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Wednesday, June 07, 2006

6/7 World Cup of Coffee

NOTE: Sorry so late. Blogger had issues today...

Alright folks, we're two days away from kickoff, so it's time to break down Groups E and F (you can catch up on Group A and B here and Group C and D here). Today we assess the fortunes of the United States and ask if there is even a mathematical possibility that Brazil won't finish in the top two in their group. I spend a little extra time on the US, so this is a tad longer than previous entries...

Group E Order of Finish: 1. ITALY, 2. CZECH REPUBLIC, 3. UNITED STATES, 4. GHANA
Let's face it, this is the toughest group outside of Group C. I've gone back and forth on this group, but ultimately I see 3 possible scenarios. Scenario 1: The Portugal Possibility. The United States stuns the Czechs right off the bat with surprising tactical decisions, attacking instincts and team speed. Just like their upset of Portugal in 2002, the US scores 1 or 2 early goals and barely survives a desperate Czech onslaught. Italy gets a result against Ghana but only a draw against the Americans in the second match. The Czechs beat Ghana as well, but need a win against Italy to advance. A fiercely contested match ends in a draw while the US struggles to a draw against Ghana, just enough to get them through along with Italy.
Scenario 2: The Italy Flame-Out. The Italians are a team in turmoil due to a major corruption scandal in their domestic league--an event that will either bring the team together or distract them to failure. Ghana, who will not be an easy out, physically challenges sluggish Italy in the first group match and scores an impressive draw. The United States gets a stunning equalizer as well in the second game, setting up Italy's desperate finale with the Czech Republic. Italy pushes forward but the Czechs manage to score a draw as well. Meanwhile the United States gets a surprising result against the Czechs, who are taken aback by American quickness and attacking instincts. Both the US and Czechs get a result against Ghana and advance to the second round.
Scenario 3: European Business as Usual. The United States, despite being better than the team four years ago, just can't match the European powers on their turf. Finishing troubles doom them against 2 of the best keepers in the world, the Czech Republic's Peter Cech and Italy's Gianluigi Buffon. They go into the final match with Ghana needing a win to have a shot at second but disappointingly can only manage a draw. Meanwhile, Italy gets two wins and a draw behind their steady defense. The Czech Republic battle it out with Ghana and the US for second but manage to pull it off after drawing the Italians in the third match. Italy and the Czech Republic advance. I think this scenario is more likely.
Let me add a quick word on the other teams before assessing the US team. The Czech Republic are either an explosive, experienced side who nobody wants to play in the knockout rounds or a side whose better days are behind them and are ripe for the American picking. Keep an eye on 6'8 striker Jan Koller, midfielders Pavel Nedved and Tomas Rosicky as well as Cech. They score goals. Italy is loaded and it would be hard to pinpoint a key player. But the health of defender Alessandro Nesta and striker Francesco Totti are major concerns. This team knows how to defend. Ghana is in good form recently and will be led by Chelsea midfielder Michael Essien.

AMERICAN PROSPECTS:
What about the United States? The US could either emulate their 2002 quarterfinal run or end up licking their wounds like 1998 after a last place finish. There is no question that the squad is getting better and deeper every year. Bruce Arena is one of the best coaches in the world. Seriously, "the Bruce" is a genius and he will have his team prepared. Here are 4 keys, in my estimation, for the Americans to advance. 1) Landon Donovan needs to score goals. McBride will be solid but needs help from our marketing superstar. Donovan shows flashes of brilliance but we need more than great runs. We need Donovan to smash the ball in the back of the net. 2) DaMarcus Beasley needs to regain his form on the flank. My guess is that Bobby Convey and Beasley will patrol the flanks. Beasley is lightning fast and a surprisingly good defender. But he's been out of sorts recently. We need him to wreak havoc a la 2002. 3) Defender Oguchi Onyewu needs to be careful. Officiating is going to be tight and this excellent, physically powerful defender will have to watch the yellow or red cards when he challenges opponents who will tumble if he even breathes on them. 4) Luck. We'll be tactically ready and we've got talent, strength, speed and a very reliable keeper in Kasey Keller. But like all teams, we'll need a few breaks to go our way whether it's a sloppy turnover leading to an unexpected goal or a Czech shot thundering off the post when the goal was to be had.

Group F Order of Finish: 1. BRAZIL, 2. AUSTRALIA, 3. CROATIA, 4. JAPAN
Never has it been so easy to pick a group winner. Brazil's talent and depth are unparalleled, and it's not even close. Brazil has the consensus best player in the world in midfielder Ronaldinho, top strikers in Ronaldo and Adriano, and talented midfielders such as Kaka and Robinho (who amazingly may not even start). Their defense is aging but they will mesmerize with their ability to retain possession and score goals, all with style. Second place will be a battle between the Aussies and Croats, but I'm going to gamble with the Socceroos because of their manager, the masterful Guus Hiddink. He took the Koreans all the way to the semis during the last World Cup and is generally regarded as one of the world's finest. Australia has talented English league veterans such as keeper Mark Schwarzer, striker Mark Viduka, and midfielder Harry Kewell. I predict a fiercely contested game with Croatia, who will finish third despite being Australia's equal or better talent-wise. Attacking midfielder Niko Kranjcar is the coach's son, but this isn't mere nepotism at work. The 21 year-old can play and will be crucial to Croatia's hopes. The defense is led by the accomplished Juventus defender Robert Kovac while striker Dado Prso poses a threat up front. Japan is hard to figure. They have talent but have given inconsistent performances in recent friendlies against Germany and Malta. Midfielders Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura are the key men, even if they disagree about the state of the Japanese team. I see Japan giving teams a fight but not sticking around long.

Tomorrow: the final two groups, G and H.

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