Tuesday, June 06, 2006

World Cup Preview - Group F

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 F

Although some Australians and Japanese are quick to label Group F "The Group of Death", this is actually only the third-toughest group in the competition, although that shouldn't take away from the difficulty that both those nations will have in advancing. (As to why it isn't the G0D, it's that there are two elite teams in each of the two harder groups, with this group being closer to one elite team and 3 good teams.)

Bucking the alphabetical trend, let's start with Brazil. They are the strongest team in the field and the overwhelming favorite to win a consecutive World Cup, not to mention 3 out of the last 4 (in all of which they appeared in the final game). The star of the team and likely of the entire competition is Ronaldinho, who has already established himself as one of the Special Players, a talent that will be remembered by everybody who saw him play. He's joined in attack by a wealth of talent in Ronaldo, Adriano, Kaka and Robinho coming off the bench. None of these players had particularly good years with their club squads; however, it would be foolish to bet against them here, especially when they'll be surrounded by comparable talent.

Last time out, Brazil relied on a 3-5-1-1 formation that was build around 2 attacking wingbacks and two largely non-attacking midfielders in Kleberson and Gilberto Silva. This time around, the middle men are Emerson and Ze Roberto. While Emerson is a tremendously underrated two-way midfielder, it is interesting that the Brazilians are adopting a much more attacking formation and the question will have to be whether playing midfielders who will go forward will wind up biting them on the ass on defense.

The other question is whether they will play 4 or 5 in the back. Early indications are that they will go with 4, with 2 of those being Roberto Carlos and Cafu, meaning they have a grand total of 2 all-defense players on the pitch at any given time. This isn't as reckless as it sounds when you consider the ability of Brazil to hold the ball and to get back quickly, still, if the players up front stutter, Brazil could wind up like the 1982 squad, an offensive marvel that was snuffed by the stoic Italians.

The Aussies have recently become riled up by a comment made by US Coach Bruce Arena that they construed to mean that Australia is one of the weaker teams at the Cup. While the Aussies don't have much of a history in the competition, they do have a right to be somewhat optimistic, as they have a number of players playing in the best leagues in Europe.

Looking at the Oz roster, central defense is the area of concern as the players there are either aging, coming off of injuries or better suited to play on the flank. The hope must be that experienced keeper Mark Schwarzer will keep the defense organized and on alert. Like the Americans, the Aussies are a team first and should be difficult to break down, even for Brazil.

Croatia are a Middle Foam Finger favorite (courtesy of Rosco's globetrotting youth) and are a dangerous squad this time out, even if they don't have the attacking cachet of the legendary 1998 side. They've got quality all over the pitch without having an outstanding star, although creative midfielder (and son of the coach) Niko Krancjar has a chance to have a breakout performance.

The danger man will be Glasgow Rangers forward Dado Prso, who would make an excellent Bond villian if he decided to hang up his boots (taking this position from the former US international Jeff Agoos). Put into a tough group, I would expect the Croats to play Brazil for a draw and hope to beat the other two sides.

Japan has recently had a bit of a hubbub in their camp after Hidetoshi Nakata, one of the veteran players, announced that the team was in a shambles and not taking the competition seriously. Nakata has a reputation for being difficult to deal with and may also be speaking out due to a role of reduced importance as Nakamura takes over the playmaking duties.

Japan has a serious lack of options up top, especially since both of their top-choice strikers are nursing minor injuries. With a regional rivalry against Australia and being coached by a Brazilian, those games should come with added emotional weight, especially since Japan will likely have to beat Australia (and vice versa) to have a chance of advancing.

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