Posted by: mdegeorge | May 31, 2010

World Cup Diagnosis Group G: Three-horse race

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):

Brazil (1): 9-2-7 in CONMEBOL qualification (first place)

Portugal (3): 5-1-4 in UEFA qualification Group 1; won playoff with Ukraine, 2-0

Cote d’Ivoire (27): 8-0-4 in CAF qualification Group 7 and Group E

North Korea (106): 8-2-6 in AFC qualification Group 3 and Group B

Will the popular choice for the “group of death” live up to its moniker?

For many pundits, Group G represents the toughest group by virtue of its top-heaviness in Brazil and Portugal. But a closer look at the group beyond its two headliners shows it to be lacking. If you measure the composite ranking of the four teams in FIFA’s world rankings, you actually get the second easiest group of the eight thanks to the inclusion of North Korea, the lowest ranked of the 32 finalists. While two teams in the top 3 make it the most difficult group in that respect, having three teams in the top 27 of the poll again ranks it second-worst.

In my interpretation, the “group of death” has to be a deep, balanced field in which any one of the teams has a realistic shot of advancing. Since the North Koreans have a minuscule chance of reaching the next round, this group doesn’t qualify. And given the form of the teams entering this tournament, the debate in this group is over just two teams (but we’ll get to that in just a moment).Will we recognize Brazil’s style of play on the world stage?

A glance at this Brazil squad and there’s reason to doubt the Samba Kings. Gone are the days of undeniable goal threats like Ronaldo, Rivaldo, and Ronaldinho. In their stead are the mercurial Robinho, the struggling Kaka, and the spectacular Luis Fabiano as the only attacker likely to strike fear into the hearts of opposing teams. The characteristic midfield diamond often employed by head coach Dunga’s predecessors will have considerably less punch then past versions. The symbol of the teams from 2002 and 2006 was the flashy step overs of the long-haired Ronaldinho; this team is best characterized by the shaved head and veteran touch of a player like Gilberto Silva.

But that doesn’t diminish this squad’s ability to win. The side Dunga has sculpted mimics the qualities he so deftly used as a player in guiding the 1994 Brazil squad to a world title from his holding midfield position: emphasis on team football, proficiency in defense, and a tireless work effort. Gone is the focus solely on joga bonito and individual virtuosity in favor of a team-oriented approach. It has garnered considerable criticism from many who regard the Brazilians as the standard-bearer for flowing, attacking football and even a world championship may not be enough to satiate the purists.

Dunga’s vision for the team explains many of his selections, opting for just four forwards and a defensive tenor to the midfield. The less experienced Nilmar and Grafite are included at the expense of Alexandre Pato and Adriano (the latter is probably a victim of Dunga’s fitness demands and training regimen). Despite the younger strikers, it’s an unusually old team, led by 34-year-old Gilberto and 33-year-old Gilberto Silva. Only one player is younger than 25, and just three have fewer than 10 caps.

Dunga’s imposition of a somewhat foreign style leaves him open to rebuke. If goals are hard to come by, criticism of his decision to exclude creative players like Ronaldinho will intensify. Another issue may be the decision to play only two friendlies heading into the tournament against low caliber opponents in Tanzania and Zimbabwe (the 26th and 27th best teams in Africa). The light schedule served them well four years ago, but the opponents presented a little more of a challenge (Russia and New Zealand).

Which individual star will carry their team through the group stage?

Both Portugal and Ivory Coast enter the tournament with serious questions over their ability to navigate Group G. But each possesses a rarity in this tournament: a marquee player who can single-handedly change the course of a group and the tournament. For Portugal, that player is the dominant Cristiano Ronaldo, who has averaged 31 goals a year in club for the past four seasons and whose skills border on the otherworldly. Cote d’Ivoire boasts all-time leading scorer Didier Drogba, the two-time African Player of the Year and early favorite for this year’s award.

Both stars will have a large say in their team’s finish. Portugal’s indifferent result against Cape Verde shows what happens when Ronaldo isn’t his usually dominant self. The defense, which for some reason contains 10 players, is slowly aging, though Pepe coming through his fitness test and the possible emergence of Fabio Coentrao are needed boosts. The lack of a center forward will hamper this team unless one of the myriad wingers like Nani, Simao, Pedro Mendes, or Miguel Veloso steps up. Head coach Carlos Queiroz didn’t have many alternatives, but questions might be asked over the exclusion of Nuno Gomes. Ronaldo will be a big factor in any success they have, but it also can’t be a one-man show.

Drogba is joined in attack by a seasoned delegation of forwards including Chelsea teammate Salomon Kalou, Aruna Dindane, and Bakary Kone. The midfield boasts one of the best central pairs in the world with Didier Zokora and Yaya Toure. England-based defenders Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Eboue provide experience in defense in front of well-traveled goalkeeper Boubacar Barry. The attacking ability of the midfield may be a question for the Elephants, but the seasoned managerial hand of Sven-Goran Eriksson has shown an ability to lead on the world stage. There are some questions over Drogba’s health with the star striker postponing surgery until after the Finals, so help from his teammates will be more vital than usual.

Does North Korea have anything to offer to dictate who progresses in this group?

The North Koreans were surprise qualifiers for the Finals in South Africa and travel to the tournament as the worst-ranked team in the field. They progressed from two tough qualification groups, both of which included their archrivals from the South, to book passage to only their second Finals ever and first since 1966. But I wonder how much of their success is attributable to trying to outdo their rivals—though they were just 0-3-1 against them in four head-to-head matchups.

Their roster consists of few household names, with only three players plying their trade outside of the domestic league (two in Japan and one in Russia). Only captain Hong Yong-Jo, who plays for Rostov in the Russian Premier League, and the hot-handed Jong Tae-Se have more than 10 international goals. In fact, the entire team has only just 63 international goals to their credit. They’re also carrying just two goalkeepers, an interesting move for such a defensive-minded team. The lack of offense means the North Koreans will likely try to park the bus against all three opponents, but their staunch defense which allowed only four goals in 14 qualifying matches could earn a result against a squad whose offense isn’t clicking on all cylinders.

Final Diagnosis

The viability of Brazil’s squad to contend won’t be decided by the group stages alone. If you look at the squad list in the context of past teams’ styles, I could foresee a knockout stage without the Brazilians. But this team has bought into Dunga’s relatively unorthodox philosophy, making them a safe bet for at least the quarterfinals. Neither Portugal nor Ivory Coast blows me away with their form, though we will see more about Portugal’s ability when they face Cameroon tomorrow. Their opening game against each other will decide the group’s second qualifier early. The North Koreans won’t score a goal the entire tournament, but a scoreless draw against either Portugal or Ivory Coast could determine who progresses from the group. In the end, I give Portugal the advantage simply because they get Brazil on the last day of the group stages, and Brazil likely will already have sealed qualification by then.

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