Nobody will win this group. Like the Conservative party of old, a leader will emerge from it. Three middling candidates will strive to rally support for long enough to avoid accompanying Angola on the plane home.
If Portugal lose out it could be an interesting flight. Last time the teams met in 2001 the game was abandoned after Angola had five players sent off. They will hope to display more constructive enthusiasm in the opening group match against their former colonial masters. It’s great that Angola have earned the chance to shed a bit of sporting sunshine on a troubled country, but sadly that will be as far as it goes. Half the squad can’t get a club game, the star left back’s serving a drugs ban, disaffection amongst senior players led to a poor African Cup of Nations and the heady days of matching, then besting Nigeria seem a long way off.
Driven by the stinging indignity of losing the European Championship final at home to plucky Greece, Portugal have responded by steamrollering teams on their own patch sticking four past Estonia, six past Luxembourg and seven past a handy Russian side. Away from home they look a different proposition, a 2-2 draw in Liechtenstein being the worst of some average performances. The draw’s been kind with the games in theoretical ascending order of difficulty. If Portugal can capitalise on that, the proven tactical nous of Big Phil Scolari will once again have to make the difference in the squeaky bum stages. Above all they need to avoid a repetition of the United States ambush in 2002.
Iran are no USA (in so many different ways), but they’re a tidy, attack-minded side with some dangerous players. They’re also more at home than their president will be if he turns up to watch given that their key attackers have extensive experience in the German league. In the west we typically have a very negative impression of almost anything Iranian, but this team has been in and around FIFA’s top 20 for a while now. They’ve just thumped Bosnia-Herzegovina and almost beaten Croatia. Saying that, Queens Park Rangers defeated them in a Loftus Road friendly last summer and the wider concern is that they rarely play the very best opposition and tend to come unstuck when they do.
The conundrum that is Mexico is enough to make anyone hit the tequila. FIFA rank them the fourth best team in the world. Last summer in Germany they beat Brazil and took Argentina to penalties, benefiting from South Korea’s successful trick of having so many get togethers they’re almost a club side. Yet in the past week they’ve succumbed to the French and the Dutch B team and it’s not that long since they lost to Trinidad. They’ve got the parts, but somehow the whole never seems to come together outside the Americas. We believe Portugal will muddle through and Iran will join them in the second round.
Team Ratings – A (best) to G (worst)
Defence – Portugal D, Mexico E, Iran D, Angola F
Attack – Portugal D, Mexico C, Iran D, Angola G
Crucial Game – Iran v Mexico, Sun 11th June, 5pm - Nuremberg.
Fantasy Football Recommendations
There’s not likely to be many clean sheets in this group. None of the defenders are regular goalscorers, either, though Rafael Marquez gets one every so often for Mexico and Iran’s central defender Rahman Rezaei is a converted striker who plays in Italy and scored raiding forward against Bosnia the other night. Hossein Kaabi (Iran), Miguel and Nuno Valente (Portugal) play as attacking full backs.
The three main contenders all offer good midfield choices. Obviously there’s Cristiano Ronaldo for Portugal, though he’s been off-form recently. With Deco and Luis Figo it’s more about assists than goals. Mexico’s Luis Perez is a regular goalscorer as is Iran’s Bayern Munich playmaker Ali Karimi. Hamburg’s Mehdi Mahdavikia often provides Iranian assists.
Up front Iran have two bargain options who could both get amongst the goals. Veteran Ali Daei, once of Bayern Munich himself, is the leading international goalscorer of all time and is partnered by tall danger man Vahid Hashemian of Hannover (picking up on that German familiarity yet?). Portugal’s Pauleta again looks primed to get a hatful, but rarely does in the big tournaments. Bolton’s Mexican forward Jared Borgetti was the leading striker in all qualifying and scored again last night against the Dutch. If you absolutely must pick an Angolan, try in form striker Flavio or zippy right winger Ze Kalanga.
Picture of the statue of former Conservative leader the Duke of Wellington outside the Museum of Modern Art in Glasgow via Roger B.'s Flickr stream.