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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Hippeaux's World Cup Primer

My baseball updates may be slightly less frequent in the coming month, in part because much of my attention will be turned to the World Cup.  I don't possess the same encyclopedic knowledge of soccer that I do of baseball, but during the long winter months, my sporting spectatorship is dominated by watching La Liga, the EPL, and Champions League.  So, based on what I do know, here are my power rankings and some general observations about this historic tournament.
  1. Spain: The Spanish squad, winners of the Euro Cup in 2008, looks a great deal like an All-Star team, almost entirely composed of starters from the top clubs in Europe.  In a tune-up with Poland recently, they showed that despite the fact that they haven't been playing together consistently for the past six months, these players are capable of incredibly creative and unselfish play.  There is no apparent weakness on the Spanish squad, as they feature incredibly tough, physical defenders (Puyol, Sergio Ramos); tireless, ball-controlling midfielders (Iniesta, Xavi, Cesc Fabregas); and two premiers strikers, Fernando Torres (18 goals for Liverpool in '09-'10) and David Villa (21 goals for Valencia).
  2. Brazil:  The fact that Brazil's manager, Dunga, left the legendary Ronaldinho off the 2010 roster, despite a solid campaign for AC Milan, give you a sense of the depth and quality of the Brazil side.  Similarly, there is a good chance that Barca defender, Dani Alves, considered by many to be one of the best defenders in the world, may be played out of position or used as a substitute, because Brazil is also home to Maicon, likewise considered.  Because of his controversial selections and lineups, and Brazil's uncharacteristically early exit in 2006, this tournament puts a great deal of pressure on Dunga.  Although they are natural favorites, Brazil's draw was not an easy one.  The "group of death" features Portugal and Ivory Coast.  
  3. Argentina:  They have many doubters, due mainly to the eccentricity of their manager, Diego Maradona, but they also have the world's best player, Lionel Messi, and the deepest selection of proven scorers of any team in the World Cup.  Messi (Barcelona), Carlos Tevez (Manchester City), Gonzalo Hiquain (Real Madrid), and Diego Milito (Inter Milan) combined for 143 goals during this past club season.  They will find the back of the net frequently.  Maradona will be challenged to get all of them into the lineup and will face continued questions about whether his team can control the ball enough after he made some very surprising selections in the midfield and defense.
  4. Germany:  They don't have as much star-caliber as some of the other contenders, but they have the pedigree and their conservative, physical style is well-suited to international competition.  The major question is where they will get their goals from.  Miroslav Klose is no longer the dominant force he was in '06, and Bastian Schweinsteiger, the hero of Euro 2008, had a disappointed club season.  Captain Michael Ballack was left off the final roster due to injuries.  The team's championship hopes rely heavily on the shoulders of talented, but inconsistent striker, Lukas Podolski.
  5. Netherlands:  The Dutch team is as exciting as any in the tournament, featuring a dynamic offensive system which helped them crush stiff competition like France and Italy in the early rounds of the Euro Cup in 2008.  Then they dominated the qualifying campaign and absolutely massacred the friendlies.  This is not a team to be taken lightly.
  6. England:  The British will have to overcome adversity, as an ugly story of jealousy and betrayal dominated the headlines for much of the lead-up to the tournament.  They've still got Wayne Rooney, arguably the second-best player in the tournament, and plenty of other talent, but they also have the weight of a curse.  They've made it past the quarterfinals only once since winning the World Cup in 1966.
  7. Italy:  The '06 champs have not really been the same since then, having perhaps aged themselves out of top tier of teams.  However, this ruthlessly and brutally competitive side, has a soft draw and something to prove, which could make them dangerous in the knockout round, not necessarily as somebody who could advance to the finals, but as somebody who could upset one of the favorites.
  8. Ivory Coast:  The most popular darkhorse through much of the build-up to the tournament was dealt a major blow when the face of African soccer, Didier Drogba, broke his arm in a friendly.  He is still participating, but we won't know until his first match how effective he can be.  If the EPL's leading scorer is up to the challenge, this is a very interesting squad, as they've got speed, athleticism, and several experienced top-flight players.
  9. Portugal:  They will play without Nani, the Manchester United winger who provided an experienced compliment to Cristiano Ronaldo, and Pepe's fitness, following a serious knee injury that cost him much of the club season, is still in doubt.  Portugal's misfortune also includes a seat in the "group of death," where they will have to pass either Ivorty Coast or Brazil to even play in the knockout stage.  However, they have one of the world's most talented strikers and a number of excellent defenders, so no single match is beyond their grasp.  That said, much like Italy, this is probably a potential dragon-slayer, but not a true contender.
  10. Nigeria: Sometimes success in this tournament is all about the draw.  Generally, squads from the host continent do well, and Nigeria is one of those with "home"-field advantage.  Also, possessing lots of quality players, but no true star, they haven't gotten the same attention as Cameroon, Ivory Coast, and Ghana, and thus perhaps have less pressure and more Cinderella charm.  Most importantly, however, they have a relatively soft draw.  If the tournament were to play out according to the Vegas chalk, Nigeria would finish second to Argentina in Group B and their path to the semi-finals would likely be through Serbia, Mexico, and the USA.  None of these teams are patsies, certainly, but none of them are powerhouses either.   
The draw is, in fact, one of the most interesting parts of World Cup prediction.  Let's imagine that the "group of death" turns out some interesting results.  Perhaps Brazil gets upset by either Ivory Coast or Portugal, or manages only to tie with both of them.  If that were to happen (well within the realm of possibility), they might finish second in the group, which would result (probably) in a second round match-up with co-favorite Spain.  

In fact, there is a fairly strong chance that all of the dominant European and South American teams could end up on one side of the bracket.  The only upsets necessary for this outcome are to Brazil and England.  Assuming those two teams finished second in their groups, one side of the bracket would feature Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Netherlands, England, Italy, and France (or, perhaps, Urugauy), while the other side would feature the likes of Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Cameroon, Mexico, Serbia, Chile, and USA, assuring that a darkhorse (quite possibly one from the host continent) would make it to the finals.  

From my perspective, this possibility makes the USA v. England game on Saturday all the more interesting.  Were the United States to win, it helps to set up this contingency.  

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