American football writers insist that this is actually the Group of Death. We don’t agree, but it’s a not a group we’d like to come second in. That way lies Ronaldinho, Cafu and friends, which means the matches here should be more tooth and nail than cat and mouse.
Undoubtedly it will be important to avoid any major distractions when every point, every goal could be vital, which is a shame given everyone asks Italy’s squad solely about the stunning scandal that descended on their domestic football just before the end of the season. Half the players have one ear on their mobiles in case they need to jump ship from a disgraced and suddenly relegated team. Several of them have already been summoned back home for casual chats with magistrates and the manager’s son has also been helping with the enquiries.
Even before that the team’s qualifying performance had hardly set the world alight. They drew in Norway and Scotland and lost in Slovenia. Captain Francesco Totti has only just played his first game back after an injury in February. He was sent off as they crashed out of the last world cup and banned for spitting in Euro 2004. Italy are only the third best team in this group according to FIFA and the last time they won a tournament was 1982. Italy are currently fifth favourites to win the world cup. Go figure.
FIFA rate the Czech Republic second only to holders Brazil. It’s true that they had a great run in Euro 2004, but that must have racked up a heck of a lot of ranking points because they’ve flattered to deceive since then, walloping lesser sides, but losing twice to Holland and away in Romania. They’re also curiously wary of non-European sides. Before the last fortnight they’d only played four since the turn of the Millennium, the most recent a 1-0 home loss to Japan in 2004. They’ve just beaten two central American teams, but the last time they faced African opposition was nine years ago.
Ghana might, then, be well placed to be this tournament’s Senegal. The key for them is three midfielders: Chelsea’s Michael Essien, captain Stephen Appiah of Fenerbache and young star Sulley Ali Muntari of Udinese. Only an injured Appiah made it to the African Cup of Nations and they went out early, but in world cup qualifying these players led the team through a nine game unbeaten run despite three changes of coach. The rest of the squad are hungry to follow this trio and Roma’s Samuel Kuffour to big European clubs. In African competitions the pressure is heavily on them to win. On the world stage there is no such weight of expectation.
Step forward the USA as this group’s banker team. Last time they made the quarters, as good as England have ever done outside their home continent. The manager is the same one who masterminded the shock victory over Portugal and this time his squad is stronger and has more players based in Europe. Team USA is well organised, experienced, has continuity and something to prove against little expectation while also being in good spirits. Nervously fingering the block under our throats we back Ghana to join them in the second round.
Team Ratings – A (best) to G (worst)
Defence – Italy D, Czech Republic A, USA E, Ghana E
Attack – Italy E, Czech Republic D, USA D, Ghana E
Crucial Game – USA v Czech Republic, Mon 12th June, 5pm - Gelsenkirchen.
Fantasy Football Recommendations
The Czechs have a tough defence, but we think all of these rearguards will suffer from the imperative to finish top in the group. Marek Jankulovski has a record of getting forward and getting involved in goals. He also took and scored a recent penalty, though new Arsenal midfielder Tomas Rosicky usually takes them and regularly gets on the scoresheet. Up front Milan Baros’s record is impressive but everything revolves around tall striker Jan Koller who scored nine goals in eight qualifying appearances. He’s a good choice if you think the Czechs will progress. It may be a tournament too far for Pavel Nedved, who only recently un-retired himself from the international scene.
Surprisingly, Italy offer little fantasy value. New striking star Luca Toni is the standout, but the team are not heavy scorers and often concede one at the back. Expect a series of 1-1s and 1-0s.
The best value pick in the whole group could be the USA’s Landon Donovan. He bagged six in 14 qualifiers and has been classified by some competitions as a midfielder despite his heritage as a forward. He’ll also want to prove himself in a country where he’s had two abortive stints in club football. Brian McBride leads an attack that thrives on feeding him crosses, some coming from attacking full backs Steve Cherundolo and Eddie Lewis of Leeds United. Recent central defensive find Oguchi Onyewu is dangerous from set plays.
All three of Ghana’s main midfield men are likely to get on the scoresheet, particularly Essien as he usually takes the spot kicks.
Picture via flafontaine's Flickr stream. Group F analysis will be posted at noon today.