The next few days are centered around two things for me:
1.) digest everything World Cup-related I can in preparation for my favorite sporting event.
2.) catchup on all my shows to clear space on the DVR for those early morning Eastern Time Zone kickoffs. (The History Channel’s “America: The Story of Us” is about to get devoured.)
Our World Cup preview continues and brings us to Group E. This group is a tricky one with one elite team (the Netherlands) and then three pretty good teams, each capable of advancing to the Round of 16.
Captain: D Giovanni van Bronckhorst. The 35-year old left back has made 100 appearances for the Oranje and has featured in five major competitions for Holland, including a fantastic Euro 2008. The former Arsenal and Barcelona player is a steady leader from the back and provides good cover on the flank. Now at Feyernood, van Bronckhorst can push up and also be deployed as a defensive midfielder if need be. With no Clarence Seedorf or Edgar Davids, van Bronckhorst will be counted on for some much needed leadership.
Where The Goals Will Come From: F Robin Van Persie. He seems fit and Arsenal fans are left wondering what kind of title chase they could have mounted had that been the case for the majority of this past season. Van Persie injured his ankle in a November friendly and remained sidelined until mid-April. The 26-year old scored nine goals and had seven assists in 14 league starts for Arsenal despite the injury. He has found the scoresheet in each of Holland’s last three friendlies, including both Dutch tallies in a 2-1 win over Mexico May 26. I love me some RVP.
X-Factor: MF Nigel de Jong. I’m not Nigel’s biggest fan after his dirtball tackle on Stuart Holden in a friendly that cost the young American the chance to solidify a first-team chance with Bolton. But de Jong will be vital to the Dutch’s chances. The Oranje have plenty of skilled attackers in the midfield, but de Jong provides the steel. A top-class ball winner, the Manchester City man is a bulldog in the center of the pitch.
Young Stud: MF Eljero Elia. With Arjen Robben doubtful to partake in Holland’s group matches, the 23-year old Elia will be counted on to provide much needed width to the Dutch attack. Elia has electric pace, plenty of dribbling tricks and causes defender fits all day long from the left wing. The Hamburg starlet notched five Bundesliga goals in his first season in Germany after impressing with FC Twente. He featured just once in the Netherlands’ World Cup qualifying campaign (scoring a goal as a substitute), but would have featured prominently even if Robben had been healthy. A player definitely on the upswing.
Captain: F Samuel Eto’o. It’s no surprise Eto’o led Cameroon with eight goals in nine games in World Cup qualifying. The Inter Milan striker is one of the best in the world and has the potential to be a one-man wrecking crew. But he’s been defiant with media and former players over criticism the team is taking and even threatened to quit. Cooler heads prevailed, and Eto’o will be leading the line for Cameroon. However, this is not the same Samuel Eto’o from a year ago. He failed to reproduce his 2008-09 form when he netted 34 times for Barcelona in all competitions. This past season with Inter, Eto’o managed 15 goals in 47 total games with the European champions. Not a bad haul, but not exactly the explosive tally many had come to expect.
Where The Goals Will Come From: F Pierre Webo. We’re not kidding anyone. We know the goals will most likely come from Eto’o, but the Spanish-based Webo will be counted on to take some of the pressure of the temperamental star. Webo, 28, scored twice in Saturday’s 4-3 friendly loss to Serbia and scored Cameroon’s lone strike in last week’s 3-1 loss to Portugal. He made 12 starts and 19 substitute appearances for Mallorca this season, scoring six times. He’s powerful, hard to knock off the ball, works well with his back to goal and compliments Eto’o well.
X-Factor: MF Stephane M’bia (pictured). Midway through the 2009-10 Ligue 1 season, Marseille boss Didier Deschamps decided to move M’bia, normally a ball-winning midfielder, to central defense. The switch proved a revelation, as the 6-foot-3 M’bia became a tower of strength in the middle of Marseille’s defense and helped the club to its first Ligue 1 title since 1992. Considered one of the best young African talents, the 24-year old M’bia is poised for a breakout tournament. And despite Cameroon manager Paul Le Guen deploying a 4-3-3 formation, he’ll find a way to fit M’bia in with the likes of Alexandre Song and Jean Makoun. If need be, Le Guen could use M’bia like Marseille did this past term, at the expense of veteran Rigobert Song.
Young Stud: MF Alexandre Song. While used more as a defensive midfielder with Arsenal, Song will have to be Cameroon’s creative inspiration in the center of the park. And it’s not as if the 22-year old doesn’t possess offensive abilities. He plays at Arsenal. It’s a prerequisite. Part of Arsene Wenger’s youth movement, Song has already made 68 first team appearances for the London giants.
