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Argentina, Greece, Nigeria, South Korea
This appears to be one of the easier groups to pick. I can’t see any of these teams stopping Argentina from winning the group. What can you say about an attack that may have Carlos Tevez and Diego Milito, who both scored goals in the Champion’s League final sitting on the bench. That’s the good news. Then, there’s Diego Maradonna, who has threatened to run naked through the streets of Buenos Aires if they win the cup. Given a choice, the players would rather win the cup than have to witness that spectacle, but not by much.
More importantly I cannot understand why he left both Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti off the team. Both were a key part of Inter Milan’s record-setting treble this past season, and have both proved themselves at the highest level. They still have Javier Mascherano and Maxi Rodriguez, the latter of whom wasn’t at his best for Liverpool this season in midfield. In defense, they have Walter Samuel and Martin Dimichelis, who are both world class, but Garbriel Heinze has seen better days. The goalkeepers are all adequate but not exceptional.
With the peerless Lionel Messi and Gonzalo Higuain, who had a stellar season with Real Madrid, the goals will flow.
He also picked two of his old favorites, Juan Veron (35) and Martin Palermo (37), the idol of Boca. Palermo is little more than an appendage, considering the other strikers, but Maradonna probably wants to hear the Argentine commentators yell, “Marteeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeen” once more before the commentator passes out from a lack of oxygen.
Nigeria has seen their star tarnished somewhat in recent years, with a surprising failure to qualify for 2006 behind Angola. Stars of the late 90s like Jay Jay Okocha and Sunday Oliseh have gone, although Nwankwo Kanu, at 34, is still on the team. In defense, they have the seasoned Joseph Yobo and Dickson Etuhu in the midfield, but they will sorely miss John Obi Mikel of Chelsea, who is out for the tournament. Up front, they have Yakubu and Obafemi Martins, who bring a lot of European and Premier League experience to the table.
They have a new coach, Lars Lagerbeck, who coached the Swedish national team for the past nine years. Nigeria is, as always, very physical, fast and has good ball-handling skills. Qualification will probably come down to their final game in the group against South Korea.
Don’t expect to see them get much support from the South African fans. The locals don’t like Nigerians—many of whom came to South Africa after the end of apartheid and got involved in drug trafficking. Nigerians were equally offended by their portrayal in the film District 9 , which was written, directed, and filmed in Johannesburg.
South Korea broke through in 2002 when they hosted the cup. Prior to that, they had gone 14 games without a win, debuting in 1954 when they were beaten 9-0 by Hungary and 7-0 by Turkey. They have made every final since 1986. They are consistently the best team in Asia despite not making it to the second round in 2006.
They key player is Park Si Jung, who had a great season with Manchester United. He can control the midfield with his speed and skill on the ball. Their defense can be a little suspect, but their work rate is phenomenal, and their fitness is never in doubt. Apparently, they have been using oxygen tents to acclimate to the altitude although two of their three games will be at sea-level. A handful of their players now play in Europe, which previously wasn’t the case. Lee Chung Yong is another midfielder whose speed and passing down the wing added a dimension to Bolton Wanderers and was their Player of the Year.
I am not that familiar with Greece, as most of their players play locally. They had a relatively easy route to qualification, finishing second in their group, behind Switzerland and ahead of Latvia and Israel. In the playoffs, they were held at home by Ukraine to a goalless draw and then surprised them by poaching a goal in the first half and hanging on to qualify.
Their biggest asset is their German coach, Otto Renhagel, who took them to the unlikeliest of victories in Euro 2004, when they beat Portugal twice, including the final as well as beating France and the Czech Republic and drawing with Spain with a team if unknowns. I can’t see them repeating that miracle in only their second appearance in the finals. In their first appearance in 1994, they lost all their games by a combined goal margin of 0-10. They will do better than that dismal debut, but not by much.
There is a large Greek émigré population in South Africa who will turn out in full support, and that might help.
Argentina will win the group and might even take maximum points if all goes well. South Korea and Nigeria will battle it out for second place.