All Eyes on England’s John Terry

All the eyes were on the pair of John Terry and Luis Suarez as the two trained before the Stamford Bridge crowd ahead of the titanic clash between Liverpool and Chelsea in the Barclays Premier League. The situation between the two has grown to such an extent that the game looks to be a non-existent factor. Luis Suarez has been brandished with claims of racial abuse by Manchester United left back Patrice Evra, while John Terry has been haunted by the claims of the same by QPR defender Anton Ferdinand. Both the cases will be heard by the FA in the next few weeks, and it is truly an anxious moment for the duo.

They both support their cause for eliminating racism from football by wearing a shirt that indicated the same. They have also been giving out vocal support in terms of eliminating the same from football and in real life. However, it seems that the media spotlight will not be going away from the duo until a verdict is reached on the situation. Both Luis Suarez and John Terry were wearing the T-shirt that showed the slogan ‘One Game, One Community’ prior to the match between Liverpool and Chelsea at Stamford bridge. However, many have said that this unexpected situation between the two was none more than a coincidence and there was nothing planned in terms of the T-shirts.

Luis Suarez has only been charged by the FA, but John Terry has been subjected to police investigation, which is a far greater situation in the case of the England captain. Luis Suarez has vehemently denied any claims of making racial abuse over Patrice Evra. There are also does not seem to be any video evidence relating to the same. Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish has come out in support of his player.

Pallister Backs Rooney

Former Manchester United centre-back Gary Pallister has defended striker Wayne Rooney, and believes that even if there is a three match ban over his head, Rooney should be taken to the Euro 2012 Finals.

The controversy centres around the red card that Rooney received in the final Qualifier against Montenegro. The red card, recieved for needlessly shunting into a Monenegran defender, brings an automatic 3 match suspension, which means that Rooney will be unavailable for selection for all three of England’s Euro 2012 Group games. With a squad of only 23 players allowed, some commentators believe that taking Rooney might cost the team the chance to progress from the Group stages.

Gary Pallister is not one of them! He believes that Rooney has the ability and attitude to really help England behind the scenes whilst he’s banned, and then come out on to the pitch and lead the team to victory on the field.

“Rooney’s not going to be involved for the first few games so it is a difficult situation for Fabio Capello if he does end up with a lengthy suspension” said the lanky ex-defender. “But I would expect him to take Rooney. He’s a world class player. You need as many as those as you can get!”

“I know it’s a risk, but just imagine you get through those three games and you haven’t played well, Rooney can come back into the team and it will be like a shot in the arm to them.

“If the team’s plays well in the group games then you might have to start with him on the bench, but what a player to have on your bench!”

UEFA will be meeting in the next three weeks to decide on whether Rooney’s three-match ban will stand.

Has Capello hit the self-destruct button?

Up until the past week, it is difficult to remember a time when England’s preparations for a major tournament had gone so well. The nocturnal discretions of some players aside, all seemed well following a convincing qualification campaign and a relatively friendly draw for the group stage of the finals. However, Fabio Capello’s increasingly strange decision making may serve to dampen the nation’s World Cup expectations.

In the space of a week, Capello seems to have diluted his reputation as a master tactician of unquestionable methods, with a series of actions and comments which have left most fans and pundits scratching their head. Are we in for another anti-climatic performance from the Three Lions? Here are the Capello misjudgements which might be giving the nation cause for concern:

The Capello Index

The most bizarre of the lot. Just before he is about to announce his 30-man training squad for the World Cup, he launches a player-ranking system backed by an online gaming firm. The FA rightly waded in and forced its postponement but the damage may well have been done. Capello has constantly preached against off-field distractions to his players, yet is guilty of indulging in a remarkably crass one himself.

A squad featuring the walking wounded

Having previously strictly insisted on the form and fitness of his squad members, this may not have been the best time for the Italian to bend that rule. Confusion reigns as to Gareth Barry projected return from an injury which appeared to have initially ruled him out of contention, whilst Ledley King, a player who is unable to train between games owing to his chronic knee problem, has also made the cut.

An imbalanced squad

Capello had been expected to name a squad with four goalkeepers, and few could argue that Paul Robinson deserved his chance to impress following an excellent season at Blackburn Rovers. Surprise and, in Sam Allardyce’s case, anger therefore at his exclusion. ‘He has made the biggest mistake of his selection process has Fabio,’ the Blackburn Rovers manager told the Free Bet website.

Many have also been left wondering why Capello has failed to include adequated cover at right back in his squad. If Glen Johnson is injured, there is just Jamie Carragher to replace him. Somewhat worrying given Carragher’s protracted absence from the international scene, compounding the fact that it is not even his preferred position. Gary Neville must be wondering what he did wrong.

Talk of a 3-5-2 formation

Rather than recognising any potential shortcomings in his squad, Capello seems to have suggested he may employ a workaround and move to a 3-5-2 formation. This is one which he has never before utilised and which has not found success at the game’s top-level for a considerable period. England fans are unlikely to want to be reminded of Glenn Hoddle’s ineffective use of wingbacks this summer.

