Again, sorry for the delay. It’s been a little hectic with this whole World Cup thing starting in the A.M.
We’re off by a day on the group previews, but luckily we have some time before Group G and H get going. So here’s Group G, and Group H (the final chapter) should follow sometime tomorrow.
Captain: D Lucio. A starter in the Champions League final for Inter Milan this year, Lucio had the pleasure of facing his old employers, Bayern Munich (the defender appeared more than 140 times for the German outfit) in the final. Lucio has been a rock at the heart of Brazil’s defense since the 2002 World Cup. At the 2006 tournament, Lucio set a FIFA record by playing 386 consecutive minutes without a committing a foul. Obviously his positional play is fantastic and at 6-foot-2, he’s adept at handling crosses into the box, while also proving dangerous on free kicks.
Where The Goals Will Come From: F Luis Fabiano. The Sevilla frontman doesn’t have the name recognition of say a Kaka, Ronaldo or Robinho, but for the past three seasons, Luis Fabiano has been Brazil’s most consistent striker. The 29-year old led Brazil with nine goals in qualification (Nilmar and Kaka were tied for second with five). Luis Fabiano was among Brazil’s best players at last summer’s Confederations Cup and he’s scored an impressive 25 times in 38 matches for Brazil. Not a bad return at all. Last season, Luis Fabiano netted 21 times in all competitions for Sevilla and has drawn the attention of some of England’s biggest clubs.
X-Factor: F Robinho. Ah, the enigmatic Robinho. There’s little the 26-year old winger can’t do with the ball at his feet. His tricks and pace cause defenders nightmares, but the problem is you don’t always get a motivated Robinho. The 5-foot-8 forward had to leave Manchester City for Santos in attempts to revive his World Cups hopes after he struggled to adapt to life in England. He scored five times in 12 matches for Santos, and if his heart is in it, the Brazilians get to trot out of the most technically gifted wings in the world.
Young Stud: MF Ramires. The 23-year old Benfica midfielder has made 12 appearances for Brazil’s senior national team and was a key figure in the group’s Confederations Cup triumph last season. He flops a little too much for liking, but hey, he’s South American – it’s to be expected. He’s the type of player Dunga has popularized in his squad selection since taking over. Ramires is a tackle-winning midfielder that covers tons of acreage, which allows the gifted forwards and playmakers provide the usual Samba flair. But that doesn’t mean Ramires can’t find the back of the net himself, with late runs into the box.
Captain: F Cristiano Ronaldo. So will the highest paid soccer player in the world make good at the World Cup? Ronaldo disappointed in Euro 2008, scoring just once at the tournament as the Portuguese fell in the quarterfinals. But there’s denying he’s among the top-five talents in the world. After a wildly successful stint at Manchester United where the 25-year old winger won nearly everything, he joined Real Madrid in the summer and in his first season with the Spanish giants, Ronaldo scored 26 times in 29 matches. He can run by you, jump over you or simply just shoot the ball through you.
Where The Goals Will Come From: F Liedson. An injury forced Ronaldo to miss five World Cup qualifiers, but the Real Madrid whiz didn’t score in the seven qualifiers he did play in. So while, Ronaldo gets most of the headlines, and deservedly so, the goals have had to come from elsewhere. Simao led Portugal with a modest four goals during qualification, while Nani added three and Liedson notched two. Over the past two years for Sporting Lisbon, Liedson has provided 30 league goals, and the 32-year old Brazilian-born striker has seemingly settled into a starting role for Portugal. Hugo Almeida, who scored twice in Portugal’s 3-0 friendly win over Mozambique, offers a different dynamic than the 5-foot-8 Liedson. But the 6-foot-4 Werder Bremen striker seems destined for a role as second-half substitute.
X-Factor: D Pepe. Just as the U.S. has concerns over the fitness of center back Oguchi Onyewu, Portugal is in the same boat with Pepe. The Real Madrid defender, who had a remarkable Euro 2008, is coming off a knee injury that has seen him sidelined since December. Pepe made a cameo in Portugal’s friendly win over Mozambique Tuesday, coming on in the 70th minute. Portugal has other options at center back with Ricardo Carvalho, Bruno Alves and Rolando all capable of handling central roles, but the 6-foot-2 Pepe was undoubtedly the first-choice center back prior to his injury.
