Kicking off the World Cup: The contenders, Part I
With the FIFA World Cup 2010 well and truly underway, it's time to take a look at the performances of the traditional heavyweights.
From the qualifiers, three teams stood out as strong contenders: Spain, Brazil, and England. The champions in 2006, Italy, did not particularly impress in the run up to South Africa 2010, while their fellow finalists France achieved qualification in what can only be described as dubious circumstances (just don't ask the Irish.) Argentina's presence has required a fair bit of divine intervention, while both Germany and the Netherlands championed the no-fuss approach. How did these teams actually fare in their opening games?
France, who were only beaten on penalties in 2006, started off brightly against Uruguay but fizzled out after the opening quarter of the game. It was quite frankly exactly what most observers had predicted - France had been anything but convincing before the Cup and carried on where they had left, comfortably held by Uruguay who were never really put under serious pressure. The biggest failures for Les Bleus were Franck Ribery and Youann Gourcuff, of whom great things were expected - however, neither of the two stars really got into the game. Nicolas Anelka looked lost without a striker beside him and couldn't be expected to replicate his Chelsea form without the accompanying service from midfield, and the French coach Raymond Domenech only brought on more strikers near the end. While France will still expect to go through to the second round, a tactical reworking may be in order to use the midfielders more effectively. An exercise in team unity wouldn't hurt either - rumor has it that internal bust-ups in the French camp around Thierry Henry's exclusion led to a shutout of Bordeaux star Gourcuff in the warm up fixtures.
Argentina were next to take on the field against the fast Nigerians, and played better than could be expected from their hit-and-miss qualification campaign. The best player in the world, Lionel Messi, was at the heart of their best attacking moves and would have certainly scored early if not for some great goalkeeping by Vincent Eneyeama. The goalkeeper could do nothing about Gabriel Heinze's goal, though. It was a mix of poor marking by the defense and smart play by Argentina (Walter Samuel held off a defender) to score what would turn out to be the winner. Argentina missed a few chances and should have scored another goal, but lacked someone to link up the midfield and attack, with Messi repeatedly having to drop back. Angel Di Maria's expected contributions were absent and Jonas Gutierrez, played out of position at right back, couldn't do much - especially when Nigeria brought on a good winger. Overall Argentina played above expectations with coach Diego Maradona clearly feeling that he could attack with abandon against Nigeria. The defense wasn't really tested because Argentina owned the midfield, but Javier Mascherano and Sebastian Veron will undoubtedly come across better opposition as the tournament progresses and reveal how good the Albiceleste truly are.
England’s 1-1 draw against USA may be perceived by many to be a defeat, but it is important to take note of the myriad problems faced by coach Fabio Capello. Starting defender Rio Ferdinand’s injury necessitated the inclusion of Ledley King, who had to be removed due to injury and has since been ruled out until the semifinal stage of the World Cup, while Gareth Barry’s invaluable midfield presence was also missing due to injury and forced captain Steven Gerrard to play deeper than he might have liked. Of course, the goalkeeping problem is far from solved, but Robert Green must not be unfairly cast as the sole reason for the disappointing result. Capello's expressed satisfaction belies the impotency of the English on Saturday - Gerrard and Frank Lampard took turns in leading and defending, but rarely worked effectively with each other to drive the team forward. Too many passes went straight to the Americans and long balls from the English defenders often resulted only in losing possession. The impatience of the English after conceding the freak goal was as complicit in their failure to score as the committed American defense. England is blessed with two of the finest fullbacks in the world, Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson, but neither was able to contribute as much as we all know they can. England will probably make it to the next round, but did not live up to expectations in the tournament opener.
One team that not only met but also surpassed expectations was Germany, who destroyed Australia with four high-quality goals. Undoubtedly the performance of the tournament so far, Germany served notice to the rest of the contenders that they aren't here just to make up the numbers and are gunning for the title. On the evidence of their powerful show against the Socceroos, it wouldn't be a huge surprise to see a repeat of the Euro 2008 final, when only a Fernando Torres goal decided the game for Spain, who were undoubtedly the best international side in the world at the time. Germany have made a habit of starting well (with 16 goals in their last three World Cup openers) and are one of the most consistently successful teams in major international tournaments - the last time the Mannschaft failed to reach at least the quarter finals was in 1984 (apart from Euro 2000 & 2004). Characteristically, it was a solid performance with a host of excellent individual performances combining well to score four goals. The Germans fielded a young side that shone with confidence and hunger - exemplified best by the darting runs of Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller. The ease with which they moved around the ball and kept possession was more than just clinical - it was undeniably classy. While the team was admittedly helped by poor Australian tactics, and not seriously tested defensively, Germany has made a strong statement. Their strength in depth was also in full display - with team captain and talisman Michael Ballack out, not many predicted they would do well, but Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger bossed the Australian midfield and the icing on the cake for coach Joachim Lowe was a goal for substitute Cacau. Coaches around South Africa will be losing sleep before meetings with Germany.
Note: This article deals with the major contenders from Groups A-D; the follow up in a few days will examine those from Groups E-H (Netherlands, Italy, Brazil, and Spain.)