Posted by: mdegeorge | June 11, 2010

Starting XI points: What the friendlies have taught us

The weakness is what?

Team USA has undergone a reversal of fortunes in the last month. Entering their pre-World Cup preparations, the veteran defensive corps was viewed as one of the team’s strongholds sandwiched between an elite goalkeeper and a creative but defensively responsible midfield. Instead, the defense has struggled mightily, conceding six goals in three matches, including four goals given up to the Czech Republic. The back line is riddled with injuries, most notably to Oguchi Oneywu, and the unit has lacked chemistry. The versatility has actually caused problems, with uncertainty over whether Jay DeMerit and Carlos Bocanegra will be deployed in the center of defense or on the wing. DeMerit paired with Clarence Goodson in the center and Steve Cherundolo and Bocanegra on the wings worked better against Australia, but Oneywu’s absence from that functional unit is still a concern.

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On the other hand, the offense has found options aplenty in the recent friendlies. Established names like Brian Ching and Eddie Johnson weren’t cutting it, so head coach Bob Bradley wagered his World Cup future on unproven names like Robbie Findley, Edson Buddle, and Herculez Gomez. The result: Findley has been a constant protagonist as a support striker and a winger, Buddle scored a tidy brace against Australia, and Gomez has two goals in two games. The offense has put the ball in the back of the net seven times in their three warmup matches, five of which have come from the strikers and four from forwards not named “Jozy Altidore”. Their emergence has limited the potential panic over Altidore’s ankle injury. The success of the unit is certainly enhanced with Altidore’s presence, but the other three seem capable of leading the line on their won.

Yet another surrender?At some point, France’s proclivity for underperforming on the international stage will get old. Not yet though. They have scuffled through the friendlies, requiring a fortunate Mathieu Valbuena strike to climb past Costa Rica, some defensive confusion for William Gallas to draw level with Tunisia, and a paper bag for their heads after a 1-0 loss to China.

There’s plenty lacking in this squad. Jeremy Toulalan isn’t the type of holding midfielder the side enjoyed in the days of Claude Makelele, and Lassana Diarra’s absence due to illness means Toulalan will see all too much time on the field. Eric Abidal is out of position as a central defender, a weakness already thanks to Gallas, who appears to be losing quickness by the game. Thierry Henry is also a shadow of his former self is probably just a substitute at this juncture of his career. The likes of Nicolas Anelka, Sidney Govou, and Andre-Pierre Gignac give them some striking talent (although must less than had they retained Karim Benzema), but the proper balance of front men has yet to be struck. Franck Ribery, Yoann Gourcuff, and Florent Malouda, the merchants of creativity in the squad, have not yet shown the ability to play together. And quite frankly, lame duck coach Raymond Domenech just hasn’t shown the acumen to push the right buttons on the team sheet in a while. It’s looking increasingly like a short tournament for the French.

African one-man shows derailed

The home-continent advantage in the World Cup only goes so far, as a number of African squads are coming to realize. Injuries have hit these squads especially hard, with Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Cameroon all looking for a plan B on the eve of the Finals.

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To say Ghana misses the offensive creativity and midfield stabilizing of Michael Essien is a massive understatement. They did manage to make the finals at the African Cup of Nations earlier this year without the Chelsea man. But the Black Stars have been unconvincing in friendlies without him, allowing the Dutch to run roughshod in a 4-1 win and requiring an 89th-minute goal from Quincy Owusu-Abeyie to topple Latvia.

Cameroon’s difficulties are more self-inflicted, with star striker Samuel Eto’o threatening to sit out the Finals over a feud with former soccer great George Willa. They’ve lost two matches (to fellow finalists Portugal and Serbia) while drawing with Georgia and Slovakia. Eto’o took part in only one of those matches—the loss to Serbia—and the Indomitable Lions have found the back of the net just five times in four matches. Pierre Webo has emerged as a replacement with three of those goals, but this team is going nowhere without Eto’o.

The Ivory Coast is also without their star striker in Didier Drogba for at least a portion of the tournament. His absence means it’s likely curtains for the three-forward approach Sven-Goran Eriksson has been utilizing lately. It also means one of the remaining seasoned forwards, Aruna Dindane and Salomon Kalou, will have to enter the goal-scoring fray sooner rather than later. Drogba may be back for the start of the tournament, but it’s hard to imagine he’ll be capable of playing the same physical style he has elevated to nearly a science.

