With the 2010 FIFA World Cup fast approaching, here's a quick rundown of the teams expected to challenge for the trophy.
With the talent available to Argentina, the team should be one of the favourites for the tournament. However, many believe that the Argentinians are being held back by one man—Diego Maradona.
Long a national hero, he is the “Hand of God,” and has failed to get Argentina playing well since taking over as national manager. His squad selection has raised ever more questions, again choosing to overlook Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso.
Despite Maradona’s questionable selections, no team which includes the World Player of the Year should ever be excluded, and Lionel Messi’s brilliance could catapult his nation back into the hunt for its first World Cup win since 1986.
Having just qualified for the World Cup itself, Argentina will likely bulldoze their way through the group stage with very little resistance. However, when they meet stronger sides in the later rounds, the problems could begin.
Maradona has failed to convince anybody that he is an adequate manager for a team blessed with so much natural talent, and his lack of managerial experience has hindered their progress.
A potential deadly strike force of Messi, Milito Aguero, and Tevez has failed to perform under Maradona, who seems unsure as to which combination of forwards to use, while the omissions of Zanetti and Cambiasso are incomprehensible.
Only Messi’s magic looks like it can help Argentina secure the World Cup, but without a world class goalkeeper, or solid full backs (such as 136-cap Zanetti), their defense could, and should, be exposed by the top sides in the tournament.
Argentina hardly seems confident about success this year—the nation appears to be braced for failure closely followed by their manager’s departure.
Neither would be a surprise.
The 5-time winners can never be ignored, and this season is no exception. With the attacking flair that they possess, Brazil can defeat any team on their day.
Now with Coach Dunga in charge, they have become a more physical side, and defensively, look much stronger than past Brazilian sides.
Julio Cesar is tipped as one of the greatest keepers in the world today, and he will be protected by Lucio and Juan at centre back. The Inter Milan keeper is difficult to beat at the best of times, but having a strong, quick, defensive pairing in front of him makes it difficult to even test him.
With Maicon, Michel Bastos, and Dani Alves, competing for full back spots, Brazil’s defense is also the most attacking in the competition.
They have greater depth at the back than at any point in the past, and have holding midfielders to protect the defense when the full backs inevitably become wingers. Felipe Melo and Gilberto Silva add steel to their midfield and allow the rest of the midfield the freedom they crave.
Kaka is always influential for Brazil, but both Elano and Robinho perform at levels much higher than those they demonstrate at club level. Robinho is ruthless in front of goal, and his link-up play with Kaka and Elano demonstrates how great a player he can be when he is enjoying his football.
Ramires offers excellent backup to these three, and Luis Fabiano adds the strength and power that Brazil requires up front. His finishing is second to none, and he offers a big, strong target, should Brazil need someone to hold the ball up.
Brazil is considered one of the favourites again at the World Cup. They nearly always perform, and never suffer stage fright like their rivals. Dunga will hope that he can lead his team to victory, and it is difficult to find a team better suited to take the trophy home.
Now Brazil must continue their good form—they'll be very difficult to stop if they negotiate their tough group as expected.
Can Fabio Capello’s England end 44 years of hurt?
Wayne Rooney’s form and fitness will likely be the key to their campaign. Following his best season to date, there are now questions surrounding his fitness after several injuries ended his season prematurely and took away his match fitness and sharpness in the process. Now England hopes that he quickly rediscovers the form that he showed for Manchester United throughout the season.
In addition to Rooney, England has one of the most star-studded squads in the tournament. Despite David Beckham ruled out by injury, the likes of Ashley Cole, John Terry, Steven Gerrard, and Frank Lampard are all vital to English success. Unfortunately, Gerrard and Lampard consistently underperform for their country, and Terry has struggled with injuries and form as well.
To add to these issues team captain Rio Ferdinand suffered medial ligament damage in training and will miss the competition. While his form has been inconsistent this season, he offers valuable experience and has formed a strong partnership with Terry at the back. Now, without him, England will hope Ledley King—who has also been frustrated by injuries—can step up to the mark and fill his shoes.
