs outside their country.

Yet, the side is certain not to lack in fitness, discipline, team spirit or patriotism, thus making it a dangerous rival for the rest of the teams in Group C. The key players of the side are striker Milivoje Novakovic, Samir Hadanovic, Miso Brecko, Walter Birsa and skipper Robert Koren, while a great career has already been predicted for the ‘baby of the team', Rene Kerhin, a striker who is on the roster of Inter Milan.

The team coach, Matjaz Kek, is a thoughtful individual. He has often applied his analytical mind to pick the right players and choose the right tactics based on aggressiveness to fight every ball. A former defender for Austria's Gak Graz, Kek has been in the profession since 2000 and the Slovenian head coach for three years now.

The Slovenes could have a memorable outing in South Africa if they show the same passion and grit which they had displayed in the qualifiers.

Serbia: Though very much a part of the now disbanded teams of Yugoslavia and Serbia-Montenegro, Serbia, as an independent State, will be making its debut at football's showpiece event in South Africa. The team brimming with talent and potential could either be the surprise or flop of this year's World Cup.

The road to South Africa for the Serbs was sealed when they finished on top of the European Group 7 qualifying matches ahead of fancied France, Austria and Lithuania.

Their roster has an impressive line-up of players, most of whom ply their trade regularly at premier European clubs. Manchester United stopper Nemanja Vidic leads the side's defence alongside Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic and Aleksandar Kolarov. Dejan Stankovic of Inter plays in the midfield in the company of the creative Milos Krasic and in attack, the side has the dangerous Nikola Zigic. A towering forward, Zigic (202 cm) is equally strong with the ball at his feet or in the air and is often paired upfront with Milan Jovanovic, another good dribbler of the ball.

The only department in which the Serbs seem to have a problem is between the posts, though first-choice 'keeper Vladimir Stankovic presents a flamboyant picture at times. The White Eagles, as the Serbian team is popularly known, have Radomir Antic, who is a father figure to all his players, as the coach. He inspires confidence and exerts a kind of effortless authority over them. He has considerable experience as a coach, having had stints at such prestigious clubs as Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona, among others.

Under Antic, the Serbs could well be entertaining as they tackle the pressures of Group D, also comprising Germany, Ghana and Australia. The team has every chance of making to the second round. But, it is also true that the Southern Slav States have rarely lived up to expectations on the big stage despite possessing a huge pool of talent. Will Serbia prove to be different this time around?

Paraguay: The Paraguayans, having come out of the South American qualifiers in style, are participating in their eighth World Cup, and fourth in succession. Unlike on previous occasions, their qualification campaign was marked by several bright spots leading to the declaration of a National holiday by President Fernando Lugo when the team made it with two rounds to spare.

Finishing third behind Chile and Brazil and breaking the 30-point barrier for the first time since the long-drawn qualification system within the 10-team group came into place, the Paraguayans are drawn in Group F alongside holder Italy, Slovakia and New Zealand.

The team will depend on Cristian Riveros and Victor Caceres to supply the ammunition for Nelson Valdez (Borussia Dortmund) and Oscar Cardozo (Benfica) to improve upon the second round outings which it had enjoyed in 1986, 1998 and 2002. In 2006, despite wide expectations, the side had come a cropper at the very first hurdle.

Given their nature of playing swift counter-attacks, the Paraguayans will be looking forward to the skills of veteran Roque Santa Cruz and Salvador Cabanas upfront, leaving Paulo Da Silva (Sutherland) to marshal their defence.

The Argentine coach of the side, Gerardo Martino, has been largely instrumental in Paraguay regrouping itself after the bitter disappointment in 2006, having taken up the job from Anibal Ruiz in early 2007. His cool and collected manner has served the team well as the recent results testify, including the 2-0 favourable verdict against Dunga's Brazil in the qualifiers.

The main worry for Martino, however, would be to keep his players inspired right through the campaign. But then, the teams in Group F have the lowest average FIFA ranking of any group and this must surely work in Paraguay's favour. Especially, the fact that Italy, its first opponent, has the tradition of being a slow starter.

A good opener against Italy followed by attainable wins against both Slovakia and New Zealand should help Paraguay into the second round and lead it to a possible meeting with Holland. It is not beyond the Paraguayans, and they should be able to keep the momentum going by maintaining their cool.

