World Cup Preview: Group E

Group E

The United States finds itself smack dab in the middle of the second group of death in this World Cup. Paired with them are former three-time world champion Italy, European powerhouse the Czech Republic, and a supremely talented African side from Ghana. If the United States are to advance out of this group, it would be a monumental achievement of the highest order.

Italy

What you need to know — Don't even look at their ranking (and this won't be the first time I say that in this preview), which according to FIFA places them as the 13th best team in the world. That ranking is a joke of the highest proportions — Italy is one of the five best teams on the planet.

Style — Inventors of the Catanaccio (which is a disciplined system of vigorous defending and timely counter attacks), the Italians have been known to put people to sleep with their low scoring — make that boring — games. But they have been burned recently in national tournaments trying to hold on to 1-0 leads (i.e. the 2000 Euro Final, the second round of the 2002 World Cup and against Sweden in the 2004 Euros). Now Marcello Lippi is at the helm instead of the Catanaccio loving Giovanni Trappatoni, and he has been a breath of fresh air, allowing a free flowing attacking team that has put up 4 goal efforts against Germany and the Netherlands.

Achilles heel — The defense has actually fallen under a little bit of scrutiny — injuries and an unusual lack of depth at the outside fullback positions could make them vulnerable. But an even bigger worry is the match fixing scandal that continues to implicate members of the national team with improprieties that they may have committed with their club teams in Italy. And it is something that figures to loom over the team for the entire tournament, which could affect their performance on the field.

Player you need to know — Francesco Totti. The Roma midfielder is the pivotal link in the Italian attack. His temperament has come under scrutiny (he was suspended during the 2004 European championship for spitting on a player), but his skill level is undeniably brilliant. He is just returning from a broken ankle, but figures to be healthy for the tournament.

Player you will learn to know — Luca Toni. The 6'4" Fiorentina forward set the Italian league ablaze last season with 31 goals, eight more than anyone else in what is a predominantly defensive league. Toni uses his height well, too — he is dangerous in the air and equally skillful on the ground. Toni could be the key if Italy does make a semifinal run.

Prediction — Italy will win this group. There is plenty of talk about the Czech Republic, but make no mistake, this is one of the strongest teams in the entire tournament. They possess everything needed to win the World Cup — a top goaltender, strong defense, and players that can bulge the twine. External factors though (namely the match fixing scandal) could go a long way though in determining how successful their run this summer is. I believe this team is destined for, at the least, a date in the quarterfinals.

Czech Republic

What you need to know — They're ranked second in the world according to FIFA, but they are not the second best team in the country. Are they top 10? Yes, but not top two. They made it to the 2004 European Championship semifinals before losing to tournament Cinderella Greece, but many pundits agreed they were the best team in Portugal that summer.

Style — Another thoroughly talented team, the Czechs matchup well with anyone. They boast offensive stars along with a stingy defense and an outstanding goaltender. Against the United States and Ghana, the Czechs will look to dominate possession and attempt to create scoring chances either through the middle to the quick Milan Baros or in the air with the giant Jan Koller. Against Italy, the Czechs will take a more cautious approach, trying to counter against a more talented side.

Achilles heel — They're not old, but they're not exactly young either. Pavel Nedved temporarily retired from international football in 2004, and then the Czechs struggled without him. They finished well behind the Netherlands for second in their qualification group, and when the 33-year-old Nedved returned for the two-legged playoff with Norway, the Czechs advanced, but not with the relative ease many expected. They are also struggling physically, as many of their key players are hampered by nagging injuries.

Player you need to know — Pavel Nedved. The former European player of the year can be dynamic and will be heavily relied upon to make the offense go. The tireless midfielder had a relatively pedestrian season with his club team Juventus, though, and there are questions if he is past his prime. If he is indeed finished, it could mean that the Czechs are cooked, too.

Player you need to know — Milan Baros. Although he was mediocre with his Aston Villa this season, the forward always seems to shine brightest with his national team. He is quick with the ball, can create and finish, and plays a perfect foil to the bigger Koller.

Prediction — They are the oddsmakers favorites to get through along with Italy, but they are the more vulnerable of the two European powers. If Nedved fails to regain some of his swagger, a lot of the midfield burden will fall onto Tomas Rosicky, who is currently battling an injury. In addition, regulars Karel Poborsky and Tomas Galasek are past their prime, Vladimir Smicer is out of the tournament, and Zdenek Grygera and Jan Koller are also working to get past injuries. These worries make the Czechs one of the bigger question marks in this tournament, and I think the quick turnaround between games will prove to be too much, and they will be bounced out before the group stage.

