Christmas came early this December for the Yanks, who avoided the “Group of Death” (another group like 2006 and 2002 would have at least arguably represented a third straight ticket to the Finals’ toughest group) and drew England, Algeria and the Cup’s smallest competing nation, Slovenia. Without question, it is a challenging group—but for perhaps the first time since Paul Caliguiri found the back of the net against Trinidad and Tobago in 1989’s “Shot Heard Round the World”, vaulting a group of college kids into the World Cup and U.S. soccer back into the most glorious of international competitions for the first time in two generations; the Americans find themselves favored to survive the group stage. Can they manage a group victory? Certainly this isn’t out of the question but their first opponent, the Three Lions of England, are rightly prohibitive favorites, though they may regret saying they know they are so loudly when the groups were introduced in December.
The remainder of the group features African side Algeria, who defeated bitter rivals Egypt to qualify. The Desert Foxes (Les Fennecs) if you will boast a host of talented players, but are wildly inconsistent and error-prone. They’ll need to be better than they were in a 4-0 defeat to Egypt in the Africa Cup of Nations semifinals to weather the storm in this group, but may relish the role of home soil underdogs. Finally, the smallest nation in the World Cup, tiny Slovenia plays a defensive, hard-nosed style of football and does so with a big heart, exemplified by their defeat of Russia in the qualifying playoff. In many ways, while the U.S.-England game gets all the hype, the commentators that have said the second match between Slovenia and the United States will be the critical fixture in the Group. Previewing the sides:
As I mentioned above, the Desert Foxes, who enter the tournament ranked thirtieth in the world, are wildly inconsistent. They defeated Ivory Coast in the Africa Cup elimination stages only to be routed by Egypt, a team they beat to qualify. They play sound defense, conceding only four times in qualifying. Led by Portsmouth man Nadir Belhadj, manager Rabah Saadane has shown a propensity to achieve width by pushing his side backs deep into the attacking third, where they remain and are particularly devastating on set pieces, partly due to their size but also due to pedigree, as Belhadj is joined on the back four by Rangers man Madjid Bougherra and 2009 Arab footballer of the Year, Bundesliga man Antar Yahia. Against more aggressive opposition, Saadane has shown flexibility tactically, opting to keep his back four in his own half and build possession through a very talented midfield capable of playing possession football and achieving width themselves. Width is key to the Algerian attack—they are far more effective playing wide and utilizing good service from talented captain Yazid Mansouri, who plies his trade at Lorient in France, as well as Wolfsburg winger Karim Ziani, a capable passer who offers pace. The Foxes are thin at striker, though AEK Athens man Rafik Djebbour enters the tournament on a roll after the Greek Playoffs and could offer much needed depth behind starter Abdelkader Ghezzal of Siena, who netted three times in qualifying. In a group with two sides that pride themselves on organization and team football, and another who overwhelms the Algerians in talent—they’ll need help up top and they’ll need to play with more discipline, as they have been card-prone throughout this cycle.
The Three Lions
As usual, the English as a people are firmly convinced they’re sending their greatest national team ever, or at least the second greatest behind the 1966 immortals, led by the great West Ham man Bobby Moore. The great Fabio Capello, he of Italian Serie A and La Liga championship pedigree, is the man charged with leading the pride of the St. George’s Cross-waving, Bass drinking faithful, who are, in the little spaces of their heart they don’t like to talk about, well aware this is the last chance for the final English Golden Generation players (after the Ferdinand injury, only Gerrard, Lampard, the Coles, John Terry, and Wayne Rooney remain, with only Rooney a 2014 certainty) to bring home the World Cup that initially seemed their destiny. Thus far, their track record includes yet another English exit on penalties and the abysmal failure of missing out on EURO 2008. (Contrary to popular belief, they did not play Spain in a second final at Wembley a week after the EURO ended. Just thought I’d clear that up.) So what does Don Fabio need to do to get this incredibly talented group of Englishmen back where their countrymen feel they rightly belong?
Well, it starts up top with all-world striker Wayne Rooney. He’s without question one of two magic men for the Three Lions, and although there are lingering questions about his fitness after a grueling EPL season, he and his manager claim he’s operating at full tilt and he’s always been a man for the big moment. He’ll have to play a great tournament for England to have a chance at the title. Capello has been noncommittal, both in press conferences and in friendlies, as to exactly which striker he will utilize to complement Rooney, but what is certain is that he won’t leave Rooney alone. Crouch has been less effective in the less-than-spectacular English build-up to the Finals, so my guess is Emile Heskey will return as the battering ram asked to hold up the ball and create space for the former Everton prodigy.
In the midfield, you could write a whole post. As such, for more specific tactical analysis of Capello’s options, be sure to check out Shin Guardian’s piece here, and Stars and Gripes piece here, which are outstanding and come with diagrams and classical data-driven American analysis that even a large baseball fan would envy. The brevity-driven version tells this story. In EURO qualifying and even before, the pairing of Lampard and Gerrard was less effective than one would think it to be, and as such I expect Captain Fantastic will be slotted out on the left of the English attack, given freedom to roam forward and perhaps even interchange with Rooney. Gerrard’s service is incomparable and although his defense is not what it once was, he’s still good for a crunching tackle at a critical moment. The English center is less convincing, regardless of what the names say on the back of the shirts. Lampard, who did finish the EPL year strong, is not the player he once was but is still magical from distance—which given his recent run of form in penalties is perhaps a historical suggestion that he keep the ball out of the box. The fitness of Gareth Barry is still in doubt but what is certain is he won’t take the pitch in Rustenburg, meaning Lampard will likely be joined by Michael Carrick, who I supposed is helpful at keeping possession but truthfully based on form and not nationality or repute is not as good a player as MB 90—meaning that contrary to popular sentiment, the Americans have distinct advantages at least two of eleven positions (WOO HOO!!). Capello’s final choice in the midfield would seem to be Aaron Lennon, especially against an American back four susceptible to pace—but if Capello needs to close a game off he can bring on James Milner or Joe Cole—two players who are extraordinarily helpful at maintaining tempo and locking down a game with the lead.