Contemplating taking Beckham as a coach

The injury which ended David Beckham’s World Cup hopes was undoubtedly a very sad moment, but inviting him into England’s coaching setup as some kind of consolation prize is ill-conceived. Putting aside the fact that Beckham has no coaching qualifications and his proposed role as a conduit is totally superfluous, the 23 players in the squad don’t need his presence overshadowing their preparations. The football betting markets haven’t changed any odds since Beckham’s new role was announced.

It is still very early stages for England’s World Cup preparations, and a fairer indication of how well the team is set for South Africa will come during pre-tournament friendlies against Mexico and Japan, as well as the subsequent reduction of the squad to 23 players. However, even these plans threaten to be disrupted by the volcanic ash cloud.

So England fans will be hoping that Capello can exercise the superb judgement he demonstrated in the qualifying campaign, rather than the somewhat perplexing decision-making he has demonstrated in the past week. Perhaps this is all part of a grand plan; but it would be reassuring to know exactly what that is we can sleep easy once again.

World Cup Preview Group B: Argentina’s to Lose?

By William Geldart

Here on The Football Blog, our World Cup 2010 preview continues and our attention switches to Group B. Argentina, Greece, Nigeria and South Korea will contest this portion of the group stage with the issue of qualification from the group proving difficult to predict.

Argentina might be considered favourites to win the group however under the guidance of the erratic footballing legend that is Diego Maradona, even their passage might not be plain sailing.

MARADONA’S ARGENTINA ARE UNPREDICTABLE FAVOURITES TO WIN GROUP B

Despite a stuttering qualifying campaign and only one quarter-final appearance in the last twenty years, Argentina will be expected to progress from Group B.

The 1978 and 1986 winners struggled to fourth place in the South American qualifying group and were hammered 6-1 by struggling Bolivia along the way. Coach Alfio Basile was sacked after four wins in ten games and was replaced by the national icon, Maradona.

Diego’s men only managed to limp over the finishing line and were outside of the qualifying places with two games remaining. Only a last minute Martin Palermo winner against Peru and a subsequent victory over Uruguay, again secured late on, ensured they were guaranteed to make an appearance at this year’s Finals.

AN ABUNDANCE OF ATTACKING OPTIONS BUT A CASE TO BE MADE FOR THE DEFENCE

With the talent of Barcelona’s World Player of the Year Lionel Messi, Argentina’s group games will be keenly followed by a fervent global audience.  He’ll be ably assisted up front by two hit-men playing in Madrid, Atletico’s Sergio Aguero and Real’s top scorer this season, Gonzalo Higuain. Plus, Manchester City’s Carlos Tevez is also an attractive alternative.

Feeding this voracious attack and repelling the enemy will be a midfield likely to contain the blend of combative skill displayed by Inter Milan’s Esteban Cambiasso, Cambiasso has been usurped by Real Madrid’s young prodigy, Fernando Gago at international level however the latter’s lack of first team football combined with the Inter favourite’s resurgence could see that change.

One famous face who has returned to his homeland, namely Estudiantes’ Juan Sebastian Veron, of Manchester United and Lazio fame, may also feature. Maradona, known for his tactical tinkering, also thinks highly of Liverpool’s Javier Mascherano, once describing the side as being ‘Mascherano and ten more’.

The area that could trouble Argentina is their flaky defence. Having conceded six goals to a lowly Bolivia side in qualifying, they also fell to a 3-1 home defeat to bitter rivals Brazil, in which their back-line was cruelly exposed.

Only Javier Zanetti can perhaps be described as a world-class defender although even his status in the starting line-up is far from assured. Alongside him could be the once derided Newcastle defender Fabricio Coloccini and Bayern Munich’s mask wearing Martin Demichellis. The talented yet inexperienced Barcelona man, Gabriel Millito, capable Roma player; Nicolas Burdisso and Gabriel Heinze, now at Marseille are also all in line for starting berths.

CONFLICTING PERSONALITIES COULD DAMAGE ARGENTINE HOPES

Since taking over in 2008, Argentina manager Diego Maradona has called up over 100 players to represent the country, an incredible amount by any standards. Although he may have been revered as a player in his homeland and undoubtedly this has played an integral part in him keeping his job, Maradona has been a figure who has often polarised opinions elsewhere.

As a manager, this hasn’t changed. Maradona has furiously reacted to criticism levelled at him and the team, even earning himself a two-month international ban from FIFA following comments made after their final game against Uruguay.

One man who definitely won’t be appearing in Maradona’s World Cup squad is midfielder, Juan Roman Riquelme. The talented Boca playmaker was upset with Maradona’s public criticism of his game although he says this was not his sole reason for quitting the international scene.

Riquelme told reporters, “I feel good with what I did. There were reports that I had stepped aside over a comment by the coach and I say: ‘One has to be pretty stupid to stay out of a World Cup over a remark.”

“We can’t work together. It’s my way of being and there are things I can understand and others I can’t. Every day that passes, I feel calm because I did the right thing” he added in a candid interview published by The Daily Telegraph.

