Monday, June 05, 2006

World Cup Preview - Group E

As we count down toward the World Cup Opening match on June 9th, The Middle Foam Finger will be offering capsule previews of each of the World Cup groups, one group per day.

Group E
Czech Republic

The mini-Group of Death. The Group of Small Deaths? The Group of Mortification?

The Czech Republic is making their "first appearance" in the Cup, which is a little misleading given the historical strength of Czechoslovakia. With one of the finest goalies in the world in Peter Cech and world-class talent in the midfield in the form of Nedved, Rosicky and Poborsky, the Czechs are a very good team. Many observers (including myself) felt that the Czechs played the best football at Euro 2004 and were unlucky to go out against Greece in the semi-finals.

Still, the Greece game shows that as good as the Czechs are, they can still be frustrated and part of this is due to their inconsistency up front. As good as Baros and Koller are, neither of them are real goal-poachers and tend to score in patches. If Baros can find his form from Euro 2004, the Czechs are a threat for, well, let's say the semis, if not the finals.

Ghana are another debutant, although they also have a history as the best team in Africa never to have made the World Cup. The Black Stars always seemed to be on the brink of becoming a powerhouse and this year could finally be the payoff. The strength of the team is in the midfield, where Michael Essien (Chelsea), Sulley Muntari (Udinese) and Stephen Appiah (ex- of Juventus, now at Fenerbahce) are world-class talents.

The rest of the squad is loaded with reliable veterans such as Sammy Kuffour and fresh youngsters like Asamoah Gyan, as well as having a number of reliable keepers, a rarity for an African team. Having no outstanding striker is the only weak spot for Ghana and must come as some consolation to the other teams in Group E. Ghana would probably be a favorite to advance in any other group.

And then there's the seeded team, Italy. Coming off the Italian match-fixing scandal, there's some hope that it could adversely affect the Italians, which would be good news for the other teams in the group and really, any team hoping to win the World Cup, as the Italians have an extremely strong side.

The defense isn't actually as good as it has been in years past, as there's no Maldini to lead them and many of the players still around have quite a bit of wear on their treads. The midfield still looks to be built around Pirlo distributing from deep and Camorenasi cutting in from the right. The key for Italy will be whether the talismanic Totti will be able to play at his peak of ability since if he does, Italy could well win the whole schmeer. Totti will have the advantage of playing behind a number of talented strikers, as the Azzuri will probably start the bullish Luca Toni and Alberto Gilardino up top with experienced forward Alessandro Del Piero coming off the bunch. As super-subs go, you can't ask for much more than that. And that's not even counting the ultimate poacher, Pippo Inzaghi.

However, f Italy plays their standard style of catenaccio, the whole thing could blow up in their face. With so much attacking talent, it doesn't make sense to sit back and allow a lesser team to keep the game close. If the Italians cast off their tactical shackles and come forward, they should be one of the favorites to win the Cup. If they stick with their preferred style of defense first, they may well get tipped out early.

And finally, the United States. Fast, strong, reliant on preventing other teams from playing their game, the Americans are a threat to upset the big teams in this group and are also a threat to not get a point out of any of the games. I feel that it will depend on which team scores first, as the US prefers to counter-attack rather than having to chase the game. This will probably result in the Americans playing for a tie against Italy and possibly the Czechs then playing for the win against Ghana.

Really, you could make an argument for the US being out-matched at almost every position on the field by all three of the other teams, with the exception of goalkeeper and striker in comparison to Ghana. The key for the US will be to maintain tactical discipline and not allow the other team to dictate play. Although this doesn't make for classic games, it's definitely the best chance that the US has for advancing.

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