Posted by: mdegeorge | May 22, 2010

World Cup Diagnosis Group C: Any challengers to the US and England?

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.

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The teams (FIFA World Rankings in parenthesis):

England (8): 9-0-1 in UEFA qualification Group 6 (first place)

USA (14): 13-3-2 in CONCACAF qualification (first place)

Slovenia (23): 6-2-2 in UEFA qualification Group 3, won playoff over Russia, 2-2 on away goals rule

Algeria (31): 7-3-2 in AFC qualification Group 6 and Group C, won tiebreaker playoff with Egypt, 1-0

Can England live up to the expectations?

The rejuvenated England squad has gone from non-qualifiers at Euro 2008 to a favorite in South Africa. They breezed through qualification with a 9-0-1 record and a plus-28 goal differential from a tough group that included Croatia and Ukraine. If their World Cup Finals history is any indication, they should be assured progress from the group, as they have never finished worse than 11th in 12 previous appearances.

But with high expectations for the Three Lions comes the trepidation of big disappointments. They possess (for my money) the strongest and deepest midfield in the world that has finally learned how to play together. Ditto for the backline, although all four projected starters—Ashley Cole, John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, and Glen Johnson—have struggled this year through injury, personal issues, or both.

The major questions come at the front and rear of the pitch. The goalkeeping situation is still unsettled, with Robert Green and Joe Hart ostensibly the favorites over two keepers with Finals experience in David James and Paul Robinson. Wayne Rooney is coming off a stellar season and will be counted on to lead the line if he is healthy. But behind him, there are questions about the form of Emile Heskey, Jermain Defoe, and Darren Bent, plus the wild card of Peter Crouch, who appears to score only for England.

The question of expectations probably won’t be answered in the first round, but will depend on how the pieces fit together for a run into the opening weeks of July.

Can the US prevent a repeat of the disappointment of Germany?

The USA camp must have been less than pleased to see its name drawn with one African team and two European teams yet again. But make no mistake, this group is about as different from Group E in 2006 as this year’s Team USA is from its ’06 counterpart. Algeria is not as strong a team as Ghana was, Slovenia isn’t of the caliber of the Czech, and Italy gets the edge over England.

Team USA also isn’t the aging team it used to be. This squad lacks the thirty-something inclusions past their best like Eddie Lewis, Claudio Reyna, and Eddie Pope, and subpar domestic players like Josh Wolff, Ben Olsen, and Greg Berhalter that weighed down the 2006 squad. The 2008 version has just four 30-year-olds as outfield players, led by 32-year-old Brian Ching, while 28-year-young Landon Donovan is the elder statesman in an energetic and attack-minded midfield. The 30 players on this year’s provisional roster ply their trade at the club level in 13 different nations, as opposed to seven in 2006, a testament to how the profile of American soccer has taken off.

This is still an experienced squad, with only six of the 30 on the roster having less than 10 caps (and Marcus Hahnemann’s six is more a reflection of the logjam of legends in front of him). The Red, White, and Blue have the experience of last year’s Confederation’s Cup, which included impressive wins over Euro 2008 Champs Spain, African Champs Egypt, and a half in which they dominated Brazil. To say they will have no problem going through fails to give the others in this group enough credit. But, again unlike 2006, it would be a surprise if the Americans didn’t progress.

Can the upstarts spring a surprise?

Going by the FIFA World Rankings, this should be the second toughest group. But many are regarding the result as almost a foregone conclusion. Rest assured the group’s underdogs will have something to say about it.

Algeria has had an up and down go of things lately. They advanced somewhat surprisingly to the nation’s third ever World Cup Finals through two daunting qualifying groups and finished fourth at the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations. The Desert Foxes are a young team with seven uncapped players in their provisional 30-man roster, and 18 with less than 10 caps. Injuries to several of their European-based players like Nadir Belhadj, Hassan Yebda, Madjid Bougherra, Adlene Guediuora, and Mehdi Lacen are also a concern. But they have shown plenty of character—an attribute often lacking from this side—by beating Egypt in the qualification playoff in Sudan and an impressive triumph over Ivory Coast, 3-2 after extra time, in the quarterfinals of AFCON. If they can get healthy quickly, they might (again) advance against the odds.

It’s only Slovenia’s third major tournament since being recognized by FIFA ahead of Euro 1996. They went winless in their first Finals appearance in Korea-Japan and are a relatively young squad without anyone earning more than 45 caps. This isn’t a team that will light up the scoreboard: they managed 18 goals in 10 qualifying matches, but if you exclude the matches against continental doormat San Marino, they mustered only 10 tallies in eight matches. Their hallmark is stingy defense, allowing just four goals in qualification, and they showed the courage to overcome a first-leg deficit to survive the heavily favored Russian in the playoff. Robert Koren will have to emerge as the creative force in midfield in support of qualification leading scorer Milivoje Novakovic and playoff hero Zlatko Dedic. Perhaps the most recognizable name in the squad, Udinese goalkeeper Samir Handanovic, will need to steal a few matches if the Slovenians have any hope of advancing.

Will the scheduling of the marquis game on day one alter the dynamic of the group?

It’s very likely that either the United States or England will be in an early hole after they do battle on day one. Was the schedule different, both teams conceivably could have met under conditions in which their passages to the next round were already booked. A slow start by either nation could result in a sizeable test of their character and resolve later in the group (see USA, 2009 Confederations’ Cup). It’s especially problematic against a team like Slovenia, whose defensive prowess means their game plan could be to park the bus in front of goal against the favorites (especially the USA) and hope two draws and a defeat of Algeria will be enough to see them through. As if the game needed it, the fact that it’s the group’s debut heaps even more pressure onto the Americans and the Brits.

Final Diagnosis:

Both England and Team USA are just too talented not to progress. The Three Lions appear to be on a mission under Fabio Capello, and the Red, White, and Blue are still driven by the failure in Germany and the confidence from South Africa last summer. Slovenia is the most likely to pull off a shocker with their ability to shut opposing teams down, but a deficiency of experience and goalscoring potency isn’t a good combination. Algeria may squeak out a point against Slovenia or the United States if they’ve already qualified for the knockout stages, but their progress is unlikely.

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