In the back, the Three Lions will sorely miss captain Rio Ferdinand, especially against the pacy Americans Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan. The looming question in Ferdinand’s absence is whether Capello takes a chance on Ledley King and his aching and aged knee, or if he plays the safe route and slots Jamie Carragher into the spot. I’d play Carragher, a cagey bulldog of a player who is just the type of guy who can get under the skin of a mentally fragile opposing player—a situation England may want to play upon given the Americans and Algerians propensity for rash challenges and temper-tantrums—and yes—I’m looking right at Red-Cardo Clark and MB 90. Ashley Cole is one half of a more than capable duo of side backs, although he was skinned by Landon Donovan when the two met earlier in the year, and certainly will need to avoid the foolish backpedalling that got him into trouble in that Chelsea defeat. Liverpool’s Glen Johnson joins him, and it will be a cold day in hell before an American fullback scores on a strike like this one Johnson scored on against Mexico two weeks ago.
All in all, this is a formidable English team, no question. They aren’t flawless, and there are lingering chemistry questions—after all—Gerrard is the third captain in three months. That said, outside of the opening fixture, I can’t see a scenario where they can be defeated by anyone in the group, and they should breeze through to the knock-out stages, where, empiricism tells us the team’s greatest weakness, whoever they put in goal—will be tested, along with the country’s nerve, in penalty kicks. In that case—let’s hope Frank Lampard gets his act together.
Matjaz Kek’s squad relies on tenacious defense and heart and is quite honestly the most predictable side in Group C. They conceded a remarkably slim four goals in group play, and in a tough group with the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland, found a way to finish second forcing a playoff resulting in the now well-known upset of Russia. Kek deploys his side in a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3, usually depending on the style of the opponent, and at times they play with as many as nine men behind the ball. Outside of injuries, Kek’s starting 11 has essentially been the same since qualifying began, and there are no superstars to speak of, though Udinese goalkeeper Samir Handanovic is perhaps the best goalkeeper you’ve never heard of and West Brom’s Robert Koren provides the midfield with a playmaker who is seasoned in the physical style he’ll see from all three group opponents. Inter Milan’s Rene Krhin doesn’t play much for Inter, and he doesn’t for Kek much either (4 caps), but he can provide a spark off the bench with creativity and pace. Forward Milivoje Novakovic is enormous at 6’3—and he proved he can change a game with a brilliant spot kick in the friendly lead-up to the tournament, scoring twice against New Zealand on darts from distance. He scored only six times in the Bundesliga campaign this past year at Cologne, but he has played better for country, including two strikes in an enormous qualifying win against Slovakia. Maybe he’s a perfect example of how Slovenia works—nothing brilliant to speak of—but an ability to raise their game to another level when the moment demands it. That’s a quality trait—one the Yanks like to think they have—and it is that similarity that demands the Americans be careful next week at Ellis Park in Johannesburg.
See website. But for fun—here’s who I think the Yanks start against England Saturday, right to left:
USA 1, England 1—Just about had decided on 2-1 England and then more or less decided that Ferdinand’s absence and the fact that Bob Bradley has gone to tactical school with Sir Alex Ferguson and David Moyes might actually matter. I also believe the Yanks’ leadership when they say they “know they will play well”, and I’m all too aware thanks to that wanker Guy Bailey that England are notoriously slow starters at the World Cup. Two other things: a) I know the sexy thing to do is say Slovenia-USA is the “match to watch” in this group, and I agreed above it is the most important. Thing is—THIS IS THE MATCH OF THE GROUP STAGES TO WATCH; b) From this moment forward—New England shall be referred to as “New and Significantly Better England.”
Slovenia 1, Algeria 1—thought I’d take a flyer on the Slovenians here but I actually think Algeria won’t leave without any points on African soil. This is also an interesting game for two reasons—first, because the American fans will want to watch to see what they are dealing with in the final two matches; second, because it is a classic contrast of styles.
USA 2, Slovenia 1—The Yanks may need a more offensive-minded midfield to break down the Slovenians, but I think Bradley’s qualifying campaign, his Confederations Cup, and his choice of players in friendly matches leading up to the tournament reflect he is willing to make, and often makes the correct, tactical adjustments. Look for Jose Torres to trouble the Slovenian defense in Johannesburg.
England 3, Algeria 0—this is where the Three Lions take their insurmountable goal differential lead, and about the time people, perhaps mistakenly, start to believe at home.
USA 3, Algeria 1—The Americans will be anxious to forget last summer’s failures in Pretoria, and I think they will. Remember, this is an Algerian side that gave Egypt fits in qualifying—and the Americans handled the more organized Egyptian defense. Tim Howard will rue losing his clean sheet, though.
England 1, Slovenia 0—England wins the group in a defensive and boring game. To be honest, this is the type of game that will make everyone recognize exactly why Fabio Capello is a cut above most everyone else in the business.
Advancing: England, USA
Neil W. Blackmon is a senior writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at email@example.com.