Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Wait Begins

Now comes the hard part -- for us fans anyway -- waiting until June for the kickoff of festivities. There's going to be plenty of time to sit around and pour over the matchups, as well as watching club teams to see who's in form and who's not, who's healthy and who's not, who's in or out of your favorite team's squad.

In a World Cup year everything becomes focused on that singular goal, in the US in particular. It's basically going to be a six month build up to the Cup. Even though I have my favorites in the Euro League, a lot of my time is spent following how the US players are faring, and with MLS being in hiatus and only really getting in about two months when the National Team will be getting together for their pre-World Cup preparations, the mind inevitably will have an eye pointed toward South Africa.

I'll get caught up in the Derby D'Italia for 90 minutes today, but really for all the Juve or Man U or Barcelona games I watch the meaning of the results, though still important, will somehow be secondary to the play itself. Especially for the Man U games (and even more so late in the season) I'll be pondering, does Rio look fit, can Jozy exploit him? Or, is Rooney firing on all cylinders, enough so to allow Man U to keep up the title challenge and to make England genuine threats?

Starting with the group I care about most, my quick thoughts on the draw:

GROUP C: England, USA, Algeria, Slovenia.

My brother was wary after the US was drawn with England because he feels the US just always plays poorly against England. That may have been the case before, but even in those cases England never ran rampant, and I can't remember the US ever having a true full-strength squad.

Still, the draw of Slovenia and Algeria that have the English and US fans very excited about their prospects of progressing into the knockout stages. I genuinely think the US can get a result against Fabio Capello's men, and I think most US fans would tell you the same. And while I think this World Cup is the most even that I can remember (there's not many push overs, maybe New Zealand, so there shouldn't be a healthy serving of Saudi Arabias to get thrashed 7-0 by everyone), the US should still be able to beat Algeria and Slovenia. I almost have to calm down I'm getting so excited thinking about being in a group that doesn't contain three serious threats. Let's just say I feel pretty good about it. Prettaaaay, prettaaaay good.

GROUP A: South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay, France.

I was about to get slightly (I'm being nice) angry about the fact that Mexico somehow always gets an easy or manageable draw. What the hell? I suppose I shouldn't care, especially since they're just bound for more disappointment and loss in the second round. But this group is no cakewalk. Any four can advance, though I might give Uruguay the lowest chances. South Africa may be the lowest of the teams, and I don't see them advancing despite a better than expected on field showing, but never count out the home field advantage. That and having France makes this a tough group to call. I still like France here even if I wouldn't bet on them.

GROUP B: Argentina, South Korea, Nigeria, Greece.

This will be a tough but very manageable group for Argentina. South Korea isn't the threat they were at home in 2002, and though Nigeria is always a tough out, they are no longer a leading light among the African nations. Greece play the most disgusting brand of football but aren't likely to get blown out, and their stifling tactics could very well frustrate and threaten a bumbling Maradona-coached side.

GROUP D: Germany, Australia, Ghana, Serbia.

Yikes. Having any four progress wouldn't be surprising, though the Socceroos are the weakest of the bunch and without Guus Hiddink's magic we'll see what they can do. Based on odds, my friend thinks Ghana is a good underdog bet to advance and actually win the Cup. I have to disagree, respectfully of course. Ghana is dangerous in the midfield, but they lack a dangerous striking option and I think they are weaker than previous years. Germany and Serbia will still like their chances.

GROUP E: Netherlands, Japan, Cameroon, Denmark.

Those beautiful, flying Oranje ought to make nice work of this group. Title-wise, I'm not sold because they still have some big chinks in their armor, but the Dutch should be fun to watch (and hey, all those orange jerseys, a beautiful sight in the crowd). I don't know much about Cameroon's current make up other than it'll be nice to see Eto'o at a World Cup. They traditionally are one of the better African teams at World Cups, and usually a little more organized than a team like Nigeria that was always seen as disorganized but highly talented. Denmark was very strong in qualifying and I would guess that their match against Cameroon decides second place in this group.

GROUP F: Italy, New Zealand, Paraguay, Slovakia.

Italy has to be very happy, because they lucked out on a draw that potentially could give them a nice passage to the quarterfinals (if they win this group they'd play the second place team from group E). However, they've been indifferent recently, and could slip up to Paraguay or Slovakia. I wasn't impressed by Slovakia even though they beat the US. The US lacked Donovan and Slovakia didn't show much attacking creativity or threat really. So I'll give Paraguay the nod as the other team that will advance here. Sorry Kiwis, I love Ryan Nelsen for winning a MLS Cup for DC United, but you aren't going far. Enjoy yourselves.

GROUP G: Brazil, North Korea, Ivory Coast, Portugal.

Oh boy. Who's excited about seeing this group play out? First, Alexi Lalas actually made me laugh pretty heartily during the draw when everyone was sort of talking at once and he offhanded said, "North Korea, welcome to the World Cup." Not funny reading it now, but how and when he said it was pretty classic. And seriously, if they were a normal country that existed in color rather than in black and white, they'd look at this draw and ask, what the hell did we do to deserve this?

So, basically one pre-tournament favorite is going to be out before the knockout stages. I would love to see Côte d'Ivoire make a good run and get the entire African continent behind them. They have the talent and are being talked about as Africa's first true title challengers. But then they get hit with the Portuguese-speaking one-two haymakers. Can Portugal play up to its talent levels? Will Ronaldo remind people that two years ago he was so much better than everyone else on the planet that you wouldn't dare bet against him? Can the unthinkable happen and can Brazil be truly upset and knocked out in the group stages? I don't know, but I'm going to love finding out.

GROUP H: Spain, Honduras, Chile, Switzerland.

Spain either got a sneaky difficult group or a one that will be disappointingly easy. Honduras is actually somewhat dangerous, more so than Mexico of the two CONCACAF teams, but they could easily disappoint by just being happy to be there. The danger is teams taking them too lightly. If that happens they will spring an upset against the Swiss or Chile. Chile is a strong team that likes to attack, and I've bought into HalaMadrid's advocation of them as being a top footballing nation. They have every bit the chance the US does of advancing out of their group. But then there's the Swiss. They don't excite anyone, but they have a good defensive record and some decent talent in the middle, even if their best known striker is 30 year old Alexandre Frei. They're just one of those teams that can get results even if afterwards you think to yourself, how did they just win, they aren't that good. Any three can finish second to Spain.

So, get those earplugs (unless you like the sound of vuvuzelas) and get ready, the World Cup is almost here. Will it be a classic, or one to forget? I think it may end up being a very good World Cup. Until then, it's 6 months of watching and waiting and praying. (Lord, please please please let Landon Donovan and Tim Howard stay healthy. Thank you.)

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