ARGENTINA WILL HAVE TO BE ON THEIR GUARD AGAINST TRICKY OPPONENTS

One thing is certain; this unpredictable Argentina side will have to take every game extremely seriously. Their tactical and positional vulnerability could work in their opponents favour against a set of teams who will be hungry to take a morale-boosting scalp. Greece and South Korea have enjoyed notable giant killings in international tournaments over the past ten years and a lively Nigerian team will look to impress playing on their home continent.

Following their friendly victory against Germany, Diego Maradona was characteristically buoyant about his side’s chances of winning the tournament. In another barb aimed at his journalistic detractors, he said, ‘”Maybe the press in Argentina won’t like it, but we are going to play a very good World Cup in South Africa.’”

Before their first group game against Nigeria on 12 June, Argentina will play Canada on May 24 having just thrashed Haiti 4-0 in a friendly match featuring home-based players. Another friendly against the United Arab Emirates is planned to take place five days after the match-up against Canada.

GREECE WILL BE HOPING TO PROVIDE RESPITE TO A TROUBLED COUNTRY

Greece take their place at the World Cup finals amidst the backdrop of unprecedented turmoil in their country. The Euro 2004 winners will be anxious to provide respite to a population facing years of austerity measures and financial misery.

Their defensive capabilities are not in doubt however they’ll also be looking to score goals and improve on their Euro 2008 showing where they lost all three group games, hitting the back of the net on only one occasion.

Experienced manager Otto Rehhagel has been in charge since 2001 and has transformed the Greeks into a well-organised defensive unit who may not be entertaining but they’re certainly effective.

PLAY-OFF VICTORY DELIVERS GREECE TO THE FINALS FOR ONLY THE SECOND TIME

Greece’s 1-0 aggregate play-off victory against Ukraine means they’ll play in only their second World Cup Finals, having previously only appearing at the group stage in 1994. Following their unlikely Euro 2004 success, the Greeks failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, held in Germany.

Their play-off win was indicative of the team’s style of play. Having held Ukraine to a 0-0 stalemate on home soil, they travelled to Donetsk needing a win and they achieved this through a solitary strike from Panathinaikos striker Dimitrios Salpigidis. They managed to repel the hosts in the second-half for the right to appear in South Africa.

GREEKS HOPING DEFENSIVE MASTERCLASSES WILL SEE THEM THROUGH

The Greeks are famed for their defensive qualities however their squad also contains the leading scorer in European qualification, Hertha Berlin’s on-loan frontman, Theofanis Gekas.

Another German based player, Nurnberg’s Angelos Charisteas will spear-head the Greek attack besides qualifying hero Salpigidis. Celtic’s Giorgios Samaras might consider himself lucky to make the final squad having been named in the provisional 30-man party.

Instead, his place might be taken by surprise inclusion, Steaua Bucharest attacker Pantelis Kapetanos who has had a fine season and has earned his reward for some impressive performances.

In midfield, inspirational playmaker Giorgios Karagounis is another of the Panathanaikos contingent and he’ll be looking to provide the creative spark to make his side tick. Omonia’s Christos Patsatzoglou is another midfield maestro who will look to dictate play.

The only English based player named in the squad is Liverpool defender Sotiris Kyrgiakos who has had endured a difficult season on Merseyside. Injury plagued Panathanaikos man Giorgos Seitaridis is another of the more high-profile names who could appear in defence.

Their first game against South Korea could prove decisive in determining who finishes runners-up of the group should Argentina follow the script and emerge as winners. Greece will be hoping to improve on their dismal showing in Euro 2008 and add an attacking dimension to their play against a quick and agile Korean side who could pick them off on the counter-attack.

To warm-up for the World Cup, Greece will play South Korea’s rivals from the north, Korea DPR and Paraguay.

UNBEATEN IN QUALIFYING, NIGERIA LOOK TO MAKE THE LAST 16

The Super Eagles of Nigeria boast an unbeaten qualifying record going into the World Cup in South Africa however qualification was still only confirmed in a tense finale to proceedings. Nigeria finished only a point above Tunisia to take the sole qualifying spot from the group, following a thrilling 3-2 comeback win against Kenya with Wolfsburg’s Obafemi Martins scoring the decisive goal late on.

Perhaps it is testament to the emerging strength of African football that Nigeria are considered one of the less-fancied of the teams representing the continent. The most consistently successful African World Cup nation of the last two decades appear to have fallen under the radar however it wouldn’t be a great surprise should they make it out of the group.

Unfortunately for them though, their preparations haven’t always been without complications. Ex-manager Shaibu Amodu guided the side to the Finals however following a third place finish in the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations, he was relieved of his duties in February. Swede Lars Lagerback is charged with overseeing their World Cup campaign.

WORLDWIDE CONTINGENT HOPE TO HARNESS THEIR EXPERIENCE

One of the biggest strengths of Nigeria’s squad is their experience of playing in a number of European and worldwide leagues. Over the past fifteen years, an increasing number of exports have been plying their trade outside of domestic competition.

One of the young stars of African football, Chelsea’s John Obi Mikel is one of them. Used primarily as a defensive shield at club level, he also possesses an impressive passing range that he’ll be ready to utilise on the international stage.