Slovakia: Just like Slovenia, hardly anyone had given a chance for the Slovaks to get to the World Cup when they were drawn with their mother country, the Czech Republic, Poland and Northern Ireland among others in Group 3 of the European qualifiers. But then, the Slovaks fought for every ball along the way and surprised all pundits by topping the tough pool and making it to their first ever major international tournament.

The key virtues of the side right through the qualifiers had been discipline, strict marking and not giving away possession easily. Of course, the Slovaks are hardly a soccer machine, but could prove to be a headache for the other teams in Group F, especially Paraguay and New Zealand.

The team draws its strength from its defence led by the agile central stopper Marttin Skrtel and goalkeeper Jan Mucha. The creativity in the midfield is in the safe hands of Marek Hamsik, who plays for Napoli, while the attack is spearheaded by Stanislav Sestak who is a player with good control and sound striking ability.

The most notable weakness of the side is its lack of depth in the reserve benches, there being hardly anyone to neutralise the loss, should any key player get injured or suspended. It would be quite interesting under these circumstances to see how the team manager, Vladimir Weiss, a former Czech international, who played in the 1990 World Cup, inspires the side. Weiss has been in charge of the Slovakian side since 2008 and is said to be a stern and difficult man.

As the Slovaks are likely to be under pressure from the Italians and the Paraguayans, both of whom will be engaged in a battle of their own to qualify for the second round, the only chance for the first-timers would be against New Zealand. A point, at least, from this match should be a bonus for this latest debutant nation.

New Zealand: The Kiwis return to the World Cup after a long time, having made the grade way back for the first time in 1982. The path to South Africa was quite easy for them as they comfortably won the Oceania qualifying group with a 5-1 record over New Caledonia, Fiji and Vanuatu before being asked to wait for a 15-month period to ascertain their next opponent, the fifth placed team of the Asian qualifiers.

Finally, it was Bahrain which emerged as New Zealand's rival. This led to the Kiwis to be written off by the entire world media, particularly as the Gulf nation had seen off regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia to reach the two-legged play-offs. However, after a goalless draw in Manama in their away game, the Kiwis, won the decisive game in Wellington, thanks to a fine headed goal by Rory Fallon in the dying minutes of the first-half. Also praiseworthy was the performance by custodian Mark Paston who came up with a roaring save off a penalty in the second session.

In South Africa, the Kiwis will be starting as rank outsiders, but the skills of skipper Ryan Nelsen, Shane Smeltz, Chris Killen and Chris Wood could leave behind pleasant memories.

Ricki Herbert, who featured in the Kiwi team in 1982 and a one-time player with Wolverhampton Wanderers, is the manager of the side. He will be trying his best to motivate his players with a strong work ethic.

Against Italy and Paraguay, the team doesn't look like having a chance, but it should be looking forward to its match against Slovakia, the other rival in Group F. A point from this match should help the Kiwis head back home without much of a disgrace.

Switzerland: The luxury of having been drawn in the weakest group in the European qualifiers appeared almost meaningless for the Swiss as they started off dropping five points in their opening two matches. A last-minute draw by Israel was followed by a stunning defeat at the hands of minnow Luxembourg.

But the Swiss woke up in time and sealed their ninth World Cup appearance with eight straight wins and finally a draw against Israel in the return match. They topped the group eventually at the expense of Greece by a solitary point.

In South Africa, the Swiss would be seeking a second round spot ahead of their Group H rivals, Chile and Honduras, but behind the fancied Spain. In more ways than one, the side is capable of achieving this objective. It boasts of a decent attack that depends heavily on attacking midfielder Tranquillo Barnetta and strikers Alex Frei and Blaise Nkufo.

In the rear the Swiss are likely to be well served by Philippe Senderos and Reto Ziegler, who though young and inexperienced are talented defenders. They should make things easier for goalkeeper, Diego Benaglio.

The team, which is a healthy blend of youth and experience, will be managed in South Africa by Ottmar Hitzfeld, the former boss of Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, who has been at the helm since the dismal performance of the Swiss in Euro 2008.

Hitzfeld would be looking forward to help the Swiss go beyond the second round performance at the last World Cup and catapult it into the quarterfinals with his no-nonsense approach which is a hit with his players.



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