In addition to those concerns, there is no clear number one goalkeeper. Glen Johnson’s defensive capabilities at right back have been called into question, and England doesn't appear to have a second striker who can partner Rooney.
Inconsistent defending and goalkeeping could result in another early exit for England, but if they can play as well as the big-name lineup suggests they should, maybe the wait for another World Cup could finally be over.
England does have the talent to win the World Cup, but they fail to perform on the big stage for whatever reason. With no clear favourite for the tournament, this might be their best chance of victory since 1966.
Fabio Capello must now help England overcome the pressure put on them by an expectant population and impatient media, and finally get his team to perform well at a big international competition. If England performs, then they are a force to be reckoned with. If they bow to the pressure, then failure is again inevitable.
The French population is expecting an early exit.
They even know whose fault it will be. Raymond Domenech—due to be replaced by Laurent Blanc after the World Cup—has been an under-fire manager for several years now, but has somehow clung onto his job. Now his tenure is coming to an end, and France expects it to go out with a whimper.
They have an experienced squad, but many players are beginning to come to the end of their careers. Qualification for the tournament was only achieved following Thierry Henry’s blatant hand ball against Ireland in the playoffs. It has been a calamitous couple of years, and France’s success in the World Cup appears a distant memory.
Franck Ribery is the star man, but he is unlikely to be able to lead the team to glory alone. He needs help, and with the exception of Henry and Gourcuff, there doesn’t appear to be enough talent to go all the way this year.
Although Karim Benzema has struggled this season, Domenech’s exclusion of him from the squad must be questioned. He is a proven talent and a natural goalscorer.
However, the illness that ruled Lassana Diarra out of the competition could be the biggest problem for France. They do not have the midfield general that they have relied on in the past. They struggled without Zidane in the last major competition, and do not have a top holding midfield player who can intimidate the opposition like Patrick Vieira used to.
The midfield will be too easy to bypass, and Domenech’s questionable tactics will prove France’s undoing. A team with so much talent should not be ruled out so easily, but it appears this is the fate France has suffered. The population is already looking forward to Blanc’s appointment, and a change in fortunes.
Having already illustrated their problems perfectly with a 1-0 friendly defeat to China, a difficult tournament could be in store, and with a potentially troublesome group it will be a huge shock should France repeat their 1998 success.
The injury to Michael Ballack was a huge mental blow to Germany’s World Cup chances. His presence alone is vital to the Germans, and the lack of leadership within the team could be a big blow.
Former German captain Oliver Khan has already expressed his concerns that new captain Phillip Lahm will not be capable of filling the leadership void during the World Cup. Without a real leader on the pitch, Germany may become disorganised or disheartened in difficult games, and this is something nobody would associate with any side from Germany.
Their bid to win the World Cup was strengthened when Cacau transferred his allegiance from Brazil to Germany, boosting their strike force. However, the side is not as strong as recent years, despite the creativity that Mesut Ozil and Bastian Schweinsteiger provide, and although six members of the squad hold over 60 caps, there is a great deal of inexperience in the side.
Fourteen squad members have just twelve caps or fewer, and there is no evidence to suggest how they will react to playing on such a huge stage, or whether they are capable of playing at such a high level against the world class opposition they will face.
Germany has, however, shown time and time again that they are a force to be reckoned with in big international tournaments, even if they are considered outsiders for the crown. They reached the semi finals of the World Cup in 2006, and were runners up at Euro 2008 despite the expectations that they would not mount a serious challenge for the competitions. But it is unclear whether their new and inexperienced squad will be able to follow in the footsteps of previous sides who achieved success.
Regardless of the talent in the squad, the Germans are a very efficient side, often capable of grinding out victories when they look unlikely. Additionally, they are unstoppable in penalty shootouts so expect them to progress if penalties decide the outcome of a match.
Whether the squad is good enough to defeat the top nations in the tournament is questionable, and only the tournament itself will show whether Germany is really ready for the challenge.
The only African team considered to have a chance at success, Ivory Coast will be hoping their captain Didier Drogba can lead them to World Cup glory. However, the overall talent in the squad may not be enough to secure this, and a difficult group adds to their problems.
