Score early, score often. Obvious, but more crucial advice than you might realise for this world cup. Last night’s triumph of Spain over Tunisia was one of only three come-from-behind victories in 32 games so far. There have also been four goalless draws, but the team scoring first has won on 22 occasions and has only been hauled back to level pegging in the remaining three. No team has recovered from going two behind in this world cup. Only two sides (Uruguay and South Africa) managed it last time.
The final set of group games sees some teams straining to qualify while others already have seats reserved on the flight home. Certainty of expulsion, however, has an unpredictable effect. Some teams sleepwalk through their final fixture while others at last throw off the shackles of expectation and turn in rousing performances. Most teams rest key players to avoid injury or suspension which gives eager squad players the chance to shine.
This third sequence of matches has been the highest scoring in the group phase of both of the previous two tournaments, though only by three goals (46-35-49 and 37-43-46) on each occasion. Below we pick our way through sections A to D in the group stage finale and suggest a few "sleeper" players who might replace starters in this round of games to good fantasy effect.
We certainly didn’t see Ecuador coming. Few did given their indifferent performances away from altitude, but they’re threatening to spoil the hosts’ party. A draw with Germany today would give them the group and condemn the home side to Stuttgart and Gelsenkirchen instead of Munich and Berlin. Michael Ballack needs the match practice and will play while hoping to avoid a second yellow card that would see him miss the weekend’s first knockout round. Ecuador have a quintet of first teamers (Mora, De La Cruz, Hurtado, Mendez and Castillo) facing the same sanction and may ease off enough at the back for this game to be a thriller. In Hanover, Costa Rica and Poland are both smarting from back to back defeats, but will react in different ways. The central Americans will hope their senior players can finally grab a victory while noises from the Polish camp suggest they will repeat their successful experiment of the last world cup in throwing in several keen youngsters for the final dead game. Expect a narrow German win and a 2-2 draw in the other match.
Under the radar fantasy picks: Pawel Brozek, Ireneusz Jelen (Poland), Robert Huth (Germany), Cristian Bolanos (Costa Rica), Jorge Guagua, Christian Lara (Ecuador)
Trinidad & Tobago’s heroic point against Sweden gives them faint hope of progression, but now they need to score goals rather than prevent them. Swift counter attacks are their forte, but even a fancy free Paraguay with nothing to lose will likely be moderately cautious themselves. T&T are looking for at least a two goal margin to have any hope of catching Sweden for second and the Scandinavians themselves have designs on England’s group lead. Main target man Ibrahimovic is missing for Sweden while England rest Gerrard and Crouch to avoid second cautions. This fixture almost always yields a 1-1 draw. We predict that result in both games.
Under the radar fantasy picks: Cornell Glen (T&T), Nelson Valdez (Paraguay), Marcus Allback (Sweden), Aaron Lennon (England)
As with Group A, Holland versus Argentina is only about winning the group. Expect something of an “A” fixture with both teams giving big match experience to reserves they might need later on. We’re still not persuaded by Argentina. They’ve crushed a team early in two recent tournaments (Greece 4-0 1994, Jamaica 5-0 1998) before falling to Hagi’s Romania and Bergkamp’s Holland, neither of whom went on to reach the final. Serbia & Montenegro had forgotten what it’s like to go behind and from the bell walked straight onto Argentina’s opener. A second while they regrouped and a third soon after would have seen a boxing referee stop the fight. Unluckily for Serbia they had to endure another 45 minutes against reserve attackers desperate for a starting place and the punishment was repeated. We want to see what happens when Argentina’s opposition score first in a knockout game. Holland are trying to get through this one unscathed so the advantage is with Argentina’s young bucks. In the other match, the Ivory Coast will be desperate to have something to show for all this praise that’s been heaped upon their attractive play while Serbia’s coach resigned alone on Saturday and we believe his less than supportive players, in their last ever match joined with Montenegro, will ‘phone this one in.
Under the radar fantasy picks: Carlos Tevez (Argentina), Rafael van der Vaart, Dirk Kuijt (Holland), Aruna Dindane (Ivory Coast).
Three teams so mediocre the poor one might qualify! Portugal are through, but their keenness to avoid the Argentinean threshing machine means they won’t roll over for Mexico. However, a point each keeps Angola at bay. Iran, like the Cote D’Ivoire, will want to take some spoils home, while Angola will want to build on their thoroughly deserved point against Mexico. This game promises to be far more fun than the tame top two tête-à-tête.
Under the radar fantasy picks: Simao Sabrosa, Helder Postiga (Portugal), Jose Fonseca, Luis Perez (Mexico), Arash Borhani, Mehrzad Madanchi (Iran), Pedro Mantorras (Angola).