Thursday, June 08, 2006

World Cup Preview - Group H

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 H

Saudi Arabia

Spain should be offering up their thanks to the football gods right about now. Not even the Most Underachieving Team in World Football could manage not to advance from this group. I think.

Like always, Spain has an impressive array of talent at all positions, with the most overwhelming amount of class being in central midfield, where they can choose between Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Cesc Fabregas, Alberto Iniesta and David Albeda. Their defense is a little more questionable than you would imagine from looking at the players involved, as both Carlos Puyol and Michel Salgado are prone to the odd howler.

The presumed inclusion of Raul in the starting lineup is a real sticky wicket for the Spanish. On one hand, he has been the public face of the national team and Real Madrid for a long time. On the other hand, the 28-year-old hasn't had many good performances in the past two years and there are many whispers that his time is past, especially with the talents of David Villa and Fernando Torres available.

Tunisia is the settled side of African soccer in this World Cup, having made it to their third consecutive finals. Although they have not advanced past the group stage thus far, they have a good chance now, having been placed into one of the weaker groups.

Their chances will also be buoyed by their playing style, which puts an emphasis on staying compact and putting defense first. Even the two naturalized Brazilians that turn out for Tunisia are fairly dour. Without too many big names (right back Trabelsi being the biggest), Tunisia will depend on graft and opportunism in order to advance.

Saudi Arabia are trying to do their best to make people forget about their last world cup, where they were absolutely thrashed by Germany along with two other defeats. The problem last time around was that they didn't have the physical players to match up with the strength and quickness of the larger nations. This shouldn't be a problem against Tunisia; however, both the Ukraine and Spain will provide excellent tests as to whether the Saudis have made any progress since '02.

If they have, they could well replicate their performance in 1994, where they went through to the knock-out rounds before bowing out in extra-time against eventual 3rd-place finishers Sweden. With all of their players based in their domestic league, they are another one of the wildcard teams in this Cup and their status is unlikely to be revealed until their second group match against the Ukraine.

Ukraine is another one of the teams making their first appearance in the finals and they did so with a suprisingly strong performance in qualification, beating out Denmark, Turkey and Switzerland to the first spot in what was probably the toughest European group, becoming the first European team to qualify.

It's impossible to talk about this side without talking about Andriy Shevchenko, one of the most prolific strikers of his generation who recently announced his move from AC Milan to Chelsea. Even if opponents concentrate on keeping the ball away from him, this opens up space for the rest of the team to operate in and while the Ukraine doesn't boast many other stars, they should be able to exploit the openings that having Sheva wreaking havoc will create.

The Ukraine always viewed themselves as the footballing region of the former Soviet Union and must be relishing the chance to show the world what they have to offer on the world stage. With a stable of solid performers around Sheva, they have a good chance of making it to the elimination rounds.

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