World Cup Preview, Pt. 1 - Groups G and H

So, we're about a week away from the World Cup kicking off in South Africa.  There's no way to wax poetic about the popularity of soccer on a site read by (primarily) Americans without sounding condescending to some.  I'll just point out that 5.6 billion people tuned into matches across 54 global markets, and an average of 93 million people watched each match.  It's kind of a big deal.

This will be a series of previews for each group (two at a time) with a more detailed analysis on the teams that are expected to contend.  The problem with the World Cup is that formations and squad selections for some teams are shrouded in secrecy, so I may end up being quite off by the time June 11th rolls around.

We'll start with Groups G and H:  Arguably the most difficult and easiest groups in the tournament respectively.

 

Note:  For all who aren't familiar with soccer in Africa, those horrifically annoying horns are called Vuvuzelas.  They're a local tradition at soccer games and I'm pretty sure they'll be linked to 50% of the murders committed worldwide between June 11th and July 11th.

Group G

Brazil (FIFA Ranking: 1)

Portugal (FIFA Ranking: 3)

Ivory Coast (FIFA Ranking: 27)

North Korea (FIFA Ranking: 105)

This group is absolutely brutal.  Brazil's a perennial contender, Portugal is consistently one of the most skilled teams in the tournament, and the Ivory Coast is a battering ram that's capable of upsetting any of the big two...even without Drogba.  I'm just glad Kim Jong Il has such an even-keeled disposition because a less rational man would not take the beatings his country is about to suffer well.

 

Brazil

Predicted starting lineup:

---------------Julio Cesar-------------

Maicon----Lucio-----Juan-----Michel Bastos

----------Melo-----------G. Silva--------

------Ramires-----------------------------

--------------------Kaka-------------------

----------Fabiano----------Robinho------

Formation:  Brazil's formation is extremely fluid.  However, the distinguishing characteristic of Dunga's tenure has been his ability to keep them organized.  This is incredibly important for a team featuring two full backs with incredible ability going forward.  Felipe Melo and Gilberto Silva are midfield destroyers who are able to drop into position to cover the gaps the full backs leave behind.  The front 4, aside from possibly Luis Fabiano, are all capable of floating into different areas of the pitch without much problem at all.

Strengths:  It's Brazil.  Without sounding too redundant, their frontmen are all prodigiously talented and their defending under Dunga is much stronger than in years past.

Weaknesses:  Michel Bastos is a winger.  He plays on the left wing for Lyon, his first instinct is to go forward and he's prone to leave gaps on the left side.  Kaka is coming off of an injury plagued year, although he insists he's now fine.

Prediction:  Group winners....comfortably.

Portugal

Predicted starting lineup:

--------------------------Eduardo-----------

Ferreira----Bruno Alves-----Carvalho-------Coentrao

---------------------------Pepe---------------------------

-------------------Meireles-------Deco-----------------

------------Nani-----------------------------Simao-------

----------------------------Ronaldo---------------------

Formation:  This is one I'm not particularly sure about.  Carlos Queiroz, Portugal's coach, has alternated between playing Ronaldo in the striker role and putting him in an advanced left wing role with Liedson leading the line.  I'm of the opinion that Portugal is at their most dangerous when Ronaldo leads the line, allowing them to play both Nani and Simao on the wings.  The only problem with this is that all three players are naturally right-footed players, leaving them with no natural left winger.  However, both Nani and Simao have played this role for their clubs so it shouldn't be too big of a problem.  Pepe has recovered from injury concerns, but there's no place for him in the center of defense with an on-form Bruno Alves and the favored Carvalho.  As a result, he's deployed as a deep-lying holding midfielder who'll protect the back 4 and add some teeth to an otherwise undersized midfield.

Strengths:  Ronaldo.  He's one of the two most dynamic players in the tournament and is coming off of a strong first season for Madrid, where he was often played as a striker alongside Higuain.  Nani's also coming off of a revelatory season (or half-season, really) where he finally sustained some of the flashes of brilliance he's displayed in the past for Manchester United.  Their defensive presence is hulking, with a centerback (Pepe) playing holding mid and the two imposing figures of Bruno Alves and Ricardo Carvalho in front of Eduardo.