Captain: F Jon Dahl Tomasson. Part of the remaining old guard (which includes Dennis Rommedahl, Jesper Gronkjaer and Martin Jorgensen) Tomasson is a goal-scorer, plain and simple. He’s scored in six different European leagues over his career, with 107 of his 184 goals coming in Holland. A long time servant for Denmark, the 33-year old Feyenoord striker is playing in most likely his final major tournament for country as the Danes transition to a promising new generation of talent. Tomasson won’t wow anybody at South Africa with pace or fancy step-overs, but he’s a solid penalty box striker, who more often than not is in the right place with predatory instincts.
Where The Goals Will Come From: F Nicklas Bendtner (pictured). Hobbled with a groin injury, Bendtner is in a race to be fit for Denmark’s group opener versus the Netherlands. He’s without a doubt Denmark’s most skilled attacker, and proved as much in qualifying with some really fantastic displays. Getting first team opportunities at Arsenal has proven frustrating for the 22-year old. At 6-foot-3, he’s a good leaper and strong in the air, but he’s also fantastic with the ball at his feet unafraid to take defenders on 1-on-1. Danish coach Morten Olsen may decide to rest Bendtner in the opener, and if he does the Danes offense could struggle mightily against the Dutch.
X-Factor: D Simon Kjaer. One of the most highly-sought after defenders in European soccer, the 6-foot-3 central defender was to be the focus of many scouts in South Africa. However, Kjaer was carried off with a knee injury in a friendly against Senegal a week ago and his status for Denmark’s opener against Holland is in question. The idea was the pairing Kjaer and Liverpool’s Daniel Agger would provide a strong backbone in the middle of defense. Now without the 21-year old Palermo man, Denmark will have to shift either Per Kroldrup or Lars Jacobsen into the middle.
Young Stud: MF Christian Eriksen. At 18-years old, the Ajax starlet is the youngest player at the 2010 World Cup. The diminutive, creative attacking midfielder made 15 first team appearances for the Amsterdam giants, scoring once in the Dutch Cup. He came up through the youth ranks at Ajax and made his debut in January. Ajax manager, and former Tottenham boss, Martin Jol compared the young Dane to former Ajax products Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart. Not bad praise at all. Eriksen made his senior international debut in March against Austria becoming the fourth youngest Danish national team player ever. How much he sees the field remains to be seen, but along with Bendtner and Kjaer, the future for Danish football looks bright.
Captain: MF Makoto Hasebe. A crafty midfielder, the 26-year old Hasebe could be a doubt for Japan’s group opener against Cameroon. Hasebe left training early Monday with back pain and was taken to a hospital for scans. It’s not certain how serious the injury is, but it’s an aggravation of a knock picked up in last week’s friendly versus the Ivory Coast. It would be an obvious blow to Japan, especially with influential playmaker Shunsuke Nakamura bothered by an ankle injury. Hasebe, one of Japan’s four players who ply their trade outside of the J-League, plays in Germany with Wolfsburg, where he’s started 43 times over the last two years for the 2009 German champions.
Where The Goals Will Come From: MF Keisuke Honda (pictured). The 23-year old CSKA Moscow midfielder can annihilate a soccer ball. During a few Eredivisie highlight videos over the past few years, you always came across some absolutely brilliant, jaw-dropping strikes from some team named VVV-Venlo. And the player more often than not responsible for those strikes was some Japanese cat named Keisuke Honda. Seriously, YouTube him. Ridiculous. Now with Shunsuke Nakamura on the team, free kick opportunities might be hard to come by, but if Nakamura can’t go, Honda will gladly assume added responsibility. After scoring 26 goals from midfield in three seasons in Holland, Honda signed a lucrative deal during the January transfer window with Russian side CSKA Moscow, scoring three times in 15 appearances for the club.
X-Factor: MF Shunsuke Nakamura. Bothered by an ankle injury, Nakamura was fit enough to make a 45-minute run-out in last week’s friendly versus the Ivory Coast. The former Celtic midfielder is a free kick specialist, scoring some absolutely beautiful goals in his time at Parkhead. He made 128 appearances for the Scottish side before an unsettling year with Espanyol in Spain. He returned to Japan last season with an eye on staying match fit for this World Cup. He’s the influential creative force for Japan, however, if the 31-year old Nakamura isn’t himself, it would be a major blow to Japan’s chances of advancing to the knockout stages.
Young Stud: F Takayuki Morimoto. One of the top young forwards in Serie A, the Catania frontman has the potential to be Japan’s most successful European-based striker to date. He’s scored a modest 13 goals in the last two seasons, but at only 22-years old he’s hoping to use the World Cup as a shop window for bigger teams to take notice. A phenom in the J-League, Morimoto holds the record for youngest Japanese player to make his debut (15 years, 10 months and six days) and youngest scorer (two days before 16th birthday) in the league’s history before joining Catania in 2006. He’s made just two international appearances for Japan prior to the World Cup run-up, but expect the speedy and strong Morimoto to feature prominently in South Africa.
The Netherlands win the group. Cameroon advances second.