Ghana

What you need to know — They are making their first World Cup appearance, but don't be fooled into thinking this is an unexperienced bunch. They are Africa Cup of Nations veterans, and their berth in the World Cup was long overdue.

Style — Ghana is a vastly talented squad that likes to play an exciting brand of attacking football. They rely on their midfield strength to dictate tempo. Many of their regulars play in Europe, and they definitely bring a European feel to an African club.

Achilles heel — Like all African teams, discipline remains the most troubling spot. They had a relatively poor showing in the Africa Cup of Nations in January, but were missing several of their regular players, which won't be a hindrance this summer.

Player you need to know — Michael Essien. The midfielder is the most expensive African transfer ever — Chelsea paid Lyon almost $50 million dollars for him last year. Essien can dominate the center of the pitch on both sides — he is a true penalty box to penalty box player. In his first year at Chelsea, he failed to demonstrate the level of brilliance he maintained at Lyon, but he should be ready to show everyone why the London club paid so much for his services.

Player you will learn to know — Stephen Appiah. The former Juventus midfielder currently plays for Fenerbahce in Turkey, and compliments Essien beautifully in the midfield. He is more of a true attacking midfielder than his compatriot, and produced some stunning goals in both Turin and Istanbul.

Prediction — On paper, they are every bit as talented as the Czechs. In addition to Essien and Appiah, starters Sulley Muntari, Matthew Amoah, Sammy Kufour, and John Mensah all play in Europe, and make up of the more dangerous teams in the tournament. Again, don't let their ridiculously low ranking of 48 deceive you — talent wise they are one of the 20 best teams in the world. I think their final game against the United States will be for a place in the second round, but ultimately I think they will fall just short.

United States

What you need to know — Disregard their FIFA ranking as the fifth best team in the world. That is positively laughable. In fact, they are the least talented team in this group! That being said, they did advance to the quarterfinals in the last World Cup with a team that wasn't nearly as talented as their present one, and many will say they were unlucky to be knocked out at that stage, as they were clearly the better squad against Germany.

Style — Like their English forefathers, the United States uses the long ball. Sure, they can create from their midfield, but what they do best is play a long ball to one of their big forwards who will try to knock it down and set up a chance on net. They also have incredible team speed, and almost every flank player, midfielders and defenders included, can create down the wings.

Achilles heel — Scoring. They possess speed, but a few more foots wouldn't hurt, either. In the air, the U.S. is quite good — they are most dangerous with set pieces, using their aerial supremacy to their advantage. But they struggle to find the net consistently, and chances are going to be few and far between in this group.

Player you need to know — Landon Donovan. He has failed miserably abroad, but still has an abundance of skill, so much that Europe is only a matter of time. His short stature works against him, but he is very good in tight spaces, and has above average field vision.

Player you will learn to know — Oguchi Onyewu. Better known as “Gooch,” the 6'4" central defender is destined for big things. He is extraordinarily large, both in height and stature, for a soccer player, and is one of the most imposing forces for any defense in any team. Gooch has proven to be a lockdown defender when it comes to guarding the best CONCACAF has to offer, and if he proves equally successful against the forwards in this group, he will most certainly move on to some of the largest clubs in the world.

Prediction — After making the quarterfinals in the last World Cup, everyone is interested to see if the United States can duplicate their success. There is very little to judge them on other than World Cups — their qualification group is extremely weak (with the notable exception of Mexico). Now the world wants to see if the United States can beat teams like Italy, like the Czechs, like Ghana. If they are able to navigate their way out of this group, people will have to take notice that America is a country not to be taken lightly anymore. Speaking strictly from talent, there is no reason for the United States to be optimistic. But as they say in Italy, the ball is round, and Bruce Arena has been known to take an overmatched team and frustrate opponents with them. I think the improbable happens, and America does advance to the second round. The dream ends there to Brazil, but it will still be a remarkable achievement.

Comments and Conversation

June 6, 2006

Ernest:

This is a very good analysis of the group. I had wanted to call it “the group of death” but I’ve been restrained. I thnk it wouldn’t be easy at all for any of the teams here. Mark my words, I wouldn’t be surprised if Ghana emerge at the top of the group with their recent friendly escapades. In fact, the Italians have a lot to worry about. There isn’t much pressure on the Africans and they can swiftly pull through. Just mark my words. Italy might end up packing after the group stage.

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