You could be forgiven for thinking that Spain qualify for each world cup finals tournament and then always collapse spectacularly in the first two matches, going home early despite scoring a truckload in game three. Just goes to show how France '98 seared itself on the public consciousness. In fact that’s the only time in the last six world cups that they’ve failed to escape their group. However, they’ve not been to the last four since 1950 and have never won it.
Another lasting impression is that they have a stunning attack that’s always let down by limp defending. If anything, it’s likely to be the other way round this time. Raul, the national team incarnate, scored against Egypt on Saturday. What’s startling about that is it was his first goal of any kind for anybody for eight months. Fernando Torres, rumoured target of many top Premiership sides, has been tried in attack, as has David Villa, top scoring Spaniard in La Liga, but neither has convinced. During qualifying in general, and particularly away from home, Spain struggled for goals. The defence, on the other hand, has been almost impregnable, especially away, and is backed up by a trio of the world’s most coveted goalkeepers. The crucial area could be midfield. There’s lots of choice and solid goal potential there, it’s just that coach Luis Aragones can’t decide what to do with riches including Arsenal duo Jose Antonio Reyes and Cesc Fabregas.
Londonist believes the "dark horse" for a run to the semi-finals this time is Ukraine. They were the first European team to qualify and have a lot more to them than Chelsea’s new British record fee striker Andriy Shevchenko. They beat European Champions Greece and world cup 2002 third-placers Turkey in their own back yards, conceding only two goals in six games and coach Oleg Blokhin, European Player of the Year himself in 1975, is astute tactically and motivationally. Theoretically, they have the raw material to go all the way. Practically, it’s their first world cup as an independent nation, expectation at home is good-natured but feverish and Shevchenko is trying to shake off an injury. We predict a heroic exit in the semis to a team that isn’t better, but is simply more used to playing in such a huge game.
Tunisia, on the other hand, are playing at their fourth finals. They’re never yet advanced beyond the group stages, but they’ve never been managed by a European championship winning coach before . Frenchman Roger Lemerre added a second continental title to his CV when he took the Tunisians to the African championship two years ago. Furthermore, the Tunisians have a settled squad, the core of which was at the last world cup in Asia. They lack a game turning player and a top class goalkeeper but naturalised Brazilian Francileudo dos Santos has been a star up front and could be just the man to provide one of the shocks of the tournament. We tip Ukraine to head the group and Tunisia to outmanoeuvre Spain when they meet and to progress for the first time.
Saudi Arabia round out the group and have worked on tightening their defence since their embarrassing thrashing by Germany last time around. They have a decent new keeper in Mabrouk Zaid, though they may revert to the perennial Mohammed Al-Daeyea from the last three world cups, and headed the more fancied South Koreans in their group. However, their side is not settled and almost none of the squad has any experience of club football outside their home country. We think they’ll escape indignity, but they’ll still finish bottom of the group.
Team Ratings – A (best) to G (worst)
Defence – Spain B, Ukraine B, Tunisia F, Saudi Arabia D
Attack – Spain F, Ukraine B, Tunisia D, Saudi Arabia F
Crucial Game – Spain v Tunisia, Mon 19th June, 8pm - Stuttgart.
Fantasy Football Recommendations
This looks like the second strongest group defensively behind C, the “Group of Death” and both the Spanish and Ukrainian keepers are attractive choices. Real Madrid’s Iker Casillas is already well known and we expect Dynamo Kiev’s Olexander Shovkovskyi to be one of the stars of the tournament.
He’ll face stiff competition from several of his own team-mates. From a fantasy point of view Shevchenko is obviously a solid pick, but even more so is attacking midfielder Ruslan Rotan who likes to shoot and handles free-kicks. Sweeper Andriy Rusol gets a goal or two as well.
If you have faith in Spain you could try club centre-half, but national right back, Sergio Ramos who gets on the scoresheet. Several midfielders could get fantasy points, but it’s almost impossible to predict who’ll play. Fernando Torres up front has lots of potential, but might not get much time on the field either. Any of the Spanish attack is a risky choice.
Striker Dos Santos is the standout choice for counter-attacking Tunisia. The defence isn’t stunning, but Ajax’s Hatem Trabelsi and Bolton’s Radhi Jaidi might be involved in goals. None of the midfield is a clear value pick.
If you’re determined to select a Saudi Arabian, try pacy frontman Yasser Al-Qahtani or tricky left winger Mohammed Al-Shlhoub.
Picture of Ukrainians celebrating the anniversary of the orange revolution via alex_e14's Flickr stream.