World Cup 2010 Group A preview

Back in December when the draw came around, Group A was the one everybody wanted to get into. Host (and seeded) nation South Africa were drawn into the customary spot as the first team in Group A and almost immediately afterwards, rain dances and prayers were done repeatedly by fans of the other non-seeded countries. Well, three teams got their wish as Mexico, Uruguay and France round out the group. How do I see the group shaking out?

South Africa, who automatically qualified as the host country, is arguably the weakest host in this tournament’s history. They were required to participate in the World Cup Qualifying campaign in Africa this term, as this allows serves as qualification for Africa’s continental tournament. South Africa, based upon those results, would not have qualified for this World Cup and failed to qualify for the next African Cup of Nations. It is worth noting that every host country in the history of this tournament has qualified for the knockout stages. So does South Africa have any chance of avoiding going down in infamy?

Unfortunately, I just do not see it happening. While they do boast some talent in West Ham United striker Benni McCarthy and inspirational Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar, the majority of the remainder of the squad plays in the very sub-par South African Premiership and other lower-tier leagues. While the South Africans did advance from their group in the Confederations Cup last year, they did so due to their group consisting of Spain, New Zealand, and Iraq. Hardly anything close to the quality they will see in two weeks time, and they barely advanced at that. Unfortunately, I see them finishing bottom of the group, but putting up a pretty decent fight and give the fans something to cheer about at least.

France, meanwhile, is probably the biggest enigma in this tournament. They boast an embarrassment of riches all over the field, and if you want to look at it in terms of pure talent, they are the best squad in this group. Yet, they constantly underachieve. Their coach, Raymond Domenech, is a moron of Biblical proportions. After France went out in the group stages of Euro 2008, many expected the coach (who, to his credit, did lead France to the World Cup final in 2006) to be fired. Shockingly, he kept his job, and the qualifying campaign for France was nothing short of a roller coaster, ultimately ending with that William Gallas goal off a Thierry Henry handball against Ireland in the playoff round.

In terms of what they’ll put on the field in South Africa, well, Mr. Domenech is not lacking for choice. Goalkeeper Hugo Lloris  is considered one of the best shot stoppers in Europe, and several big clubs have their eye on him. In defense in front of him, I’d expect regulars Eric Abidal, Gael Clichy, William Gallas, and excellent outside back Patrice Evra. While the midfield will be hurt by losing Lassana Diarra to sickle-cell anemia, they should have ample replacements in the world class Frank Ribery, Abou Diaby of Arsenal, Flourent Malouda of Chelsea and the young gun Yoann Gourcuff. Forwards will include the aforementioned Henry, Chelsea ace Nicolas Anelka, Djibril Cisse and Sidney Govou both of whom had excellent domestic campaigns. I expect France to advance out of the group as champions.

Mexico is entering this tournament in somewhat of a transition phase, but should still push Uruguay hard for the 2nd spot in the group. Mexico, while not as talented as years past, still has the phenomenal Guillermo Ochoa in goal, who is young and only getting better. Rafael Marquez remains a fixture in the Mexican central defense, along with that of FC Barcelona’s, and he will be joined by the young Carlos Salcido, who seems to improve every time he pulls on the Mexico shirt. In the midfield, Mexico lacks the strength of previous years, but still has Giovanni Dos Santos pulling the strings in the middle of the park for them. Joining him will likely be Andres Guardado, Alberto Medina and Gerardo Torrado, all three of whom are good box to box players. Up front, El Tri will have the ageless wonder Cuauhtémoc Blanco, along with young guns Javier Hernandez and Carlos Vela, all three of whom are capable of something special on their own. However, I do not believe it will be enough for them. Yup, you heard it… Mexico goes home in the group stage, finishing in third.

That will be because Uruguay will leapfrog them into second place. Uruguay survived the brutal South American qualifying campaign, albeit having to go in via a playoff with Costa Rica. The team is stacked from back to front, nothing more potent than up front with Atletico Madrid star Diego Forlan leading the front line. The hitman is in the form of his life, and if he can carry it over into South Africa along with strike partner Luis Suarez, Group A should take note. While I think it is very close with Mexico, I think Uruguay’s qualifying campaign and who they had to beat to get where they are will mean they are more battle tested and tougher mentally than Mexico. I’ll pick them 2nd.

So, the final standings will look like this (qualifiers for the knockout round in bold):

South Africa

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The USA World Cup Roster – what can we expect?