South American giants flying high

Both Argentina and Brazil are making headlines for all the right reasons in the lead up to the Finals with each notching lopsided wins in recent weeks. The Lionel Messi-less Albiceleste demolished Canada 5-0 in their only tune-up so far, using four different goal scorers, including a brace from Maxi Rodriguez. It will be their only friendly before the Finals, with another match schedule against Israel canceled. There are still questions about how all the pieces of the attacking puzzle will fit together, but given a rather easy group, the opening three matches will be a chance for Diego Maradona to sort those things out as best the erratic manager can.

Brazil meanwhile has also opted for a light schedule before the finals with only two friendlies against opponents who are far from world class. They waltzed past Zimbabwe, 3-0, before steamrolling Tanzania, 5-1, and deeming themselves set for the Finals. Dunga may not be the exponent of joga bonita his predecessors were, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would call the third goal against Zimbabwe scored by Elano anything but “beautiful”. They’re also getting goals from a variety of players. Robinho and Kaka are playing well together and look to have put their club troubles behind them. Younger players like Michel Bastos and Ramires are also contributing so as not to leave the entire goal-scoring burden on the likes of Luis Fabiano.

Indifferent Italy

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Everyone assumed holders Italy’s would walk a fine line between experience and aging in the tournament. The surprise is that they appear to have chosen their distinction already. They were pretty well dominated by Mexico two weeks ago in a 2-1 goal, the margin of which was made to look better by a late consolation strike from defender Leonardo Bonucci, only to follow it up with a lackluster 1-1 draw with Switzerland whose only highlight was a goal by the much-maligned Fabio Quagliarella.

The fact that Andrea Pirlo is sitting at home in Milan recuperating from a calf injury—and will probably remain there until at least the last group game—doesn’t bode well for the Azzurri’s chances. Nor does the fact that Marcello Lippi hasn’t and probably won’t for some time settle on a stable starting 11. It worked four years ago when he had a plethora of veteran performers with a knack for coming up big for both club and country. Don’t expect a repeat with the squad full of young, unsettled players.

Oranje looking golden

When the most difficult managerial decision you face entering a major is which of your star attacking midfielders to deploy, life’s pretty good. And that looks to be the case for Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk. His team has found the back of the net 12 times in three warm-up matches, two of which came against fellow Finalists. Oft-injured hitman Robin van Persie can count four of those to his account, and he has looked like the man to lead the line. Van Marwijk still must chose between Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart to occupy the attacking midfielder role, though he opted to have both in the starting 11 in their last match against Hungary with Arjen Robben starting on the bench. Robben’s injury will likely hold him out of the first match and potentially longer, so Sneijder and van der Vaart might be teaming up again in a rare departure of the favored Dutch 4-3-3 formation.

Obviously van Marwijk’s biggest concern just days away from the tournament isn’t the group stages, but to find a way to avoid the late-stage fizzling that his many illustrious predecessors have been unable to. The Dutch seem destined to be world football’s perpetual bridesmaids, twice runners-up in the Finals without ever tasting victory. This year’s squad has all the makings of a similar team who could find themselves waltzing through the group stages; only time will tell if they can take the extra step forward.

Japan its own worst enemies

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If there’s one very obvious trend from the friendlies so far, it may be the performance of the Japanese defense and their penchant for putting the ball in their own net. The Blue Samurai’s have surrendered seven goals in three games, three of which have been of their own doing. They’ve also conceded two penalties, only one of which was converted (thanks to Frank Lampard and England’s ongoing penaltykickophobia). Two of those own goals have come from Tulio Tanaka, one of the supposed stalwarts of the backline. Japan has also only netted once in their three tune-ups, also by Tanaka. Their forwards have been downright impotent in most outings, and things are going to have to change quickly on both ends to prevent a quick exit. This is a fragile team right now who should expect a blitz from Cameroon in the opening game. While it is a veteran squad, the uncertainty of their recent forms means it also has the makings of a squad that will hang its heads if punched in the chest. I just shudder to think what the Dutch will do to them in the second group fixture.

