With the numerous international friendlies in midweek, today’s blog will run the rule over Europe’s big-hitters who will be going to the World Cup.
I begin with my personal favourites for the competition, along with Brazil – Spain. Spain demolished France 2-0 in Paris, earning rave reviews from the French press and players alike, with the basic message being that Spain are truly on another level. I would not disagree with this assessment. They cruised through qualifying, have only lost to the USA in the Confederations Cup in something like the last 2/3 years and have a squad is probably the envy of the world. Think about this – Pepe Reina, Cesc Fabregas and Fernando Torres all might not start in the World Cup for Spain. That is some strength in depth right there. They genuinely seem to be a side without a player that they depend upon. The player to watch out for, if he is taken, is Jesus Navas of Sevilla. He does not travel well and I am sure Spain will look to work on that, but he is a terrific winger who offers Spain another system of playing. He absolutely terrorised the best/second best left-back in the world in Patrice Evra. I could drool over how great the midfield is, but I won’t – just go back and review Euro 2008 to see what I am talking about. The only thing that could stop them is a horrible list of injuries or perhaps meeting Brazil in the last 16 – Dunga’s pragmatic approach is a marked change from previous Brazilian coaches and I feel his side might possess the tools to topple Spain.
Spain’s latest victims, France, are, in many people’s eyes, lucky to be going to South Africa. Irish fans might actually enjoy seeing France in the World Cup though, as Raymond Domenech’s side has the makings of an early elimination in the mould of 2002. Zidane has retired, Henry has aged and Ribery is now the star man. However, the squad has a lot of issues. Villa and Torres, who has just come back from an injury lay-off, had one half each on the pitch and tormented the French centre-backs with movement and pace. It is in defence that France are really weak. William Gallas and Sebastien Squillaci might have been missing in the friendly match, but neither is likely to solve all the problems in front of Hugo Lloris. France have some terrific individual players, but trying to fit Anelka, Ribery, Henry, Gourcuff and Benzema is beyond Domenech. It speaks volumes really that I genuinely consider France as more clueless than Maradona’s Argentina.
Indeed, it was Argentina who handed Germany a 1-0 home defeat thanks to a Gonzalo Higuain effort. Germany lined up 4-2-3-1; a decision that was criticised post-match by captain Michael Ballack as ‘boring’. Sounds like more problems for coach Joachim Low, who is embroiled in a bizarre contract dispute with the German FA. Along with his ‘assistant’ Oliver Bierhoff, Low looks to be leaving the national side after the World Cup, with his contract ending during the competition. Low has assured people he will stay on throughout the tournament, but this has come about because the managerial duo want to practically take the German national side outside the jurisdiction of the German FA and want Bierhoff to be able to choose any replacement for Low should the situation arise. Further problems – Lukas Podolski, who has been pretty off-form for his club side Cologne, did not play very well in the friendly and was reported as offering to fight a journalist who pointed this out to him after the game. There are some good things going for Germany – despite a poor performance in the friendly, Rene Adler is a good, young goalkeeper; Phillip Lahm is recognised as one of the best full-backs around; Bastian Schweinsteiger has been in very good form for Bayern Munich, as has his club teammate and new German international Thomas Muller; Mario Gomez should be a very good front-man and will be ably supported by an exciting playmaker in Mesut Ozil, who could really shine in the summer. However, this result and performance might dampen the belief of the Germans, who have a tough group, drawn alongside Serbia, Ghana and Australia.
Another European giant that is suffering from inconsistent results has to be Italy, the current World Cup holders. A 0-0 draw at home to Cameroon did little to inspire confidence. Much is being made of the players not currently in the international squad, either due to retirement (Francesco Totti and Alessandro Nesta) or due to the manager, Marcello Lippi, overlooking them (chiefly Antonio Cassano and Amauri). With lots of regulars missing for the friendly, Lippi was able to look at other players. Leonardo Bonucci played extremely well in defence and Cagliari’s playmaker Andrea Cossu put in an admirable shift in midfield. Does Lippi know his 23? Probably. Does he know his starting 11? This is more doubtful. Do I know either – definitely not. I know who I would pick if I was the manager. Lippi has this insistence that Gennaro Gattuso will be picked in the Italian squad, despite the tenacious midfielder barely playing for Milan. Why? His influence and personality in the dressing room – a bit odd considering there is a lot of competition all over the pitch for a place in the squad. If I was to pick one player who will do a good job in the World Cup for Italy, I would put my money on Juventus’ rock solid centre-back Giorgio Chiellini. He is dependable and good at just about everything at the back. He has been linked with the elite clubs in Europe and rightly so.
