Now to the group most of us have the greatest interest in. Our group, Group C. Ever since the draw with the U.S. getting plopped with England and then two seemingly weaker foes in Algeria in Slovenia, optimism is high Stateside.
Does that mean a trip to the second round is a guarantee? Far from it. Slovenia beat a good Russian side in a qualification playoff and Algeria has a solid group of European-based players, who are definitely skillful enough to give the U.S. fits.
And in case you’ve missed some of our earlier breakdowns, here you go.
Wednesday – Group A
Thursday – Group B
Today – Group C
Monday – Group D
Tuesday – Group E
Wednesday – Group F
Thursday – Group G
Friday – Group H
Captain: D Carlos Bocanegra. He’s been a warrior for U.S. Soccer for a few World Cup cycles now, and he’ll be counted on to man the left side instead of pairing with Oguchi Onyewu in the middle of defense, or at least I hope that’s the case because it means Jonathan Bornstein is on the bench. Bocanegra can, and will, get burned by pacy wingers, but he’s a force on set pieces and I’ll take steady over the Bornstein gaffe-machine any day.
Where Will The Goals Come From: MF Clint Dempsey. Even before Jozy Altidore’s sprained ankle, Dempsey was my choice here. Deuce put in a great year at Fulham despite some injury woes and criticism at home for some of his perceived loafing in the Stars and Stripes, Dempsey always seems to be the guy scoring the vital goal for club and country. He’ll most likely play as a withdrawn striker alongside Altidore, much like he did late in matches at the Confederations Cup to good effect. He’s confident, strong in the air, and ready for a breakout tournament.
X-Factor: MF Stuart Holden. OK, so I have a bit of a man-crush on Holden. And if I had my way, Holden would start at left mid, and Dempsey would play up top with Jozy. Stu is one of the U.S.’ most skilled and gifted playmakers, whose crosses tease goaltenders and defenders. He used strong performances with Houston to land a deal with England’s Bolton and when he finally cracked the lineup for Wanderers he was their best player on the field. Problem was, after two games of asserting himself, he was the victim of a horror tackle by Holland’s Nigel de Jong in a friendly. He came back to make a substitute appearance in the final game of the season, and seems fit and ready to assume a role in the Starting XI. It was off Holden crosses that the U.S. scored both of its goals against the Czech Republic, and Holden gives America another free kick specialist to pair with Landon Donovan.
Young Stud: MF Michael Bradley. It’s easy to forget that Bradley is still just 22-years old despite making 41 caps for the senior national team already. And he’d be starting in the center of midfield regardless if his dad was the coach or not. He’s good. Really good. He’s the U.S.’ lone true box-to-box midfielder, and there aren’t too many of those around nowadays (Frank Lampard is one of the better ones going). Bradley showed he could score in Holland with Heerenveen and has provided timely finishing touches for the U.S. But he’s also a disruptive one-man demolition crew. Having just finished his second season with German side Borussia Monchengladbach, Bradley is among the Bundesliga leaders in ground covered and has earned a reputation as one of the hardest workers in the league. He’s the glue in the American midfield, and whether it’s Ricardo Clark or Maurice Edu partnering with him, Bradley will surely mix it up with England’s high-profile stars in the June 12th opener.
Captain: D Rio Ferdinand. England captain by default, and by default I mean because the team’s original captain John Terry, a married man, slept with teammate Wayne Bridge’s baby momma, got her pregnant and was by her side when she had a secret abortion while teammates who trained, Bridge included, thought Terry missed the session because he was ill. Cold-blooded. Ferdinand is a tad overrated for my liking, but he still continuously shows up for Manchester United and is a physical specimen. Expectations for England are always high and Ferdinand will see more time in front of the camera than on the pitch with plenty of media duty during his time in South Africa.
Where Will The Goals Come From: F Wayne Rooney. One of the best strikers going in the world right now. A lot is riding on Ronney’s broad shoulders this month. He scored 34 times for Manchester United this season and can score with either foot or his head. If he can stay composed (something he has worked on with maturity), the now 25-year old could become England’s next greatest hero since 1960. A contender for the tournament’s Golden Boot Award.
X-Factor: Whoever they start in goal. Whether it’s Robert Green, David James or youngster Joe Hart, the English goalkeeper will be under much scrutiny. Any mistake can be a national team career ender. Just ask Paul Robinson, whose missed kick gaffe against Croatia in qualifying most likely cost him a shot at this year’s roster. None of the three are standout keepers. Thirty-year old Green has waited his turn and is good, but not great. There are probably eight goalkeepers in the English Premier League alone better than him. James has been a good servant to club and country, but he’s 39 and hasn’t always been the most error-free goalie to begin with. Hart, 23, has just one England cap, but he had a wildly successful season with Birmingham, helping the Blues finish in the top half of the table. However, the World Cup is far too big a stage for a young lad to be tossed to the sharks. Oh, and in case you were wondering, Green, the clubhouse favorite for the No. 1 shirt, has just nine England caps. Goalie is, without a doubt, England’s primary concern heading to South Africa.