This has become even more of a challenge following the injury to Drogba. Although he may play some part in the competition, he will not be match fit, and the Ivory Coast will struggle without him.
Fighting past Brazil and Portugal will be difficult enough with Drogba. If he cannot play, then the Ivory Coast may be facing another early exit at the hands of two top teams. But if the Elephants achieve this, who knows what they can achieve.
By taking points from either Brazil or Portugal, Ivory Coast can signal their arrival on the World Cup scene, and then they might be favoured over older or more inconsistent sides such as Italy or France.
With an abundance of talent, they have underperformed in African Nations Cups over the past decade, and will hope that their team doesn’t bow to the pressure that a tournament like the World Cup brings.
If they progress from the first round, then there is no telling what the Ivory Coast would be capable of achieving, particularly with a fit Drogba.
Unfortunately, becoming the first African winners of the World Cup will likely be a step too far.
An aging but highly organised team, the holders always seem to perform on the big stage. Their win in 2006 was not unexpected, but they were outsiders for the crown. This year they are facing an even taller order to win the competition, but they have the experience that is needed to grind out results and are always difficult opposition.
However, with nine of their 23 man squad over the age of 30, they are far from the youngest, sharpest team in the competition.
The experience they have will be vital, but there is a real lack of pace in the lineup. This setback could be exploited as in Euro 2008 when the Netherlands brutally exposed the Italian weaknesses, and Italy began to look like a spent force in world football. Despite this, Italy can’t be ruled out of the running for the World Cup. They are ruthlessly efficient, and often improve as the competition goes on.
Danielle De Rossi is their key man, and the midfield general is a dominant force in their lineup. Flanked by the creative Andrea Pirlo, the Italian midfield is strong in the centre, but lacks the speed required on the wings.
Gianluigi Buffon is still arguably the best goalkeeper in the world, but over the past few years he has had more and more to do in games. Their defense is still strong with Chiellini and Cannavaro, but again, speed could be an issue. Can anybody really see Italy keeping out an attack with the pace of Brazil?
The Italians were exposed in Euro 2008, and there are fears this could happen again. Italy’s tactical prowess could lead them past some sides in the competition, but they might not have enough youthful exuberance and speed to win back to back World Cups.
One of the great underachievers in big tournaments, the Netherlands will hope they can turn this around in South Africa. Famous for their highly entertaining style of football, they often appear to be favourites for tournaments due to their great starts. However, the struggles begin in later stages, and their eventual departure from the competitions is often with little resistance despite their good starts.
The Dutch will hope that Arjen Robben can shake off an injury picked up in a friendly last week, as his form this season at Bayern Munich has been sensational. His presence will bolster an exceptional front-line, including Arsenal’s Robin van Persie, Real Madrid’s Rafael van der Vaart, and Inter Milan’s Wesley Sneijder. The latter's performances this season have earned rave reviews, as he helped propel his team to Champions League glory.
The Netherlands boast an experienced squad, with all but six of their players having represented their nation at least twenty times.
Their midfield and attack is considered one of the best in the competition, but defensive frailties might be exposed, as they lack a real world class defender. However, young right back Gregory van der Wiel has earned a name for himself with his performances at Ajax, and he is expected to showcase his talents this summer too. The youngster adds pace to an otherwise slow backline, but there are questions over whether they will be able to handle the competition's top strikers.
Whether they are capable of this could be the key to World Cup glory, and the Dutch will hope that their exciting attacking talents will blast them into the later stages of the competition.
However, there is a history in the competition of teams starting slowly and going on to win the World Cup. Perhaps the Netherlands will save their best form for the later stages of the tournament, and start slowly. If they do, then history dictates that they might win their first ever World Cup, as there is little doubt the squad is capable of success.
All hope appears to have been placed squarely on the shoulders of Cristiano Ronaldo. And why not? Ronaldo has single handedly won games at club and international level over the past few years, and there are no reasons to suggest he won’t be capable of doing the same thing this year.
