Posted by: mdegeorge | May 20, 2010

World Cup Diagnosis Group B: Argentina and…

The 2010 World Cup is just 24 days away and the anticipation is reaching a fever pitch. To commemorate one of the greatest happenings in all of sport, I’ll be breaking down the tournament group by group over the next three weeks. There are four teams per group, so the Doctor will be in for the four big questions concerning the group.

The teams (FIFA World Rankings in parenthesis):

Argentina (7): 8-6-4 in CONMEBOL qualification (fourth place)

Greece (12): 6-2-2 in UEFA qualification Group 2; won playoff over Ukraine, 1-0

Nigeria (20): 9-0-3 in CAF qualification Group 11 and Group B

South Korea (47): 7-0-7 in AFC qualification Group 3 and Group B

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Can Argentina stave off self-destruction?

The team posing the biggest challenge to Argentina’s progress from Group B may be the Albiceleste themselves. The erratic Diego Maradona sprung several surprises in squad selection, fitting for a coach who has called up 79 players in the last year. He included six Argentine-based players in his 23-man roster in favor of a slew of European veterans. There’s no place in the squad for all-time caps leader Javier Zanetti, while the uncapped Javier Pastore is the shock inclusion in the midfield at the expense of Esteban Cambiasso, Lucho Gonzalez, and Pablo Aimar. The call for youth apparently didn’t apply for 35-year-old Juan Sebastian Veron and 36-year-old Martin Palermo, though.

To make matters worse, Argentina’s three goalkeepers have just 12 caps between them, and many of the squad’s members are notorious underperformers on the international stage. Maradona’s five European-based strikers—Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, Lionel Messi, Diego Milito, and Carlos Tevez—combined for 153 goals in 231 matches for their club teams this season, a rate of 0.66 goals per contest. But they’ve been able to muster only 34 goals in 145 caps for their county, a paltry 0.23 goals per game. The team still boasts one of the most impressive and in-form frontlines in the tournament, and that talent alone should be enough to get them out of the group stage.

Will Nigeria’s coaching change pay off?

The Super Eagles come in hot, running through 12 qualifying matches undefeated and finishing third in the Africa Cup of Nations. Despite the success, they enter the tournament with a new coach in Lars Lagerback, who led Sweden in the last two World Cup Finals. He replaces Shaibu Amodu, who finds himself fired from the Nigeria job ahead of a World Cup Final after a third-place finish in AFCON for the second time (also in 2002). Many regarded his tactical ability as lacking, including at least one high-profile player, and while Nigeria achieved success with Amodu at the helm, the Nigerian Football Federation believed it would take a more seasoned hand to guide them through their first Finals since 2002.

A glance at the roster shows an obvious need for tactical proficiency from the team’s skipper. Lagerback’s preliminary 30-man roster contains no less than 11 recognized strikers, including several household names for European soccer fans. Two of the younger members of that contingent, Ikechukwo Uche and Victor Obinna, led the way with four goals each in qualifying. Peter Odemwingie (somewhat dubiously identified as a midfielder by the CAF) stepped up at AFCON with a team-high two goals and a place on the tournament’s Best XI. But Lagerback’s challenge will be to get the entire striking squad, replete with such names as Obafemi Martins, Nwankwo Kanu, Yakubu, John Utaka, and Victor Anichebe, to fire on all cylinders.

Will the defensive tactics of King Otto see Greece through?

Otto Rehhagel’s Greek teams have never been known as artisans of an exciting brand of soccer. Pairing them with attack-minded squads like Nigeria and Argentina won’t help the situation. The fact that Rehhagel’s 30-man provisional roster is comprised of 13 defenders (four of whom are uncapped) screams of either a lack of alternatives to a defensive style or a fanatically strict adherence to that ideology.

This team isn’t the team that pulled the surprise of surprises in Euro 2004, with only five holdovers from that squad piloting Greece into just its sixth major tournament and second World Cup Finals. It’s a relatively young squad for Rehhagel, with seven players older than 30, though only one outfield player is over 31. They have decent striking options, with Angelos Charisteas and Theofanis Gekas—not the golden boys of Greek soccer they used to be, but still serviceable—alongside the likes of Dimitris Salpigidis and Georgios Samaras.

The issue will be creativity out of the midfield. Captain Giorgios Karagounis, who will turn 33 before the start of the tournament, lacks some of his former play-making ability, but is coming off one of his most productive seasons ever with eight goals in 23 matches for Greek champions Panathinaikos. Club teammates Kostas Katsouranis and Sotiris Ninis will also play large roles, with the veteran Katsouranis providing a vital plug in central midfield and the 20-year-old Ninis a prime candidate to burst onto the world scene. In the end, a few well-placed free kicks by Karagounis and the emergence of Ninis may make the efforts of the stingy backline hold up.

Can South Korea fly under the radar into the knockout rounds?

The Koreans have all the makings of a team that can grind its way out of a tough group. They skated through qualification undefeated in 14 matches. They are a staunch defensive team, allowing just seven goals in qualifying. The Tigers of Asia have a strong veteran nucleus with five members of their provisional 26-man roster amassing 80 or more caps (though Seol Ki-Hyeon and his 83 caps didn’t make the cut to the disappointment of many). They are led by a veteran goalkeeper in Lee Woon-Jae and his 129 caps at the relatively young age of 37.

But the one thing they lack is a proven source of offense. The leading scorer in qualification was Manchester United’s Park Ji-Sung, who has a knack for performing in big games but isn’t the type of player to hang your offensive hat on game in and game out. They have a pair of center backs in Lee Jung-Soo and Kwak Tae-Hwi who are dangerous in set piece situations as well as striking options such as Lee Dong-Gook and Park Chu-Young who have proven themselves internationally. But someone must step up on a consistent basis to provide goals for this staunch defensive team.

Final Diagnosis:

My biggest regret with Group B is that the Nigeria-Argentina contest comes on the first day rather than the last, making for a cagier contest between two potentially explosive teams. This will no doubt be a low scoring group, from which Argentina will fairly easily progress (though their success in later rounds will come only if they can make some adjustments). This is an awkward draw for Nigeria against strong defensive teams like the Koreans and Greeks, though they do have the home continent advantage. They will likely find themselves in an early hole after their opening match against Argentina, but that may actually work to their advantage by forcing them into a more attack-minded approach in the remaining matches. This is the seventh straight World Cup the Koreans have qualified for, and outside of the fourth place finish in their homeland in 2002, they have just one win and zero appearances in the knockout rounds. They may win one here, but a third-place finish would be likely, ahead of the Greeks. Argentina and Nigeria progress, though replacing the latter with either of the other two teams is entirely plausible.

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