Thursday, April 24, 2014
World Cup Preview, Groups C and D
Continuing with our four-part series, here's a look at Group C and Group D in this summer's World Cup.
COLUMBIA — I bet you didn't know Colombia, who returns to the World Cup for the first time since 1998, is ranked fourth in the world, and was as high as third last year. Three years ago, they were ranked 54th.
Why? Because of their impressive run in World Cup qualification, where they finished second, behind only Argentina, in CONMEBOL (that is, South American) qualifying.
But in that stretch they avoided qualification matches with Brazil, who qualify automatically as hosts, and are a ho-hum 2-1-3 in their last six matches. Their last two matches were an impressive draw against the Netherlands and an unimpressive draw against Tunisia. Their final two warmups to the World Cup is not exactly a murderer's row — against Jordan and Trinidad & Tobago. I don't think this is really a top-five squad.
GREECE — Greece is perhaps the most overlooked and underrated side in Europe. They have qualified for two straight World Cups and three straight European Championships. The first of those three, they won, and in the most recent one, they made the knockout stage.
Their run in World Cup qualifying was stout, too. In the group stage, they allowed only four goals, and all of them (directly or indirectly) off of free kicks; they conceded not a single goal during the run of play.
As you might have gleaned, this is a defensive team. They only scored 12 goals in 10 group stage matches. Six of those 10 matches ended with a score of 1-0 (all in Greece's favor) or 0-0. They remind me of 2006 Switzerland, who conceded zero non-shootout goals in that year's World Cup. They will want to improve on what Switzerland did, however: they got bounced in the round-of-16 in a shootout to Ukraine following a scoreless draw after 120 minutes.
They are testing themselves in the run-up to the tournament. Three of their four post qualifying friendly matches are against countries that have also qualified. They've already played, and lost, the first of those matches, to South Korea.
IVORY COAST — Ivory Coast is, as usual, the top-ranked African side (21st) and, as usual, the most star-studded African side, with Yaya Toure, Salomon Kalou, and Didier Drogba, still grinding at age 36.
It's time for Les Éléphants to capitalize on that and make it out of the group stage, something only (of African sides) Ghana has been able to do in the last two World Cups. Recent results, however, are not encouraging. They've won just one of their last five matches.
JAPAN — I mentioned in the last installment that the Asian qualified teams were across-the-board the lowest ranked in the competition. Indeed, if Japan shaved their ranking in half, from 54th to 27th, they'd still be the lowest-ranked team in this group.
But just as I don't believe Colombia is as good as fourth, I don't believe Japan is as bad as 54th. They've qualified for the previous four World Cups and made it out of the group stage in two of them. They are the reigning Asian Cup champions, they have a strong core with Yūto Nagatomo (Inter), Shinji Kagawa (Manchester United) and Keisuke Honda (Milan), all of whom are 27 or younger. Recent form is good, too, with a draw against the Netherlands and a win over Belgium in Brussels. There's really not much to dislike about this squad.
Predicted Order of Finish
4. Ivory Coast
ENGLAND — Whether you root for them or not — and I don't — England is that team everyone keeps their eye on in the English-speaking diaspora, aren't they? We probably follow the Premier League more than any other league, and we are just familiar with them in a way we are not, quite, with other soccer powers.
Maybe it's inaccurate to call them a "power," since they haven't won a major competition since 1966. But things might be trending upwards for them. They've only lost two of their last 13 matches, and the debacle of failing to qualify for Euro 2008 is now far in the rearview mirror.
But both those losses took place in their last three matches, and both were in London, against Chile and Germany. Indeed, England infrequently travels for friendlies and are in the midst of five in a row in London. I wonder if this reluctance to travel contributes to their lack of championship runs. They are not in a difficult group, so making it to the knockout stage is probable. After that, who knows.
ITALY — This side is probably just as enigmatic as England. They won it all at the 2006 World Cup and then failed to win a single match at the 2010 World Cup. They qualified for the 2014 World Cup without losing a match, but are winless in their last five matches, which included an ignominious home draw against Armenia.
Their last two World Cup tuneups will be against sides that did not qualify for the World Cup (Ireland and Luxembourg), so I'm not sure how battle-ready they will be. But as I wrote with England, this is not a strong group and the drop-off is considerable after England and Italy.
URUGUAY — It sort of pains me to refer to Uruguay as clearly behind England and Italy, and the FIFA rankings do not agree with me (Uruguay is ranked fifth), but it appears the bloom is off the rose after their shock fourth place finish in the 2010 World Cup, which they followed up by winning the 2011 Copa America.
But they only just barely qualified for this World Cup, needing to win an intercontinental playoff against Jordan. They might not have made it even that far had they not won four of their last five CONMEBOL qualification matches. They are not exactly testing themselves in the run-up to the tournament, playing no teams who qualified.
If they have a shot, it will be because of Luis Suarez, who leads the 2013-14 Premier League in scoring, ten clear of the guy in second. Their might not be a better striker playing today.
COSTA RICA — Trivia time: Costa Rica is the only North American side besides the U.S. and Mexico to make it out of a World Cup group stage, which they did in 1990. Will they repeat the feat in 2014? Let's look at the evidence:
* Losers of three of their last four, including a 4-0 frog-stomping at home at the hands of Chile. Losses to Australia and South Korea are the other two.
* The win was against Paraguay, who finished last in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying.
* Their current squad and recent call-ups include 22 players who ply their trade in either the Costa Rican League or MLS.
Conclusion: oe point will be worth celebrating.
Predicted Order of Finish
4. Costa Rica