As the US prepares to play two friendlies this week in the “send off series” that will give the team a couple of final tuneups before heading over to South Africa, the focus now shifts on who exactly will be on that plane. The roster must be trimmed from 30 to 23 players and while the two matches this week will certainly be factored into the decision, training camp has been in full swing for over a week now. Head coach Bob Bradley has said that he will make the required 7 cuts after Tuesday’s game.

Goalkeepers: This is one of the few straightforward areas on the team, as Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, and Marcus Hahnemann are numbers 1, 2, and 3 respectively. Barring any injuries in the buildup, that order will not change.

Defenders: Having a solid central defensive pairing is crucial to any team’s success, and unfortunately for the US their best one is on the mend from injuries, one of which serious. Oguchi Onyewu has not played in a match in nearly 7 months while rehabbing from a serious knee injury, but has been a full participant in camp. Pairing him in central defense will likely be Jay DeMerit, as this pairing enjoyed a great tournament in the Confederations Cup in 2009 and excelled against powerhouse Spain. Moving to the outside, Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo will start on the left and right back positions. Bocanegra has favorably responded to being moved out left by his club team Rennes, and he only ever played centrally for the US out of necessity. In terms of depth, expect Johnathan Spector and Clarence Goodson to be the backups, with Johnathan Bornstein, Heath Pearce, and and Chad Marshall getting cut. I think Heath Pearce is probably the best offensive option at the left back spot, but he simply lacks the required discipline to not get exposed at the World Cup level.

Midfielders: The US is stacked in the midfield, and how exactly it plays out may be linked to the forward spot. Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley, Stuart Holden, Maurice Edu, and Ricardo Clark are locks to make this roster. Complicating matters is whether or not Bob Bradley decides to use either Clint Dempsey or Landon Donovan at forward, which would prompt the need to take another midfielder as cover. A couple of wild cards here at DaMarcus Beasley and Alejandro Bedoya. DaMarcus Beasley is a veteran of the national team, last seen having a nightmare game against Brazil in the Confederations Cup group stage meeting. He has not played for the national team since, but did enjoy a very nice month with club team Rangers before injuring himself. Alejandro Bedoya has been a late comer to the game, but has been absolutely on fire in the second half of his club season and has impressed in limited national team action so far. He has tremendous speed, and is very creative on the ball. He could certainly provide a late lift off the bench to run at tired defenders. The left side of the midfield is a little bit weak, so does Bob Bradley go with the veteran Beasley or the young, but untested, Bedoya? My gut tells me Bradley will go with both. It seems to me that Beasley could be the Eddie Pope of 2010… mainly, Eddie Pope being asked to play in the 2006 World Cup when he was well past it, but I anticipate his being there. Another interesting dynamic presents itself with Benny Feilhaber, Robbie Rogers, Sacha Klejstan and Jose Francisco Torres. Of those 4, Robbie Rogers and Sacha Klejstan will be cut and I think that both Feilhaber and Torres make it as cover. Both are similar players, but I think Bob Bradley will want either available for late game creativity off the bench.

Forwards: The loss of Charlie Davies will be a very tough pill for many US fans to swallow, but I think the forward position is still pretty well stocked nonetheless. Jozy Altidore and Brian Ching, barring injuries, are locks to make the roster. Beyond that, I believe it’s 4 players fighting for 2 spots. Robbie Findley, Edson Buddle, Herculez Gomez, and Eddie Johnson are the remaining bodies in camp and out of that pack, I see Edson Buddle and Herculez Gomez emerging. Gomez has been absolutely on fire in the Mexican League this season (finishing it’s joint top scorer) and has recently signed with Mexican powerhouse Pachuca. Buddle has been equally as rampant in Major League Soccer, and has been a key performer for the LA Galaxy. Robbie Findley and Eddie Johnson could presumably play their way onto the roster, but I think they face an uphill battle that they will not win.

So, here is my final roster below. We’ll see how I did Wednesday morning.

Goalkeepers (3): Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Marcus Hahnemann

Defenders (6): Oguchi Onyewu, Jay DeMerit, Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Johnathan Spector, Clarence Goodson

Midfielders (10): Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Maurice Edu, Ricardo Clark, Michael Bradley, Benny Feilhaber, Jose Francisco Torres, Stuart Holden, Alejandro Bedoya, DaMarcus Beasley

Forwards (4): Jozy Altidore, Brian Ching, Herculez Gomez, Edson Buddle

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