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.
MARADONAâ€™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.
Diegoâ€™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 yearâ€™s Finals.
AN ABUNDANCE OF ATTACKING OPTIONS BUT A CASE TO BE MADE FOR THE DEFENCE
With the talent of Barcelonaâ€™s World Player of the Year Lionel Messi, Argentinaâ€™s group games will be keenly followed by a fervent global audience.Â Heâ€™ll be ably assisted up front by two hit-men playing in Madrid, Atleticoâ€™s Sergio Aguero and Realâ€™s top scorer this season, Gonzalo Higuain. Plus, Manchester Cityâ€™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 Milanâ€™s Esteban Cambiasso, Cambiasso has been usurped by Real Madridâ€™s young prodigy, Fernando Gago at international level however the latterâ€™s lack of first team football combined with the Inter favouriteâ€™s resurgence could see that change.
One famous face who has returned to his homeland, namely Estudiantesâ€™ Juan Sebastian Veron, of Manchester United and Lazio fame, may also feature. Maradona, known for his tactical tinkering, also thinks highly of Liverpoolâ€™s Javier Mascherano, once describing the side as being â€˜Mascherano and ten moreâ€™.
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 Munichâ€™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 hasnâ€™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 wonâ€™t be appearing in Maradonaâ€™s World Cup squad is midfielder, Juan Roman Riquelme. The talented Boca playmaker was upset with Maradonaâ€™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.â€
â€œWe 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 thingâ€ 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 sideâ€™s chances of winning the tournament. In another barb aimed at his journalistic detractors, he said, ‘â€Maybe the press in Argentina won’t like it, but we are going to play a very good World Cup in South Africa.’â€
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 theyâ€™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 theyâ€™re certainly effective.
PLAY-OFF VICTORY DELIVERS GREECE TO THE FINALS FOR ONLY THE SECOND TIME
Greeceâ€™s 1-0 aggregate play-off victory against Ukraine means theyâ€™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 teamâ€™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 Berlinâ€™s on-loan frontman, Theofanis Gekas.
Another German based player, Nurnbergâ€™s Angelos Charisteas will spear-head the Greek attack besides qualifying hero Salpigidis. Celticâ€™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 heâ€™ll be looking to provide the creative spark to make his side tick. Omoniaâ€™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 Koreaâ€™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 Wolfsburgâ€™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 wouldnâ€™t be a great surprise should they make it out of the group.
Unfortunately for them though, their preparations havenâ€™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 Nigeriaâ€™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, Chelseaâ€™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 heâ€™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 heâ€™s on form, Nigeria could be dangerous opponents.
Other familiar names to fans of English football will be Portsmouthâ€™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 NIGERIAâ€™S WORLD CUP PEDIGREE
Itâ€™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, â€œUndoubtedly, we are nowhere in the World Cup. Look at our preparations; it is rather too unserious to compare with some of the participating teamsÂ that haveÂ been preparing for the past two years. Even the time they (NFA) brought Lagerback was too short for any coachÂ to do anything.â€
Speaking to Sierra Express Media, he also didnâ€™t hold back on his criticism of Kanuâ€™s inclusion in the squad. â€œThe 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,â€ 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.
ASIAâ€™S MOST FREQUENT REPRESENTATIVES LOOK TO 2002 FOR INSPIRATION
This will be South Koreaâ€™s eighth World Cup campaign and The Red Devils could prove to be the dark horses of Group B. Led by Manchester Unitedâ€™s Ji-Sung Park, theyâ€™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 theyâ€™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. Weâ€™ll be pursuing that train of thought more in-depth later however it does appear to be South Koreaâ€™s modus operandi.
South Korea had fallen victim to Chinaâ€™s counter-attacking expertise, losing 3-0 in this yearâ€™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.
â€˜TOGETHERNESSâ€™ THE KEY FACTOR, ACCORDING TO JUNG MOO
Manchester Unitedâ€™s Ji-Sung Park and Monacoâ€™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,
â€œTrust 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 staffâ€™s top priority is to ensure players build their teamwork.â€
South Koreaâ€™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.