Apart from mixing it in the centre of the pitch, Mikel is also able to make forays forward and if he’s on form, Nigeria could be dangerous opponents.

Other familiar names to fans of English football will be Portsmouth’s mercurial Nwankwo Kanu, Everton striker Yakubu, former Newcastle forward Obafemi Martins, now enjoying life in the Bundesliga and another Everton player, central defender, Joseph Yobo.

Other players to look out for are Lokomotiv Moscow striker Peter Odemwingie, CSKA Moscow defender Chidi Odiah and Almeria midfielder Kalu Uche.

NOT EVERYONE CONVINCED OF NIGERIA’S WORLD CUP PEDIGREE

It’s certainly not uncommon in African football for certain figures to voice their forthright opinions on matters concerning their team, especially with a World Cup imminent. Former chairman of Nigerian club Gombe United FC, Alhaji Shuaibu Ahmed Gara Gombe, has been in vocal in his condemnation of preparations.

Fearing that the appointment of Lagerback was far too late in a World Cup year, the outspoken figure said, “Undoubtedly, we are nowhere in the World Cup. Look at our preparations; it is rather too unserious to compare with some of the participating teams that have been preparing for the past two years. Even the time they (NFA) brought Lagerback was too short for any coach to do anything.”

Speaking to Sierra Express Media, he also didn’t hold back on his criticism of Kanu’s inclusion in the squad. “The fact is that such a player is not fit for the Nations Cup how much more a serious competition like the World Cup. (Sic) His era is past and he should not be in the squad. If we continue like this, there is no doubt that disaster awaits us in South Africa,” he concluded.

Nigeria are an awkward and mobile team capable of pulling off a few surprises. Their match-up against South Korea could prove to be an exciting encounter if both sides harness their creative capabilities.

Being the final game in the group though, it could be a nervy contest if both sides have a chance of making the last 16. Only time will tell if poor preparation hampers their chances of progression.

Nigeria will meet Cyprus and Iceland before the end of May and also have a more testing fixture against Portugal lined up on an as yet unannounced date.

ASIA’S MOST FREQUENT REPRESENTATIVES LOOK TO 2002 FOR INSPIRATION

This will be South Korea’s eighth World Cup campaign and The Red Devils could prove to be the dark horses of Group B. Led by Manchester United’s Ji-Sung Park, they’ll be a tricky opponent with plenty of pace throughout the side.

Having co-hosted the tournament with Japan in 2002, South Korea, then led by Gus Huddink, reached the semi-finals of the competition in one of the greatest World Cup feats ever. Along the way they may have been blessed with good fortune however they’ll no doubt reminisce over those past glories as they look for inspiration.

They are a slightly different prospect now. Under the guidance of 2009 Asian Coach of the Year, Huh Jung-Moo, South Korea are a well organised team and difficult to break down. In the final stage of Asian qualifying, they topped their group ahead of northern rivals, Korea DPR, conceding just four goals.

COUNTER-ATTACKING PROWESS KEY TO MATCHING OPPONENTS

The differing styles of play that come to categorise certain World Cups have been subject to debate recently with counter-attacking football predicted to be the weapon of choice in South Africa. We’ll be pursuing that train of thought more in-depth later however it does appear to be South Korea’s modus operandi.

South Korea had fallen victim to China’s counter-attacking expertise, losing 3-0 in this year’s East Asian Championship game although they hit back with a 3-1 victory against Japan in Tokyo. Pohang Steelers midfield Kim Jae-Sung rounded off a fine counter-attacking move to curl his shot into the top corner to cap a memorable win.

Another of their impressive recent results came in March in London where they defeated the Ivory Coast 2-0 with Hyundai Motors striker Lee Dong-Gook and Kyoto Sanga defender Kwak Hee-Tae on the score sheet.

‘TOGETHERNESS’ THE KEY FACTOR, ACCORDING TO JUNG MOO

Manchester United’s Ji-Sung Park and Monaco’s Park Chu-young are amongst the 13 foreign-based players named in the provisional 30-man line-up. The hero from the 2002 Finals, Ahn Jung-hwan is also included, bidding to make his third consecutive World Cup appearance.

Coach Huh Jung-Moo has been keen to stress the importance of togetherness and communication between the domestic players and their foreign-based counterparts in the build-up to the Finals. Speaking in April, he said,

“Trust between the coaching staff and players is important, but trust between players themselves is also important. When players trust each other while playing, they can generate true teamwork. Our coaching staff’s top priority is to ensure players build their teamwork.”

South Korea’s success could depend largely on the outcome of their final group game against Nigeria. If they can take something from their first game against Greece, they may be prepared to write off a potential defeat against Argentina to focus their efforts on their encounter with the African side.

South Korea will meet Ecuador, Belarus and Spain on their way to the World Cup, eager to continue their impressive form.

GROUP B HOME TO THREE DARK HORSES AND ONE FAVOURITE

Argentina will be hoping to safely negotiate the group stage, leaving Greece, Nigeria and South Korea to fight over the runners-up spot.

These three teams could emerge as dark horses of the tournament and with conflicting styles; their encounters could be fascinating to watch. The defensive nature of Greece pitted against the organised yet deadly counter-attacking prowess of the Koreans and the flair component of Nigeria should see some intriguing tactical battles.

