After finishing group previews, we take another look and see which teams are most likely to upset conventional wisdom and advance beyond the group stage to the round of sixteen. It could be due to injury from an opposing team, or simply by taking a look at their roster and style of play. Here are six teams that could make some noise in the coming weeks.
While I initially had Croatia advancing to the round of sixteen, I’ve since been thinking: Why not Mexico? They certainly have the players capable to play competitively at this level and a huge fan base to cheer them on. Mexico has an experienced coach in Miguel Herrera and quality players in most every position. El Tri have underperformed throughout the qualifiers and even in the last friendly match, losing to Bosnia 1-0. But the fact that they have underperformed also means that they have the opportunity to play as a cohesive unit and play the type of futbol that El Tri used to play in the past.
Keep in mind that the final game in this group pits Mexico vs Croatia, and should Croatia suffer a few injuries or even suspensions, Mexico has a deeper bench than Croatia. And the more fluid style of play from El Tri vs. a stiffer, conventional style from their opponents could propel Mexico beyond the group stage, even though no one is talking about them.
While it is hard to discount Portugal’s pedigree in the tournament, let’s take a look back at 2010. Ghana went to the semi-finals, while Portugal went home after the group stage. In fact, Portugal has a penchant for not playing up to its potential. After the 2010 World Cup, several of their more prominent players retired, leaving the team a little older and more reliant on one player. At the present, the only thing that is known about Cristiano Ronaldo is that he has been hobbled by tendonitis, and being less than 100% may be just enough to allow the Black Stars to advance beyond the group stage by surpassing Portugal.
In the last World Cup, Ghana missed a penalty kick in regulation time that would’ve won their game outright and advance, and then lost in the same game in penalty kicks to Uruguay in the semi-finals. For the players that were on that team in 2010, that memory may provide an extra boost to advance out of group play.
It seems odd to mention the Dutch here, given the fact that they played in the finals of the last World Cup. Two years later, this same team failed to register a point in the Euros. Yet only two teams in each division will advance out of group play, and I believe that this is Chile’s year to advance. But let’s not discount the Netherlands.
Let’s look at some of their key players. Wesley Sneijder has probably seen his best playing days but is still a competitive force on defense. Arjen Robben is now thirty years old and has lost a step or two, but has developed into one of the better all-round players in world football today. Robin van Persie is one of the best strikers today, but has been hobbled by injuries throughout the season. The Dutch back line has been somewhat porous and contains several young players, but if these same defenders are able to rise to the occasion, it would allow the games to remain competitive and give the Oranje the opportunity to demonstrate their offensive prowess.
Events over the last several days have caused me to take another look at Group E, and more specifically, Equador’s opportunity to advance beyond the group stage of the Cup. First, let’s look at their opponents within the group. Switzerland has played well of late, but have a relatively small pool of players to choose from in such a small country, and don’t have the depth of a larger country, which would be detrimental in the case of a suspension or an injury.
They have yet to advance beyond the group stage and have a relatively inexperienced team coupled with a manager who will be leaving them after the Cup to join Manchester United. As for France, while they might seem to have a better squad, they have lost Franck Ribery to a back injury, thus eliminating their most potent goal scorer. They have also lost attacking midfielder Clement Grenier with a groin injury, one of France’s young talents.
This leaves the door ajar for Equador, who are competing on their continent. With a mix of foreign based and local players, they also don’t have any superstars of note, thus minimizing their risk of being overly dependent on any one player. Their last appearance in the World Cup was in 2006, when they managed to reach the round of sixteen. Will history repeat itself?
This combination of a consistent team balance and the dwindling resources of the “favorites” in their division might be enough to propel La Tri beyond the group stage.
Another former A-lister, how is this team possibly named as an upset contender? Two words: Uruguay and Italy. The Three Lions have the misfortune of being grouped with teams that have been playing better. But let’s not count out England just yet. They can still advance out of the group stage and into the round of sixteen and then, who knows?
It is unlikely that they can overtake Italy, so let’s take another look at their more likely rival for the second spot, Uruguay. Los Charruas advanced far into Cup play in 2010, but a closer look reveals that had their opponents converted key penalty kicks, they would’ve exited earlier. Most of us look at Uruguay and see dynamic players up front like Cavani and Suarez, but their playmaker in the midfield (Diego Perez) has slowed down at age 34, and their back line (Godin, Lugano) have both seen their best days as players and lack pace. While Uruguay may be seen as an offensive juggernaut, they are vulnerable in their defensive half, and it is here that opponents like England need to capitalize on their opportunities through their flank speed.
In England’s case, they have their veterans (Gerrard, Rooney, Lampard), but also a core of younger players that bear watching (Sturridge, Sterling, Wilshere, Lallana). If this youthful group of players can perform for their home country as well as they have for their club teams, this team will excel. Keep in mind that they have only lost once under their manager Roy Hodgson, who will adapt his team to each match, with the only guarantee of a Hodgson team being a 4-4-2 formation. The team itself has toned down expectations publically, but as with any team “the owl” manages, their desire to advance burns deeply. Under no conditions are we to discount England from advancing to the round of sixteen.
While Les Elephants have some quality players, they also have never made it out of the group stages of a World Cup. While currently ranked at number 23 by FIFA, their captain and striker Didier Drogba at age 36 can no longer be called upon to carry the team and their other forwards are not world class caliber. The brothers Toure (midfield and central defender) are in their thirties and cannot be heavily relied upon in man to man coverages. Another defender Zokora is also in his thirties, having voluntarily left his Turkish club team Trabzonspor in Turkey back in April, so age and conditioning would seem to be an issue.
In contrast, the majority of the roster of the Japanese team is in their prime playing age, and has successfully maintained their own league (J-League), being able to develop some of their players at home. Their manager, Alberto Zaccheroni, has said publically that unlike Japanese risk-averse teams in the past, he chose his players on their ability to attack aggressively. If they are able to successfully insert this style of play into their game plan, it is possible that a team like the Ivory Coast will be vulnerable and not be able to withstand this level of offensive pressure. While we have yet to see how this style of football plays out for the Samurai Blues, it will make for some interesting matches and could propel Japan beyond the group stage.
Lastly, Japan has entered into an agreement with Nintendo and Adidas, who supplies their jerseys, to try to garner more interest in the beautiful game at home by featuring an anime character on their national jersey. And who doesn’t love Pikachu?
[Photo credit: Technobuffalo]