Young Stud: MF Danny. A tricky winger, Danny has spent the last seven seasons playing in Russia and has established himself as one of the league’s premier offensive talents. At 26-years old, we’re kind of pushing the young stud envelope, but I’m infatuated with the way Danny plays the game. He’s constantly on the attack and more than willing to run at defenders. He’s loads of fun to watch and with the injury to Nani, he might see more playing time than initially expected. Another youngster to keep an eye on is Rolando, a 24-year old defender who can make waves the same way Pepe did at Euro 2008.
Captain: F Didier Drogba. A high boot to Drogba’s arm in last week’s friendly versus Japan might have cost the World Cup its most complete forward. The Premier League’s leading scorer this season (with 29 goals in 31 starts), Drogba had the Ivory Coast primed as a potential dark horse team. Now a casted arm has cast doubts regarding the Ivory Coast’s chances at advancing. Drogba returned to training two days after surgery to repair the broken arm in his arm is still hopeful of playing in Ivory Coast’s opener against Portugal. Whether Drogba plays or not, he won’t be the same player we saw in the EPL this season, which is a shame for all soccer fans, except for Brazil and Portugal fans.
Where The Goals Will Come From: F Salomon Kalou. Predictably, Drogba led the Ivory Coast with six goals in qualification. No other player had more than two. But with Drogba slowed, offense will have to come from elsewhere and Drogba’s Chelsea teammate Kalou is a good bet to crack the scoring sheet. Used primarily as a sub in London, the 24-year old Kalou has proven he can score in his limited appearances, with 40 goals since joining the Blues in 2006 from Feyernood. A preferred left wing, Kalou can be deadly cutting in from the flanks and letting loose shots near the top of the box. If Drogba can’t go, look for a pairing of Aruna Dindane and Kalou, though Gervinho could be preferred to Dindane.
X-Factor: MF Yaya Toure. Known for a long time as the younger brother of Kolo, Yaya has established himself as one of the stronger defensive midfielders in Europe. The 6-foot-3 Ivorian’s strong tackling in the midfield was vital to Barcelona’s run to yet another La Liga title. As a youngster, he was often compared to Patrick Viera, and Toure has done little to discourage those comparisons. There’s no denying the Ivory Coast has plenty of attacking options, but without Toure in the middle of the field harassing the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and all the Brazilian midfield maestros, it could be a sticky proposition for the Ivory Coast.
Young Stud: F Gervinho. One of my favorite players at the 2008 Olympics, much has been expected of Gervinho. But the 23-year old forward hasn’t lived up to the extremely lofty expectations once put on him. Gervinho is coming off his best professional season with 13 goals for French side Lille, but he doesn’t look like he’ll become the best African talent, which many were tabbing him as three years ago. Don’t get me wrong, he’s still good and I look forward to watching him. Drogba’s questionable status only makes the spotlight shine brighter on Gervinho.
Captain: F Hong Yong-Jo. I’m not going to pretend like I know a lot about the North Korean soccer team. In fact, I know absolutely nothing about the North Korean soccer team. So if you stop reading here, nobody will blame you. Hong is one of three North Korean players plying their trade outside of Kim Jung-il’s dictatorship. Hong plays for Russian side Rostov, who finished 14th in the Russian Premier League this past season. That’s about it.
Where The Goals Will Come From: F Jong Tae-Se. Known as the “Asian Rooney,” Jong is another one of three North Korean players who play outside of the Communist country. Jong plays for Kawasaki Frontale in the J-League and has scored 41 times for the Japanese squad. The 26-year old frontman, born in Japan to second generation South Koreans, has represented North Korea 22 times and has 15 senior national goals to his credit. Don’t expect North Korea to score, but if they do, I’m guessing this cat does the deed.
X-Factor: Kim Jong-il. Not sure what position he’d play, but I’m guessing striker. The North Korean leader has banned the World Cup form being aired live in his country, and won’t show the games at all unless they win. Good luck with that. So as far as the North Korean population knows, this team will have never existed.
Young Stud: No clue.
Brazil wins group. Portugal advances second.