Ultimately, the ability of the players to adapt their game to counter-balance their opponents, combined with a need for pragmatism from their managers will prove decisive in determining their respective World Cup fates.

30-man provisional England World Cup squad announced

Fabio Capello has announced his provisional 30-man England training squad and has thrown in some minor surprises. Key talking points are the inclusion of Gareth Barry despite injury, call ups for Michael Dawson, Scott Parker and Tom Huddlestone, and the expected naming of Jamie Caragher, Ledley King and Adam Johnson.

The full 30-man squad is as follows:

Goalkeepers: Joe Hart, David James, Robert Green.

Defenders: Leighton Baines, Jamie Carragher, Ashley Cole, Michael Dawson, Rio Ferdinand, Glen Johnson, Ledley King, John Terry, Matthew Upson, Stephen Warnock.

Midfielders: Gareth Barry, Michael Carrick, Joe Cole, Steven Gerrard, Tom Huddlestone, Adam Johnson, Frank Lampard, Aaron Lennon, James Milner, Scott Parker, Theo Walcott, Shaun Wright-Phillips.

Forwards: Darren Bent, Peter Crouch, Jermain Defoe, Emile Heskey, Wayne Rooney.

Key omissions here look to be the heavily tipped Owen Hargreaves, along with Carlton Cole and Bobby Zamora, whose exclusion is reportedly as a result of requiring surgery on his achilles injury over the summer. Meanwhile, Ashley Young and Phil Jagielka can also consider themselves unlucky not to have made it into the provisional squad. 

What do you think? Time to get some free bets on? Let us know.

Who would be in your England training squad?

Fabio Capello is set to announce his 30-man England World Cup training squad later on this afternoon, and he has some tough decisions to make. Injuries and loss of form have both played their part as Capello aims to put together a squad he will have to whittle down to 23 players on 1st June. So who should be in the final reckoning?

If the papers are to be believed, Gareth Barry will be the major casualty following his one month lay-off: a recovery date too close to the start of the tournament for Capello. Barry has been a key part of England’s midfield under the stewardship of the Italian, but his ruthless nature means he is unlikely to risk taking a player with questionable fitness.

Which might raise some eyebrows about his mooted replacement, Owen Hargreaves. The United midfielder’s Premier League appearances this season runs to just one subsitute appearance of one minute, but Capello clearly feels he is worth looking at as part of the training squad, especially given his ability to play at full back.

This is something that also appears to have counted in the favour of Jamie Carragher, who looks to be handed another opportunity in England colours following a spell in the international wilderness. Whilst his form for Liverpool this season has been patchy, at least he has been playing consistently which is more than can be said for the likes of Rio Ferdinand and Joleon Lescott.

It is open to debate as to whether the latter of these two will make the squad, as is also the case with Wes Brown who is recovering from a metatarsal injury. Could this open the door for the likes of Gary Cahill, Michael Dawson and Phil Jagielka? Either way, Ledley King appears to have made the cut for the final 30 at least with some commanding performances in recent weeks.

Capello has no shortage of options for width, and Adam Johnson, Joe Cole, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing will all be hoping for the opportunity to prove they are the answer on the left. The battle for a spot on the right is equally as close. Aaron Lennon, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Theo Walcott will probably all make the training squad, but one of the three is destined not to make the final cut.

Up front, it now seems to be well recognised that barring injuries, Wayne Rooney, Emile Heskey, Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe will be the strikers on the plane to South Africa. However, Capello has one last chance to look at the competition and Carlton Cole, Darren Bent and Bobby Zamora will all be hoping for the opportunity.

So all things considered, here is The Football Blog’s guess as to who will make Capello’s 30-man traning squad:

David James
Robert Green
Joe Hart
Paul Robinson

Glen Johnson
Jamie Carragher
John Terry
Rio Ferdinand
Matthew Upson
Ledley King
Phil Jagielka
Ashley Cole
Leighton Baines
Stephen Warnock

Aaron Lennon
Theo Walcott
Shaun-Wright Phillips
Frank Lampard
Steven Gerrard
Owen Hargreaves
Michael Carrick
Joe Cole
James Milner
Adam Johnson

Wayne Rooney
Peter Crouch
Jermain Defoe
Emile Heskey
Carlton Cole
Bobby Zamora

Which other outside bets would you give a chance to impress in the training squad? How much do you think performances in the friendlies against Mexico and Japan will matter? Do you think Capello has his final 23 in mind? As ever, let us know your thoughts.

World Cup Preview – Group A: Home to the Hosts

By William Geldart

With World Cup 2010 only a few weeks away, kicking off on Friday June 11, The Football Blog is counting down to the global game’s showpiece event. During the build-up, we’ll be analysing each group, with in-depth previews of every side and who the  key players are likely to be. With 32 teams participating, these pages will also be the definitive guide to the teams, managers, players and stories that may have fallen under the radar.

