Wednesday, June 07, 2006

World Cup Preview - Group G

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 G
South Korea

Firstly, a Middle Foam Finger declaration of sympathy for France striker Djibril Cisse, who broke his leg today (the right one, after he destroyed his left one with a brutal double break last year in one of the literally sickest injuries ever seen), 2 days before the start of the World Cup. Regardless of what you think of the dude (and I have to say that I like his totally insane style), that's got to suck.

Of course, as Rosco pointed out, when your squad replacement is either Anelka or Ludovic Giuly, you can't feel too bad for the French. It's not like Cisse, as good as he can be when he's on song, was a focal point of their plans, considering that they have Henry and Trezeguet up top.

Looking at the team sheet, France should be one of the favorites to win the Cup. Yet, the lineup by itself is bereft of the context of the poor performances of the past 4 years and the fact that their qualification campaign was only rescued by the return of Makalele, Thuram and Zidane from retirement.

Zizou is emblematic of the squad, as he still has the technique and vision to compete; however, he doesn't seem comfortable tactically and it's obvious that he doesn't have the energy for 90 minutes of effort (in fact, it might be closer to 60). With a coach who doesn't seem to know what he's doing and a team that reflects this, France is a decent bet to make it out of the group stage and most likely little else.

Last go-round, South Korea made it all the way to the semi-finals on the strength of a super-fit team that specialized in pressuring from the top and forcing other teams into mistakes. In theory, this formula should work again. The only problems are:

- lack of homefield advantage
- unlikely to receive same amount of lucky calls (possibly related to above)
- a much much much much MUCH worse coach

Both of these are fairly major. It's been noted that just being on your home soil and surrounded by rabid supporters gives teams a serious boost and the Koreans received possibly the best fan support of any host nation ever, which may have helped explain why the Koreans were the beneficiaries of some of the more questionable calls in the World Cup, including having 2 Spanish goals called back when they should have stood.

And possibly most importantly, they traded in Guus Hiddink for Dick Advocaat. As anybody who's followed Dutch football could tell you, that's not a very good deal. His performance in Euro 2004 was atrocious, even as the Dutch made the semi-finals. The reduction of quality in the gaffer position and the loss of homefield advantage means that South Korea should do well to advance into the knockout rounds.

Switzerland is not usually regarded as a sleeping giant. When your main claims to fame are neutrality, cheese, chocolate and Orson Welles talking shit about you in The Third Man, you may get credit for being sleepy, less so for your potential greatness.

That said, the Swiss side has a real air of quality around them this year. They seem to be coming into the tournament on a run, they have an exceptional coach, they've got good players at all the positions and they've managed to avoid being placed in a dangerous group. This is an excellent recipe for advancing to the knockout stages, with the potential of becoming this year's "surprise team" and possibly making it all the way to the semis.

The key for the Swiss will be the play of striker Alexander Frei. They cannot afford a repeat of his Euro 2004 performance, where he was the second player send home for spitting at an opponent (the other being Italy's Francesco Totti). Unfortunately, we won't get to see Switzerland's exciting youngster Jonathan Vonlathen, as he is out with a thigh injury. Marco Stresser will likely be the player asked to take his place as the second striker.

Togo, like Angola, is a bit of a wildcard. With only one player that even a dedicated fan will have heard of (Arsenal's Adebayor), Togo could lose every game 4-nil or ride a good run into the quarters. There has been some shakiness with the squad, as the coach that got them through qualification was fired in January for a poor performance at the African Nations Cup and there has been some ugliness between the team and the national FA regarding payment and bonsues.

Considering these events and the relative unknown nature of most of the team, it would be easy to assume that Togo is going to be easy prey for the other countries in Group G. This would be too glib (shoutout to Matt Lauer), considering that these events could also have a galvanizing effect on the team and the unknown nature of the Togolese players could well be an advantage. While a poor performance seems more likely than a good one, it would be unwise to count out a team about which we know very little.

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