Holland never really got going against the USA in their 2-1 win. A really big positive came out of this game for coach Bert van Marwijk – he can probably name his strongest defence. Exciting right-back Gregory van der Wiel, veteran Gio van Bronckhorst and solid centre-back Joris Mathijsen all were probably down already, but Everton’s John Heitinga looks to be the man to complete the back four. He was very assured against Jozy Altidore and Robbie Findley and his form for his club has been magnificent, shackling many of the league’s finest with consummate ease. Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel add real bite in the holding midfield positions – perhaps a bit too much at times, with de Jong guilty of breaking the leg of Bolton’s Stuart Holden in the friendly. Dirk Kuyt might have started the game upfront in the 4-2-3-1 formation, but do not bet on that happening in the summer. Kuyt, despite scoring, showed he cannot be the man the Dutch rely on to play in this role, as his ball retention and positioning would make you believe that he has never played there in his life. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar looked a lot better when he came on and led the line, grabbing a goal in the process. With a trio of wingers Arjen Robben and Eljero Elia and playmaker Wesley Sneijder behind Huntelaar, Holland really could pose a massive threat to every team in the competition.
How can a side with Cristiano Ronaldo lack creativity? Well, Portugal managed it in their forgettable 2-0 win over China. Carlos Queiroz, in my eyes, has missed a beat with Portugal. They have some very capable players but struggled to qualify and will have to rely on the former World Player of the Year to get them out of their tough group. They will, however, be buoyed by the disarray that Ivory Coast find themselves in, typified by the 5-2 trouncing by South Korea. Portugal, however, still have not really got a great striker to lead the line. Werder Bremen’s Hugo Almeida is a decent striker, as is Liedson of Sporting Lisbon, but neither really screams international quality to me. Aside from Ronaldo, two players to keep your eyes on are highly-rated Porto centre-back Bruno Alves and midfield schemer Joao Moutinho. Alves will start in the World Cup alongside Ricardo Carvalho, barring a miracle recovery by Pepe. I would argue that Alves should start with Pepe if the Real Madrid defender is fit. Moutinho’s position is a bit more difficult, as Queiroz might prefer to use Deco or Ronaldo behind the striker. Moutinho could play in the holding midfield two of the 4-2-3-1, but competition is fierce, with Raul Meireles, Tiago and Miguel Veloso all vying for a starting berth. I have never been that impressed with Portugal, but they have the technical quality to trouble teams and they have a superstar in Ronaldo who can win games single-handedly. Reaching the final four like they did last time should not be out the question – it is one of those that does not look possible on paper, but just like last time, it could easily happen again. The only problem – if they finish second behind Brazil, they will probably meet Spain, who, in my opinion, will dispose of the Portuguese.
I end with England, whose 3-1 scoreline against Egypt in midweek somewhat papers over the cracks which were apparent in the first half, where the African Cup of Nations champions moved their hosts around at will with some slick passing and clever movement and taking a deserved lead through Mohamed Zidan after an unfortunate slip by Matthew Upson. England rallied in the second half, with Peter Crouch two goals sandwiching Shaun Wright-Phillips’ effort. Capello’s men looked a different team in the second half, largely because of the substitutions made by the Italian manager. Most notably, the removal of the very disappointing Theo Walcott and the off-colour Frank Lampard certainly helped. Lampard’s replacement, Michael Carrick, earned widespread praise for his performance. Carrick has been the regular playmaker (I know Scholes plays too) for a Manchester United side that has won three consecutive league titles and the Champions League in recent years. He must be doing something right. Having seen plenty of him, I know that he can have a few games where he is off form, which leads to the whole team suffering. However, as of late, his performances have been brilliant and the friendly was another demonstration of how to play the very continental role of ‘deep-lying midfield playmaker’ in the ilk of Spain’s Xavi or Italy’s Andrea Pirlo. What Carrick might lack in comparison to these two guys in attacking quality, he makes up in the ability to read the game very well and make well-timed interceptions. Carrick did well at the last World Cup when called upon and I think he is not far off the England starting 11. I will not, however, begin criticising Frank Lampard, who is a terrific player. Personally, I just find it hard to see how he will ever play to his best in the current England set up.
Crouch also showed some good touches and confident all around play. I will not jump on the bandwagon for Crouch to start, however, as he could only start if England were to play the ball to feet a bit more. This might be an odd comment, considering the Spurs striker stands head and shoulders above most, but he is not actually that strong when compared to many top quality centre backs and is a lot better with the ball to his feet as he tends to give away a lot of fouls when challenging for the ball in the air. In Capello’s insistence that Rooney will not play alone upfront like he does for United, Heskey will probably start, barring injury. Heskey does not have a record of 20 goals in 37 appearances (7 in 57), but the statistics do not lie – England win a high percentage of games when the Villa striker starts. It is his build-up play, his physical presence and his capability to bring others into the game.
Personally, I do not see England winning the World Cup – there are better sides on paper. However, if England can harness the full potential out of Wayne Rooney then they can beat anyone.
My World Cup squad, assuming full fitness for all.
GK: Green, James, Hart
DF: Ferdinand, Terry, Ashley Cole, Glen Johnson, Upson, Baines, Jagielka
MF: Gerrard, Barry, Carrick, Milner, Lennon, Lampard, Beckham, Huddlestone, Ashley Young
FW: Rooney, Defoe, Crouch, Heskey, Agbonlahor
With these guys on the fringes:
DF: Dawson, Lescott, Shawcross, Brown, Phil Neville, Warnock
MF: Downing, Joe Cole, Adam Johnson, N’Zogbia (British national, has not played for France)
FW: Bent, Carlton Cole, Zamora.