HOST NATION HOPING TO PUT OFF-FIELD PROBLEMS BEHIND THEM

We begin with a preview of Group A, home to the hosts, South Africa. They’ll be competing alongside France, Mexico and Uruguay. There are genuine fears that South Africa could gain the ignominy of being classed ‘worst host nation in history’ such is the weakness of their squad and the perceived strength of their opponents.

So far in World Cup history, no team hosting the tournament have been eliminated at the first hurdle.

Since winning the African Cup of Nations in 1996 and qualifying for the 1998 and 2002 World Cups, South Africa have struggled to assert themselves as the predominant force on the continent.

Legendary Brazilian Carlos Alberto Parreira has led four teams to World Cup finals however it would surely rank as one of his greatest international achievements should his team reach the second round.

Much could depend on the performances of South Africa’s English based players. Star man, midfielder Stephen Pienaar, is enjoying a fine season for Everton. Portsmouth defender Aaron Mokoena will be tasked with spearheading the rearguard.

West Ham’s Benni McCarthy is an uncertain starter as he has struggled for form and fitness, despite his status as the country’s record goalscorer. He’ll be buoyed though by his return from international exile and could still pose a threat.

One of the few other players to ply his trade outside of South Africa, Macaabi Haifa’s marauding left-back Tsepo Masilela will be one to watch. Likewise, Orlando Pirates midfielder Teko Modise is blessed with creativity and skill and could trouble opposition defences.

PLAYERS LOOK TO IMPROVE THE MOOD AS THEY MAKE FINAL
PREPARATIONS

No doubt Parreira and his players will be looking to cast aside the off-field problems that have plagued South Africa’s preparations. These include the sacking of fellow Brazilian Joel Santana following a run of eight defeats in nine games and the re-instatement of Parreira as manager.

The local media haven’t been too impressed with the chaos surrounding their team’s build-up. Following the uninspiring 0-0 draw against fellow qualifiers North Korea, The Times of South Africa journalist, Kgomotso Mokoena gave an unforgiving assessment.

“Watching his charges running around like toddlers against North Korea would have left Carlos Alberto Parreira wondering just what he got himself into when he accepted the job to coach South Africa at the World Cup” he said.

THREE MORE GAMES PLANNED AS TOURNAMENT APPROACHES

Bafana Bafana are due to play Bulgaria and Colombia before the tournament kicks off and their last warm-up will be a stern test against a Denmark side that topped their qualifying group.

South Africa can take heart from their performance at the FIFA Confederations Cup in 2009 where they narrowly lost out in the semi-finals to an 88th minute winner against Brazil. Recent wins against Jamaica
and Zimbabwe, achieved without their foreign based players, should also act as a source of hope, despite the relatively poor quality of the opposition.

Their status as the ultimate World Cup underdog may count in their favour and anything they might gain from the opening game against Mexico will offer them hope. They might be currently ranked 90th in the world however they do have a team containing a set of enigmatic talents who could spark into life.

FRANCE ARE GROUP A FAVOURITES

France, winners in 1998, may be considered favourites to win the group on  paper however team relations under eccentric manager Raymond Domenech are often strained. Having narrowly qualified for the finals, following a controversial play-off win against the Republic of Ireland that featured Thierry Henry’s infamous handball, the French public have turned on their manager and team.

In typical Gallic fashion, the aftermath of the unseemly play-off victory brought about a wave of philosophising with national figures espousing their views. Roselyne Bachelot, the Health and Sports Minister voiced the nation’s concerns when she said, “I really want to tell him, ‘Raymond, you must rally yourself and your players because we, the French, are most worried and upset’.”

FRENCH CREATIVE FORCES COULD BE KEY

Despite their unimpressive route to the finals, France still
possess a squad that will be the envy of most other managers at the tournament. Captain Thierry Henry is a surviving member of the old guard that led Les Bleus to World Cup triumph twelve years ago and he could be ably assisted by Chelsea frontman, Nicolas Anelka.

Indeed, the French are not short of attacking options. Like Henry, Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema may not have enjoyed a prolific season in Spain however he’ll have an opportunity to remind the world of his pedigree.

Lyon forward Sidney Govou will also be eager to put aside his own personal heartache of defeat in the Champions League semi-finals to help his side to glory.

In midfield, Bayern Munich’s creative tour de force Franck Ribery has been vocal in his desire to move to fresh pastures and the World Cup is the ultimate shopping window. Chelsea’s Florent Malouda has enjoyed a resurgence in form this season and he has the pace and direct style to frighten any opposition defence.

Arsenal’s Samir Nasri will also join Ribery and Malouda in providing the creative spark with Lyon’s highly-rated Jeremy Toulalan and the Diarras, Lassana and Alou shielding the defence.

Roma’s Phillipe Mexes and Manchester United’s Patrice Evra will both be hoping to go to South Africa having won championship medals in their respective domestic leagues. They look likely to be part of a mobile back-line that could also include Arsenal’s Bacary Sagna.

Their last line of defence, talented Lyon goalkeeper Hugo Lloris has already turned down offers from Tottenham and AC Milan in the past and the spotlight will again fall on the youngster.

BEATEN BY THE TOURNAMENT WINNERS?