Iberian insecurity alleviated…for now

It’s the first time the two Iberian nations enter the World Cup Finals in the top three of FIFA’s World Rankings (no, not Andorra, who sit in next to last place, 201st in the polls). But neither has glided into the Finals, instead having to answer serious questions about their form in the last two weeks.

Portugal infamously began their voyage to South Africa with a listless draw against the juggernaut that is Cape Verde, but has responded with two consecutive victories against higher caliber African opponents. The Selecao easily got past Cameroon despite an increasingly rare cameo by Eto’o, 3-1, behind a brace from Raul Meireles before shutting out Mozambique thanks to a double from much-maligned—often by me—substitute Hugo Almeida. They’re getting the scoring from the midfield they’ve been lacking and Almeida and Danny have stepped up to provide some offensive punch from the striking contingent. But Nani, one of their major creative forces, has been ruled out of the tourney with a collarbone injury, and a certain former World Footballer of the Year hasn’t played that role in the Portugal jersey just yet.

Spain also flattered to deceive out of the blocks, requiring moments of brilliance from youngsters to prevent blushes. Fernando Llorente fired home in stoppage time to prevent Saudi Arabia from capturing a major skin against an uncharacteristically porous Spanish defense. And Jesus Navas produced a beautiful goal in the dying minutes against South Korea to finally capitalize on a plethora of missed chances after a day of dominance over the Taegeuk Warriors. But La Furia Roja found a remedy for their ills: Poland. They hung six on the White Eagles, including getting David Villa, David Silva, Fernando Torres, and Pedro off the mark. They still have injury issues with Andres Iniesta the latest doubt for the opener, but look to be righting the ship just in time.

Three Lions not roaring yet

Despite high expectations—always a foreboding sign for this nation in particular—England has managed to fly somewhat under the radar heading into the Finals. They easily handled Mexico before struggling against Japan and only earning the win thanks to two own goals by the Blue Samurai.

In fact, it’s been an all together uneventful run into South Africa. The only notable exceptions are the revelation that Rio Ferdinand will miss out due to injury and manager Fabio Capello’s inexplicable explosion at reporters, but it’s been pretty easy considering some of their past indiscretions (no, I won’t post the link yet again). There are even very few questions about who will be selected for the starting 11. Heck, there’s not even enough for me to stretch into three paragraphs!

Hosts looking less hospitable

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Anyone expecting hosts South Africa to just rollover satisfied to be a part of the festivities may be sadly mistaken. The hosts have undertaken a rigorous friendly schedule over the last three weeks—a logical move given their lack of qualifying matches—and have gone 4-0-1 against substantial opposition. They started with a 4-0 trouncing of lowly Thailand but faltered in a lackluster draw against Bulgaria and struggled to a victory over Colombia. But they have been better of late and enter with the confidence of a victory over fellow finalists Denmark.

Scoring hasn’t been a problem as some had expected with Bafana Bafana tallying 13 goals over the five-game stretch. Katlego Mphela has found his scoring touch of late with five goals, albeit three from the penalty spot, though that total does include the game-winners against Colombia, Guatemala, and Denmark. He has been joined by Bernard Parker’s two goals in making many South African fans ask, “Benni who?” This is a case of team that is peaking at just the right time, and when you adjust for the home-field, vuvuzela-fueled hysteria, there might be some surprises in store.

Oh no Oceania

Ok, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but both Australia (of the former Oceanic glory) and New Zealand haven’t been able to produce consistent results ahead of the Finals. The Aussies have two wins, but one was over New Zealand and the other came against a struggling Denmark side. In between, they were easily dismissed by the Americans. Goals have been hard to come by and though Joshua Kennedy is healthy once again, Tim Cahill looks to be a major doubt for their Group D opener. Goals will have to come from some heretofore unlikely sources to buck the trend.

The All Whites also aren’t taking much momentum into the Finals. They haven’t been overmatched as many expected in their three warm-ups, but still only managed one win from three matches. They scored a surprise win over Serbia after hanging touch with Australia, but a sound thrashing by Slovenia in their last outing strips them of some of their new found confidence. They have had three different goal scorers in their three games, and more will be required from that offense moving forward.

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