Sunday, June 06, 2010

World Cup Preview: Group A

Politics are important. I'll get back to politics. First, a series offering my two cents on the World Cup. Starting with Group A:

South Africa (Hosts): The tournament hosts are, by some accounts, the worst side ever to host a world cup. Then again, the same was probably said about either South Korea or Japan eight years ago and both sides had long deep runs into the tournament. South Africa are led by Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar. Pienaar and the few other non-South African based players will have to be excellent if this team is going to avoid embarrassing itself on home soil. Home turf is important in football, but one has to wonder if South Africa has the wherewithal to overcome the obstacles ahead of them.

Player to Watch: Stephen Pienaar (MF)

Prediction: 4th in Group A

France (2nd in Group 7; Defeated Ireland on aggregate 2-1 in playoff): One of the most controversial qualifiers, the French qualified on the strength of a Thierry Henry handball assist to eke out the Irish for a spot in South Africa. They were forced into the playoff after Raymond Dominic's side limped their way through group 7 posting a shocking opening day loss in Austria, draws at Serbia and Romania and again at home to the Romanians. Serbia beat out the French by a point to win the group. French football is rebuilding but the current squad looks awfully familiar. The 2006 finalists bring six out-field players over the age of 30 to the tournament. Age may be less of a factor in a short tournament like the world cup and there is no doubt that this team is loaded with talent. The question is whether or not the stars will align and France will make a run at this year's competition.

Player to Watch: Franck Ribery (MF)

Prediction: First in Group A, Out in the quarter-finals.

Mexico (Second in CONCACAF): Mexico's qualifying campaign started abysmally. The first group stage saw the Mexicans advance on a tiebreaker after poor results including a draw in Edmonton against a dysfunctional Canadian side. The Hex didn't start much better but after Sven Göran Eriksson was replaced by Javier Aguire, El Tri rounded into form and qualified comfortably in the second automatic spot. Of concern is Mexico's road record. El Tri were 5-0-0 at home but managed just a win and a draw away from the friendly confines of the Azteca. While South Africa's stadiums may be as loud as the Azteca courtesy of the vuvuzelas, odds are the fans won't all be cheering for Mexico. CONCACAF needs the US and Mexico to do well to gain respectability. I don't see it for Mexico.

Player to Watch: Cuauthemoc Blanco (MF/ST)

Prediction: Third in Group A

Uruguay (5th in South America; defeated Costa Rica 2-1 in a playoff): Uruguay famously won the first World Cup but those glories are long gone. The current squad boasts a lot of talent including dynamic Atletica Madrid forward Diego Forlan and are certainly not anybody's first choice of opponents. However, the Uruguayans struggled to even make the playoff with Costa Rica and managed only a 2-1 win over Costa Rica in spite being heavy favourites in the match. Like Mexico, Uruguay struggled away from home in the difficult South American qualifying tournament posting just two wins in 9 matches outside of Montevideo. A weak group will help Uruguay, but after that they're toast.

Player to Watch: Diego Forlan (ST)

Prediction: Second in Group A, Out in round of 16.

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