France’s only game since their play-off victory was a 2-0 friendly defeat to much-fancied Spain in Paris. The comfortable nature of the win for the Spaniards has raised questions over the ability of France to defeat the world’s best should they reach the latter stages of the tournament. Thierry Henry was jeered by the home crowd, further highlighting the fractious relationship between the fans and their national side.

Before the World Cup kicks off, France will face Costa Rica and Tunisia in an attempt to acclimatise to the respective styles of Mexico and South Africa. Their final warm-up game will be against a Chinese side who also didn’t qualify for the finals.

If France are to achieve similar success to their appearance in 2006 where they were beaten finalists, the team will have to gel and perform well in the group stage to win over their detractors. If they fail to make an impression, they run the risk of repeating their feat at the 2002 World Cup where they finished bottom of their group with only a single point With divisive manager Domenech at the helm, maintaining team spirit within the playing squad will be of vital importance.

PERENNIAL QUALIFIERS MEXICO HOPE TO PROGRESS

The early portion of Mexico’s qualifying campaign was notable for a 7-0 thrashing of CONCACAF minnows Belize. This routine victory was a high point as under the guidance of Sven Goran-Eriksson, they began to falter.

Defeats to Jamaica and arch-rivals the United States, coupled with two defeats to Honduras were the final straw for Mexican Football Federation president Justino Compean.

“We could not take risks with qualification for the World Cup, and we could not rely solely on results at the Estadio Azteca (their home stadium),” he said.

Respected coach Javier Aguirre took the reins for the second time having guided Mexico to the Copa America final in 2001 and to the last 16 of the World Cup in 2002. Results drastically improved, with a five game
winning streak, taking revenge on the United States in the process and securing their passage to South Africa.

Indeed, Mexico, two times hosts themselves, have reached the last 16 in every tournament since USA ’94.

EXPERIENCED SQUAD SHOULD SEE OFF CHALLENGERS

The experience within the Mexican squad should see them negotiate the group stage to reach the last 16 for the fifth consecutive time. Striker Cuauhtemoc Blanco and midfielder Gerardo Torrado have both been capped more than 100 times. They also boast the imperious Barcelona defender Rafael Marquez as one of their talents to be reckoned with.

Their training camp has already begun with a 17-man preliminary squad already named from the domestic contingent with European players such as PSV Eindhoven defender Carlos Salcido set to join up imminently. Mexico have lined up a series of hand-picked  friendlies to be played in the USA against Ecuador, Senegal and Angola. They will then travel to Europe for their final warm-up games, including a trip to Wembley to play England on May 24.

Mexico have the joint honour of kicking off the tournament on June 11 when they face hosts South Africa in what is guaranteed to be a fervent atmosphere. There will be no charity shown for the Bafana-Bafana though
as El Tricolor will look to make a positive start.

They then face a difficult test against an erratic France side and they will want to be in a healthy position to qualify from the group by the time they meet Uruguay, who could prove to be rivals for second place.

URUGUAY WILL HOPE TO RELIVE PAST GLORIES AND SNEAK INTO LAST 16

Uruguay, the first hosts and winners of the World Cup, will look to relive past glories and achieve the respectability afforded to their winning sides of 1930 and 1950. Their recent record has been poor, having failed to advance to the second round since 1990.

They were the last team to qualify for the finals, having beaten off the challenge of Costa Rica to win a two-legged play-off 2-1 on aggregate. Like Mexico, they’ll be led by a returning manager, Oscar Washington Tabarez. He has managed the likes of AC Milan and Boca Juniors and was in charge the last time Uruguay made it to the last 16 at Italia ’90.

The veteran coach has already begun plotting his side’s path to the latter stages, highlighting the game against hosts South Africa as crucial to his nation’s hopes. Uruguay will open their campaign against France before facing South Africa in Pretoria five days later.  Tabarez, in an interview published on Monday, told the daily Ultimas Noticias, “But the decisive match is the second. Even winning the first match, the second is the match of confirmation or the return. We have to focus our minds and prepare well to try and play well in that match.”

TABAREZ WILL HOPE TO FURTHER NUTURE YOUNG TALENT

The manager will name his preliminary 30-man squad early next week. The Uruguayans have a few stalwarts, namely the 33 year-old scoring sensation Sebastien Abreu, however as a squad they are a work in progress that are beginning to knit together.

The youthful pair of Nicolas Lodeiro and Luis Suarez, both currently at Dutch giants Ajax, will be looking to impress on the world stage. Midfielder Lodeiro was instrumental in former team Nacional’s surge to the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores, the South American equivalent of the Champions League, in the 2008/2009 season.

Lodeiro is feted for his excellent close control and dribbling ability besides his eye for goal. Suarez, meanwhile, is already an influential figure for club and country, having been handed the Ajax captaincy by manager Martin Jol. He has an impressive strike-rate of 10 goals in 29 appearances for the national side and will look to form a lethal partnership with Atletico Madrid hitman Diego Forlan at the finals.

Suarez also scored in Uruguay’s latest game, a 3-1 friendly win against Switzerland and will hope to feature in their next contest against Israel on May 26.