Weaknesses:  Portugal has looked relatively uninspired under Queiroz (they drew 0-0 with Cape Verde a couple of days ago) and he will be a focal point for scrutiny as soon as they suffer a hiccup in the tournament.  Their real problem however, lies in their midfield.  This isn't the same Deco that has run Portugal's midfield for almost a decade.  He's now 32 and is coming off a season where he didn't see a whole lot of playing time for Chelsea.  He's playing alongside Pepe, a natural centerback who, while defensively strong, obviously isn't as good as a natural midfielder at ball distribution.  Raul Meireles rounds out the three man midfield, and looking at it on paper, it's just not as dynamic as you would expect Portugal's midfield to be.  Unless Deco turns back the clock, it's hard to count on either he or Meireles to push forward and supplement the forwards.

Prediction:  2nd place, thanks to the Drogba injury.

Ivory Coast

Predicted starting lineup:

---------------------Barry-----------

Eboue-----K. Toure-----Bamba-----Boka

-----------Zokora-----------Tiote---------

-----------------Y. Toure----------------

-----Gervinho------------------Kalou------

------------------Dindane----------------

Formation:  Their 4-3-3 formation doesn't change with Drogba's injury.  What does change is their effectiveness with the formation.  Aside from the obvious difference in quality, Aruna Dindane is 5'9", 159lbs.  Didier Drogba is a 6'2" 190lb man mountain.  With neither Kalou or Gervinho being physically imposing, the Ivory Coast essentially loses their physical presence going forward.  You could easily say that no player in this group was more important to his team than Didier Drogba.  It's interesting to note that they deploy Yaya Toure in a more advanced midfield role than anyone is accustomed to.  People forget that when Yaya played for Olympiakos and Monaco, he was not exclusively a holding midfielder as he is with Barcelona.

Strengths:  Their wingplay is solid, with Kalou bringing great pace and Gervinho being one of the two hidden gems in that Lille side (along with Eden Hazard).  They also have a physically imposing midfield with Zokora, Toure and Tiote, who plays for the Dutch Champions Twente FC.

Weaknesses:  They're going to seriously miss Drogba.  With him, they're a dark horse to sneak out of this group as winners.  Without him, they're unlikely to make it past the group stage.  Aside from his obvious absence, their goalkeeping is suspect and Tiote, the presumed third midfielder, was primarily a substitute for Twente last season.

Prediction:  3rd place, thanks to the Drogba injury.

Group H

Spain (FIFA Ranking: 2)

Chile (FIFA Ranking: 18)

Switzerland (FIFA Ranking: 24)

Honduras (FIFA Ranking: 38)

 

Spain's going to absolutely dominate this group.  I would've liked to see them get a tougher group just to see them potentially get rattled a bit early, but that's not going to happen here. I'm not going to do an analysis on any of the other teams because, honestly, there's no point.

Spain

Predicted starting lineup:

-----------------Casillas--------------

Ramos----Puyol----Pique----Capdevila

---------Busquets------Alonso-------

--------------------Xavi----------------

-------------------------------Silva-------

------------Villa-----------Torres----------

Formation:  Honestly, after the GK and defense, I have no idea with this one.  Spain's midfield depth is absolutely astounding (Fabregas and Iniesta would start for just about every other team) and they could blindly pick two or three out of a hat and come away with one of the strongest midfields in this tournament.  If Torres isn't healthy, I would expect them to play Villa by himself up front with Iniesta and Silva flanking him.  There's so much passing range in this midfield it's absurd...really, this team in general is an embarrassment of riches.

Strengths:  Pretty much everything.  That's my in-depth analysis.

Weaknesses:  Sergio Ramos was used primarily as a centerback for Real last season.  He's not a good fullback defensively.  In fact, he's prone to moments of insanity and he frequently leaves gaps on the right side.

Prediction:  Kidding me?  Group winners by a mile.

 

 

Groups E and F coming next.

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