Posted by: mdegeorge | June 6, 2010

World Cup Diagnosis Group H: Striving for second to Spain

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):

Spain (2): 10-0-0 in UEFA qualification Group 5

Chile (15): 10-5-3 in CONMBOL qualification (second place)

Switzerland (26): 6-1-3 in UEFA qualification Group 2

Honduras (40): 10-6-2 in CONCACAF qualification (third place)

Will anyone trouble Spain in this group?

As often is the case with groups whose games come at the end of the round, Group H is flying under the radar and could have some interesting surprises and entertaining football to offer. That said, it still doesn’t look like it will entail anyone toppling the Spanish.

Injuries are certainly a concern. Cesc Fabregas was sidelined since for the final month of Arsenal’s season, though he has been reduced to mostly a bit player for the national team. The two players whose recent prowess has supplanted him, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, both missed time for club team Barcelona toward the end of the season. But if there’s a team that can cope with injuries, it’s Spain, the most balanced, deep team in this competition. Their defense is stellar, with the ever-present Carlos Puyol leading the line. They have the deepest goaltending squad in the world, with three keepers in Iker Casillas, Pepe Reina, and Victor Valdes, each of whom would start for the vast majority of teams in this tournament. Xavi, Iniesta, Xabi Alonso, and the upstart Jesus Navas form the midfield with ample replacements waiting on the bench. David Villa and Fernando Torres are a formidable strike pairing with Pedro, who seems to score in every competition he takes part in, waiting in the wings.

If they do falter, questions will be asked of head coach Vicente Del Bosque’s decision to omit several players who were integral in their European Championship run of 2008, namely talismanic midfielder Marcos Senna, dependable substitute Santi Cazorla, and striker Dani Guiza. Youth is served in this side, with 10 players under 24 years of age, but that means little when you consider how early they bring players around (as 23-year-old Fabregas attests).How will Chile fare without Humberto Suazo?

Chile was one of the most explosive teams in CONMEBOL qualification, scoring 32 goals in 18 matches, one less than leaders Brazil and nine more than Argentina. A large part of that was due to Suazo, who led all players in qualifying with 10 goals. If he is unable to go for any amount of time, it will seriously hamper their efforts at progress.

The remainder of the squad is an interesting blend of young and old. Only two players are older than 30, but no outfield player has fewer than 12 caps. Only one player other than Suazo has over 10 national team goals (Alexis Sanchez, 11), but 18 of the 20 outfield players have goals to their names. Sanchez has stepped up lately, including a brace against Zambia, and will have to provide cover until Suazo is able to return, something the team is very hopeful of.

Can the Swiss find answers in attack?

The Swiss may have been worried were goals were going to come from two weeks ago, but recent events have only made their fears more profound. All-time leading scorer Alexander Frei hasn’t played since February with a broken arm, but has come through two friendlies, including a full 90 minutes against Costa Rica, in what manager Ottmar Hitzfeld believes will be an advantage for his team. He was in good form before picking up the injury with 13 goals in 17 appearances after moving back to his home country for FC Basel.

The most reliable alternative was the somewhat volatile Marco Streller and his 11 goals in 30 caps. But he fell victim to a thigh muscle tear and practice, and has been replaced by Albert Bunjaku (two caps, zero goals). That leaves Eren Derdiyok, who is due to turn 22 six days prior to the Swiss’ opening game, and Blaise N’Kufo, who has had a renaissance in his mid-30s and forced his way back into the national team with five goals in qualification as the team’s joint top scorer with Frei. The result has been two lackluster friendlies in which they were shutout by Costa Rica in Sion and drew with Italy, 1-1.

The answer is going to have to come from a potentially explosive midfield. The second leading career scorer on this squad behind Frei is the marauding Hakan Yakin with 20. He will likely be utilized as a support striker playing just off Frei’s shoulder with free reign in the attacking third (though Hitzfeld has been primarily using a 4-4-2 formation pairing N’Kufo and Frei). Gelson Fernandes and Gohkan Inler (who had the goal against Italy) must command the center of midfield, while Tranquillo Barnetta and Valon Behrami will be called upon to stretch the defense laterally on the wings.

Can the Hondurans spring another surprise?

Honduras was one of the biggest shocks in qualifying, emerging from CONCACAF behind traditional powers USA and Mexico over Costa Rica and Trinidad and Tobago, both of whom participated in the 2006 Finals. It’s just their second ever World Cup Finals appearance; they’re last came in Spain in 1982 when they earned two draws in three group matches, but finished fourth in a group that included the hosts.

The Final’s berth is a just reward for a golden generation of Honduran footballers. This squad has 13 of its 23 players over the age of 28, including all-time caps leader Amado Guevara (135) and all-time leading goal scorer Carlos Pavon (57). Neither are there merely as rewards for their long-standing service to the national team. Guevara has been a constant fixture in the side and the captain for the better part of the last decade. Pavon was the second leading scorer in all of CONCACAF qualification with seven goals (and for all intents and purposes, as El Salvador’s Rudis Corrales only surpassed him because of six goals in a lopsided 16-0 win over two legs against Anguilla in the first round).

This is a team with a lot of experience at the club and international level. Julio Cesar De Leon, Ramon Nunez, and Guevara are threats to score out of the midfield, and David Suazo and Walter Martinez are solid secondary striking options. Wilson Palacios and Hendry Thomas are stabilizing forces in the center of midfield, while Maynor Figueroa provides support for the attack from his left back position. The absence of striker Carlo Costly may be, well, costly, and may play a role in the team’s recent lack of goal-scoring touch. They have managed just two goals in three friendly matches: a draw against European struggles Belarus, a scoreless draw against lowly Azerbaijan, and a blowout loss at the hands of Romania.

Final Diagnosis

This group amounts to who will finish in second place behind Spain. They did struggle in a recent friendly against Saudi Arabia, but it’s hard to see this team falter off in the group stage. The combination of struggling offensive teams and Spain’s possession-oriented attack spells more than one shutout in my book. Neither of the other three team’s is particularly impressive, and there’s not even an African team who can benefit from the home continent advantage. The Swiss often underperform in big tournaments, the Chileans aren’t that good of a team without Suazo, and the Hondurans have been in terrible form. Since someone has to advance, I’ll go with Chile in the hopes that Suazo plays some part in the proceedings.

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