Like manager Tabarez has already stated, much will depend on how Uruguay fare against South Africa. They could prove to be the dark horse of Group A if they can beat the Africans and topple Latin-American counterparts, Mexico. Anything earned against France would also be seen as a massive boost.

GROUP A WIDE OPEN AS FINALS APPROACH

Group A could see various permutations arising should results swing in favour of differing teams. France may appear to be favourites however they’re already under pressure and any negative start to the tournament will intensify the heat on their unpopular manager and players.

Some commentators, including CNN correspondent James Montague have suggested that “It is an unwritten rule of all World Cups: if the host nation fails on the pitch, interest in the competition dies off the pitch.”

The likelihood is that, no matter what the performances of their national side are like, soccer mad South Africans will lap up every minute of playing time this summer. Should their side manage to pull off any shocks, then even better. It will take a mammoth effort for them to qualify however a positive opening result against Mexico could see the momentum build and carry them through.

Mexico and Uruguay may see themselves as the natural contenders for the second spot in the group and much may depend on how well they do against South Africa. Both have the potential to take a point or more from an unpredictable French side however it could well come down to the final group game on June 22, when the pair will meet in Rustenburg.

Football World Cup Predictions

World Cup

The Football World Cup in South Africa is now only a couple of months away, the World Cup Fixtures have been pored over at length, and people are starting to ponder which team will lift the trophy.

After their Euro 2008 triumph, Spain have been installed as the tournament favourites, ahead of Brazil, England, Argentina and Italy.

Barcelona’s form in La Liga and the Champions League has suggested that this favourites’ tag is well-deserved, and with the likes of Fernando Torres, David Villa, Andres Iniesta and Carles Puyol in their ranks, they’ll be a tough team to beat. Add Cesc Fabregas to that list, and Vicente del Bosque has a formidable line-up to take on the world.

But Fabregas’ injury may have a significant impact on their campaign. Although he is expected to be fit, as England supporters, we know how much of a concern it is to select a player for the World Cup short of match practice and fitness over 90 minutes – Fabregas may struggle to hit top gear on the world’s biggest stage after missing Arsenal’s Premier league run-in.

Brazil are always one of the teams to beat at the World Cup, and will feature the usual array of big players with only one name, such as Lucio, Robinho and Kaka. They have a tough group and will need to overcome Portugal in order to emerge as group winners, but only a brave man would write them off.

Likewise Argentina, where the hopes of a nation will be pinned on Lionel Messi of Barcelona, and we haven’t even mentioned Italy, France, Germany, Portugal and Holland, who always challenge for the title. England’s prospects will no doubt be well-documented in the weeks to come, and they are real contenders if Wayne Rooney stays fit and Fabio Capello prevents the team from self-destructing. There will be many nervous fans around the UK watching the world cup from social venues such as holiday camps and bars. These places provide the best atmosphere to enjoy the World Cup and hopefully England's success.

It’s time to nail your colours to the mast and give us your prediction for the tournament winner. I’m tentatively going for Argentina, with Messi claiming the Golden Boot.

By James Hutchison

Who would be in your England World Cup squad?

England’s 3-1 defeat of Egypt last night will have given Fabio Capello plenty of food for thought as he tries to finalise his 23-man World Cup squad. Whilst it was not the most eloquent performance of the Italian’s tenure, particularly in the first half, some players probably did enough to book their place on the plane, whilst some failed to seize their opportunity to impress.

The performance also showed that Capello is not afraid to spring the odd surprise. Robert Green played the entire match when most expected Joe Hart to be tested. Leighton Baines played the full 90 minutes when many had thought Capello would also give Stephen Warnock a chance to press his claims. Theo Walcott and Jermain Defoe also got starting berths against the odds (althought neither fully capitalised on the opportunity).

Back in September following confirmation of England’s qualification, we delivered our verdict on who should be on the plane to South Africa. Six months, a few injuries and a well publicised affair later, things have changed a bit. Based on the evidence we saw last night, as well as recent league form, here is the squad we would pick (NOT necessarily the one we think he will pick):

Goalkeepers
Robert Green
Joe Hart
Paul Robinson

Defenders
Rio Ferdinand (captain)
John Terry
Matthew Upson
Wes Brown
Glen Johnson
Ashley Cole
Leighton Baines

Midfielders
Frank Lampard
Steven Gerrard
Gareth Barry
Aaron Lennon
Shaun Wright-Phillips
James Milner
Michael Carrick
Stewart Downing

Forwards
Wayne Rooney
Peter Crouch
Jermain Defoe
Emile Heskey
Carlton Cole

Some of these predictions are probably no more than wishful thinking. For example, David James is likely to get the nod ahead of Paul Robinson, despite their current club form. Capello is also likely to go with eight defenders at the expense of an extra attacker, with Carlton Cole the man to make way.

There is also the assumption that Ashley Cole and Aaron Lennon will be fit in time to play. Furthermore, it would be a shock if David Beckham did not make the cut. Out of those midfielders we’ve picked, Stewart Downing would probably consider himself lucky to be chosen ahead of the former England captain, despite England’s need for width on the left.

The World Cup is now less than 100 days away and everybody has an opinion on who should make the England squad. Let us know your thoughts on who you would take and why.