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World Cup Preview: Group G

World Cup 2010 Logo

Lacking Usual Flare,
Brazil Still Team To Beat

One Great Season

Remember when  M. Night Shyamalan wowed us all with "The Sixth Sense?" People couldn't stop talking about him and couldn't wait to see what he'd do next.  Then came "The Village" and  "The Happening." The plots took so many ridiculous detours that Shyamalan became an industry punchline. The Adult Swim cartoon "Robot Chicken" mocked him with diabolical spoofs, ending each with Shyamalan's character exclaiming, "What a twist!"

Well, it kinda feels like M. got ahold of the most compelling story lines of Group G and decided to ruin them by adding a million last-minute twists and turns.

BIO: Meet Ben Jackey

The "Group of Death" was supposed to be a battle between two traditional world soccer powers and a slowly evolving one. Some consider Brazil the favorite to take home its sixth World Cup. Portugal possesses arguably the best player in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo. Many believed the Ivory Coast was going to be the first African nation in years to make noise in the elimination round. And, of course, there's the evil empire, North Korea, as the antagonist. Oh, and if that isn't enough … check this out (can't stop staring).  That's one hell of a script. I'd totally shell out $11.50 (plus a few bucks for some pints) to see that flick.

Enter M. Night. Just days before the World Cup, Ivory Coast striker Didier Drogba fractures his forearm. He's done. The Ivory Coast (a team already in turmoil) is done. But wait ... he has surgery. Now, team officials say he may play. "What a twist!"

MORE: Meet The 2010 OGS World Cup Writers

So, now,  Portugal has to be the favorite to escape the group. But wait ... a team official announces that star winger Nani (let's keep it PG, people) has been ruled out of the Cup.  He bruised his collar bone. No one's saying when or where or how. "What a twist!"

If Pele shows up in a yellow kit and plays for Brazil, I'm walking out of the theatre. Barring anymore ridiculous plot twists, the "Group of Death" will be an exciting one to watch. We will "see dead people." The question is, which of these teams are dead and don't even know it?

Brazil – This seems like the no-brainer pick of the group. The Seleçao boast an embarrassment of riches. They left Ronaldinho, Adriano and Alexandre Pato at home. Backup goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes had one of the best seasons between the posts, if not the best, of all keepers in the English Premier League. Then, there is the starting XI.

Kaka is a former FIFA World Player of the Year. Robinho is a headcase, but is one of the most talented players in the world. Few would argue that Julio César is the best keeper on the planet right now.

COMING THURSDAY: Jake Yadrich Previews Group H

Yet, there are issues, especially at defense. Maicon, Lucio, and Juan make up a fairly solid threesome. However, there are some concerns at left back. And, at times, even the aforementioned stalwarts get caught chasing and ballwatching rather than marking (see the Confed Final).

This is not the Brazil of old. You won't see as much dancing over the ball.  You won't witness the usual flare. But make no mistake, the results will be the same as in years past. Not even a "Dopey" (Dunga in Portugese) manager could ruin this squad.

Ivory Coast – Were it not for Portugal, the Elephants would be this group's lone headscratcher. So much talent, yet so many questions. Right after qualification for the World Cup, the Ivory Coast sacked manager Vahid Halilhodzic. His replacement? Wait for it. Sven–Goran Eriksson. The man who inexplicably took a job at English League Two team Notts County in England. The man who drove the Mexican National Team into the ground. And, has redefined the "F" in FA with his numerous affairs.

On the field, all reports say this is a squad that has major chemistry issues. However, injuries may be an even larger concern. During a World Cup prep match, Chelsea striker Drogba fractured his arm  against Japan. Drogba's partnership with club mate Salomon Kalou provided, on paper, a potent attack front. Drogba produced 29 goals in 32 Premiership games this season. However,  when it comes to national team duty, he has struggled to produce goals, both in the Africa Cup of Nations and in a few qualifiers.  Scoring without him will be an even greater struggle for the Elephants.

The midfield has problems holding the ball and even greater problems linking up with its talented forwards. A strong defense which includes Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Eboue may have to push forward to create chances for Drogba and Kalou.

Let me just say, I hate Chelsea. I hate Fat Frank. I hate John "Brent Spiner" Terry and his doodling with his dingleberries. I loathe Didier Drogba. I realize I am evil for audibly laughing when I saw Drogba actually go down with a legitimate injury for once. End of paragraph.

The question now is, does Drogba's injury further fracture this brittle unit? Or, like their formerly warring countrymen, will they become a more unified group?

The ladies can tell you that Eriksson is persuasive. Maybe he can unite this talented squad. Just don’t expect cuddling afterwards.

Portugal – Of course, when it comes to the ladies, even Sven-Goran Eriksson takes a backseat (no pun intended) to "The Greasy One." Cristiano Ronaldo's game is as pretty on the field as he is off it. However, one can’t say the same for the journey that brought the Seleççao to South Africa.

They won just once in their first five matches (mostly without El Greasbo). When Ronaldo returned from a legitimate injury – not the ones he fakes with regularity in hopes of drawing a foul – he was about as helpful to his team as this Vanity Fair cover is to his macho persona. He shot blanks, zero goals. Not sure if the undies are to blame.

But those undies have to be in a bit of a bunch after learning Manchester United winger and prolific jerry curler, Nani, is out with a collarbone bruise. Portugal must now rely on Simao Sabrosa on the other flank, an obvious downgrade. However, Ronaldo does have a sufficient supporting cast of world-class footballers surrounding him. Deco and Duda should be able to link up with the front quite well. Bruno Alves and Ricardo Carvalho provide a formidable defense.

Nani's injury puts a lot more pressure on Ronaldo. Portugal was a semifinalist in Germany in 2006. Expect them to make a return trip to the knockout stages, maybe on goal differential.

North Korea – Thank God for Google. Otherwise, my North Korea preview would have ended here. All kidding aside, I’ve actually watched this team play a match in its entirety. It was a goalless draw against Iran during qualification. Admittedly, I was more focused on the surreal, robotic, choreographed atmosphere in a Pyongyang stadium than I was the football.

However, that match did tell the casual observer a lot about the North Korean style. Much like the country's enigmatic leader, the Chollima don't leave themselves open or vulnerable often. This is a team that loves to pack it in. Remember when the U.S. basically slid 11 guys within 10 yards of the 18 for 40 minutes of the Confederations Cup Final? Picture that for 90 minutes. Expect boring matches that just might drive some of North Korea's attacking-style group competitors crazy.

I'd love to rattle off a bunch of names here, but the only two I've ever heard of are An Yong-Hak and Jong Tae-Se, aka "The Asian Wayne Rooney." North Korea will not make it out of this group, but my guess is they will steal a point from either Portugal or the Ivory Coast. This team will have a say in who escapes with their life.

Who Advances? Brazil and Portugal (on goal differential)

Why?  Two words: Didier Drogba. The Ivory Coast will not be the same with or without an injured Drogba. The turmoil amongst Ivorian players and a new coach for the Cup will be enough to keep the team from playing its best. Portugal's form improved at the end of qualifying, and Ronaldo will show up for an international competition for once.

Most Critical Match?  The first group game. Ivory Coast vs. Portugal. If that ends in a draw, Portugal's next match, against North Korea, will be huge.

What makes this group so great?  This. (Didier to Ronalds: "Beware the curse of the Vanity Fair cover. Oh, and is it cold in here?")

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