Young Stud: MF James Milner. The casual soccer fan probably doesn’t know much about Milner, with the usual big English names garnering all the attention and minutes. But Milner, 24, has arrived, and very much in high demand by the sport’s giant clubs. I remember watching the kid when he was with Leeds thinking, ‘Jeez, in 2010 this kid is going to be one of the best in the world.’ Honestly. (You want another prediction: Belgium is loaded with young studs. Euro 2012 and the World Cup in Brazil could be a Belgian Dip.) Back on point, Milner is constant energy on either wing, but can also be deployed centrally if need be. He’s coming off an absolutely phenomenal year where he outshone fellow British youngsters Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor to earn Fabio Capello’s call.
Captain: MF Yazid Mansouri. A holding midfielder, the 32-year old Mansouri has called France’s Lorient home since 2006, making 112 appearances for Les Merlus. Mansouri had a brief 14-game spell in England with Coventry City in 2003-04 before returning to France. He’s featured 65 times for Algeria and is the defensive rock in a midfield highlighted by offensive-minded jitterbugs.
Where Will The Goals Come From: F Abdelkader Ghezzal. I won’t hold it against that he shares a first name with a Detroit Red Wings’ forward’s surname (Blackhawks fan, here). Algeria doesn’t really have a go-to scoring threat. Ghezzal scored just twice in qualification, while the aged Rafik Saifi, 35, put home three goals during qualifying and lively winger Karim Matmour scored once. Ghezzal, 25, plays with Italy’s Siena and has scored 11 times in 63 games for the Serie A squad. He’s sound technically and will be vital to Algeria’s hopes.
X-Factor: MF Karim Ziani. Algeria has a number of players establishing legitimate European credentials. Nadir Belhadj and Hassan Yebda both contribute for Portsmouth, Karim Matmour provides Borussia Monchengladbah with an offensive spark and Madjid Bougherra has been a defensive revelation for Rangers. But none will be as important to Algeria’s success as their maestro in the center of midfield Kaini. The Wolfsburg playmaker is Algeria’s creative inspiration, but also can prove frustrating at times when things aren’t going his way. When he’s on his game, Ziani has proven to be as tricky as any center mid playing in Europe today. The concern now is establishing consistency.
Young Stud: MF Ryad Boudebouz. French-born to Algerian parents, the 20-year old Boudebouz began his career in France’s youth squads, making nine appearances for the French U19 side. However, the Sochaux youngster switched allegiances with the temptation of World Cup soccer making Algeria the preferred national team. Despite his youth, Boudebouz has played 53 games for Sochaux (scoring six times).
Captain: MF Robert Koren. A creative, central midfielder, Koren plays his club ball for recently promoted West Brom in England. He’s quick, is a fantastic passer and won’t be shy about letting loose from distance. All that said, he’s still far from a star. He’s not typically a physical force in midfield and can be lost in the action at times. If Slovenia is to have any success, Koren will have to be at his distributing best.
Where Will The Goals Come From: F Milivoje Novakovic. The 6-foot-4 Novakovic led Slovenia with five goals in qualifying and has an impressive strike rate internationally with 14 goals in 37 games. Having plied his trade in Germany with Cologne since 2006, the 31-year old striker has netted 51 times in 108 games for the Bundesliga side, forming a striker pairing with Germany’s Lukas Podolski. A big forward, Novakovic is adept at holding play up, therefore becoming a conduit for Slovenia’s attack.
X-Factor: GK Samir Handanovic. One of the better goalies in Serie A, Handanovic posted an impressive seven shutouts in qualification. He’s been Udinese’s preferred No. 1 goalkeeper since 2007 and has attracted interest from some of Europe’s larger clubs. posted At nearly 6-foot-5, Handanovic, 25, has plenty of goal coverage, is surprisingly athletic and is the best Eastern European goalie prospect since Petr Cech.
Young Stud: MF Rene Krhin. It’s not certain how much Krhin will actually feature during the Cup. He played just five minutes during Slovenia’s qualification campaign. But he’s 20-years old and on the books at Inter Milan. That’s clear identification for Young Stud. He’s a gifted technician in central midfield, and could be a valuable second-half sub when Slovenia goes in search of equalizing goals.
England wins group. United States advances second.