In addition to the former World Player of the Year, the squad has more depth than in recent years, and there are plenty of players capable of performing well, as Portugal looks to win their first ever World Cup.
They must, however, first negotiate this year’s “Group of Death”, consisting of Brazil, Ivory Coast, and the slightly less formidable North Korea. If they can do this, then they will have shown their pedigree, and would likely be considered a favourite for the competition.
Any side with Ronaldo will prove difficult to stop in attack. Add Simao, Danny, Liedson, and Hugo Almeida to the equation, and that task looks even harder.
The midfield is creative and combative in equal force. Deco, Danny, and Pedro Mendes provide the spark, while Raul Meireles and Miguel Veloso bring physicality to the side. But nothing should be taken away from their technical ability either as both men are creative and defensively capable.
The defense is also stronger than in recent years with Bruno Alves evolving into a world class centre back to play alongside Chelsea’s Ricardo Carvalho, or Pepe, should he return from injury in time to play this summer.
However, Eduardo in goal could be the weakest link, as he has just 12 caps, and is not at the standard of other top goalkeepers in the competition. Expect opposition sides to test him whenever possible, and Portugal will hope that he can rise to the challenge.
While Portugal’s form in qualifying matches was patchy, they will hope to dispel some of the inconsistency they have shown for the duration of the World Cup, and if they achieve this they will be a difficult side to beat.
The majority of this squad has also suffered defeats in the later stages of previous international tournaments, and will be desperate to avoid an early exit this year.
Portugal hopes this will galvanise the team, and help inspire them to World Cup glory. With Ronaldo on their side they may prove difficult to stop, but they will have to play at the top of their game if they are to succeed.
Fitness questions are the key to Spain’s World Cup.
Iniesta, Fabregas, and Fernando Torres are all recovering from serious injuries, while Xavi is currently playing with a three centimetre tear in his hamstring. These four men are likely to play a massive role in Spain’s World Cup charge, but if they are not match fit, or suffer recurring injuries, then their hopes may be dashed.
Spain's 6-0 friendly defeat of Poland with both Fabregas and Torres getting on the scoresheet suggests that two of the men are ready. However, Iniesta suffered another injury, and they await confirmation on whether he will be able to compete in the competition.
Injuries aside, Spain has perhaps the strongest side on paper, and has proven their ability to play as a team, recently winning Euro 2008. They have produced some hugely impressive performances, and the great depth in their squad gives them perhaps their best chance of winning a World Cup in the competition’s history.
At attack, David Villa has formed a devastating partnership with Torres, and this firepower will likely help them reach the late stages of the competition. Even the best teams in the competition will have trouble stopping this duo, and their deadly finishing means opposition teams cannot afford to give them even the slightest glimpse of goalscoring opportunity.
The midfield might be the strongest in the world right now. Iniesta, Xavi, Fabregas, and Xabi Alonso are four of the most creative midfielders around, and will all play important roles in Spain’s campaign.
Add David Silva, Juan Mata, Sergio Busquets, and this year’s breakout star, Pedro, to the mix, and Spain has an exciting, hardworking, and devastating midfield. These players can control any game, and will likely provide ample chances for Villa and Torres—chances they very rarely miss.
In goal Iker Casillas has been outstanding for many years now, and he will be protected by a great backline. Sergio Ramos is arguably the best right back in the world today, and with the Barcelona pair of Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique there is the basis for an extremely solid defense.
They will prove difficult to break down, and should injuries or suspensions hit the back four, they have Carlos Marchena and Raul Albiol ready to step in as more than capable replacements.
To beat Spain the opposition will have to be ruthless in attack, as they may not get many chances. However, one possible weakness is the left back position, where Alvaro Arbeloa is expected to play. He has had a great season at Real Madrid, but is naturally a right back, and teams might hope to exploit this.
Spain has a great chance of winning the World Cup this season, and might be considered the favourites. However, they must learn to cope with these levels of expectation and deliver like at Euro 2008.
They have a great squad, and will be very difficult to stop as they look for their first ever World Cup win. As the competition draws closer, Spain now appears to be the team to beat.