Posted by: mdegeorge | May 27, 2010

World Cup Diagnosis Group E: Strugglers need to rebound

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):

Netherlands (4): 8-0-0 in UEFA qualification Group 9 (first place)

Cameroon (19): 9-1-2 in CAF qualification Group 1 and Group A

Denmark (35): 6-1-3 in UEFA qualification Group 1(first place)

Japan (45): 8-2-4 in AFC qualification Group 2 and Group A

[picapp align=”center” wrap=”false” link=”term=robin+van+persie&iid=8922815″ src=”f/2/5/e/Netherlands_vs_Mexico_d49d.jpg?adImageId=13002733&imageId=8922815″ width=”500″ height=”383″ /]

Can anyone derail the Netherlands?

The competition in Group E will probably be for the second spot behind the Netherlands. It’s hard to fathom this team faltering in the group stages with the talent at their disposal. Manager Bert van Marwijk can compile a lineup with 10 outfield players that have 40 or more caps, many of whom are taking part in their third major tournament. Maarten Stekelenburg has established himself as the unquestioned number one goalkeeper in the post-Edwin van der Sar era, backing a defense that allowed just two goals in qualification. Mark van Bommel is back in the fold after several years in the wilderness while Marco van Basten was in charge.

If there’s one potential problem, it may be that van Marwijk doesn’t have the ideal balance of strikers for the signature Dutch 4-3-3 formation. The players he used as the target center forwards during the Oranje’s successful start at Euro 2008, Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink and Ruud van Nistelrooy, haven’t held up to the rigors of age and didn’t warrant inclusion. The result is an overabundance of wingers with relatively fewer options in the center. Klaus-Jan Huntelaar, himself somewhat out of form for club, and Robin van Persie, arguably better on the wing (though Mexico would beg to differ), will play the role of central forward, with Dirk Kuyt, who’s played almost exclusively on the wing for Liverpool, as cover.

Still, the fluid attacking ability of Wesley Snejider, Arjen Robben, and Rafael van der Vaart will more than make up for it, at least in the group stages. The striking concerns won’t be an issue until the knockout stages, and the balance of scoring—11 different goalscorers in qualification—means they can spread the offensive load evenly enough to cope. If there’s one criticism against van Marwijk, it may be his decision not to bring van Nistelrooy out of international retirement, but only if goals prove hard to come by.

Can Denmark’s veteran core steer them into the knockout rounds?

The Danish squad is a classic example of a golden generation of players in their last run, with 11 players on the provisional 26-player roster 30 years of age or older. Martin Jorgensen, at 34, is back for another major tournament, while vets like Jesper Gronkjaer, Jon Dahl Tomasson, and Dennis Rommedahl are all likely in their final World Cup Finals squad. Tomasson’s next goal would be his 52nd, tying him with Poul “Tist” Nielsen as the nation’s all time leading scorer.

Defense likely won’t be an issue for the Danes, who allowed just five goals in qualification. Per Kroldrup and Daniel Agger are experienced center backs in front of a solid keeper in Thomas Sorensen. As much as age will provide the backbone, youth will be called upon to put goals on the tally sheet. Nicklas Bendtner will have to bring his best finishing touch, while Soren Larsen, with 11 goals in 17 caps, must continue his historically prolific scoring pace. The surprise performer—the Theo Walcott, if you will—could be Ajax’s 18-year-old attacking midfielder Christian Eriksen, who is the fourth youngest full Danish international ever.

Will Japan right the ship in time?

The Blue Samurai are mired in a string of poor performances, with friendly struggles at home against Serbia (3-0) and South Korea (2-0), and have a coach in Takeshi Okada who has questioned his own fitness to remain in charge. Upcoming friendlies against England and Ivory Coast may not boost their morale before they depart for South Africa. Coupled with their inability to win a Finals game outside of their home country in two previous attempts, it might mean a short stay in South Africa.

Offense wasn’t a problem during qualification, with 23 goals scored in 14 matches, but that proficiency may have been exaggerated by the caliber of opponents. All but one of their goalscorers from qualification is included in the final 23-man roster. Two of their top scorers in qualification, Marcus Tulio Tanaka and Yuji Nakazawa, are defenders, and the contingent of strikers must start to carry their own weight. Still, it’s a veteran squad with only three players with less than 10 caps and three outfield players without a national team goal. Captain Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi is one of four players with more than 90 caps and provides a veteran hand in goal. Shunsuke Nakamura, the team’s leading goalscorer, will have to provide the creative impetus in midfield to support veteran strikers Keiji Tamada and Shinji Okazaki.

Is Samuel Eto’o enough to see Cameroon through?

Despite being a constant fixture on the world stage, Cameroon has had a surprising lack of success in recent years. They managed just one win in nine group matches over their last three Finals appearances, and were a surprise non-qualifier for the tournament in Germany four years ago.

This team’s lack of experience may elongate that drought. Captain and all-time leading scorer Eto’o is one of the few proven commodities, scoring nine goals in qualification, the second most in CAF. But along with Pierre Webo and Geremi, he’s one of only three players with more than 10 international goals (and Geremi’s 12 goals have come over 109 caps). Over half of their provisional 30-man roster has fewer than 10 caps each, and eight are uncapped. Their most experienced midfielders, Alexandre Song, Jean Makoun, and Landry N’Guemo, are defensive midfielders by trade who’ll have to be more active in attack (though Song has been drafted into central defense in friendlies). The surprise might be 18-year-old Joel Matip, who had a productive season with Schalke.

Final Diagnosis:

The Netherlands will progress from this group without much consternation; no one else can match their firepower. Denmark has the inside edge on the other spot, but they do have the formidable challenge of having to face the Dutch in the group’s first game. Cameroon may provide their stiffest competition, but even the home continent advantage probably won’t be enough unless Eto’o has an out-of-this-world tournament. The Japanese will have to rectify things very quickly to prevent a quick exit.

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