England Draws an EASY World Cup Group?
By Tom Sheldrick
Here's a quick run down of the the so called easy group.
The front page of British tabloid newspaper The Sun declared on Saturday morning: ‘England, Algeria, Slovenia, Yanks – EASY.’
News of World Cup Group C wasn’t met with too much fear from the other side of the pond either, the USA’s MVP Landon Donovan reacting: ‘It could have been worse. It’s going to be a lot of fun.’
But, as Slovenian defender Bostjan Cesar reminded us in promising Wayne Rooney an ‘unpleasant experience’ when they match up in June 2010, Algeria and Slovenia are not just there to make up the numbers. Let’s have a closer look at what should be a compelling Group C:
England: Despite not qualifying for Euro 2008, Fabio Capello’s England were seeded for the draw after a strong qualifying campaign. The Italian boss has given shape and balance to the side, whilst curbing the celebrity culture that pervaded previous regimes. Former nemesis Croatia were overwhelmed home and away on the way to the Finals, but England were outclassed when facing the quality of Spain and Brazil in recent friendlies. Wayne Rooney – who’s revealed that he fell asleep and missed the draw – notched nine in qualifying to finish second on the European scoring charts.
The weight of expectation will rest pretty squarely on Rooney’s shoulders, the nation keeping its fingers crossed that he stays injury-free in the run up to the tournament. Capello’s finally found a way to get his other world class attacking talents – Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard – playing well in the same side, and will be buoyed by the emergence of pacy Aaron Lennon on the right wing, and the return to form of Ashley Cole at left back. Time’s running out to fill some of the remaining positions though. No goalkeeper has convinced in his try-out, and 39-year-old David James might be wearing the gloves come June. Rio Ferdinand’s season so far has seen nothing but injuries and lapses in concentration, whilst Glen Johnson doesn’t look good enough going backwards to make the right back position his own. Up top, Capello is likely to put faith in a striker who doesn’t score goals – Emile Heskey.
England will naturally be strong favourites to win the group and move on towards at least the quarter finals, but a lot depends on the momentum that comes from the opening game, with the USA on 12 June. Its location, at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium, Rustenberg, is a boost, as England will be based at altitude nearby. The USA draw has brought up the interesting subplot of David Beckham, who moved to Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007, but the former national skipper may not make the squad at all. English press have been quick to remind us of Belo Horizonte, 1950, when the USA famously shocked England in the World Cup in Brazil. Everton’s American no.1 Tim Howard also saved England and Spurs marksman Jermain Defoe’s last minute penalty at the weekend – an ominous sign looking towards the summer.
United States: The USA qualified for their sixth successive World Cup Finals by topping the CONCACAF qualifying table. Confidence is high that the Americans can do better than in 2006 when they failed to get out of their group, especially given a strong run in the Confederations Cup in South Africa this summer. Spain, who had not lost in 35 matches, were beaten 2-0 in the semi-final, and Brazil trailed 2-0 at half-time in the final before eventually coming back to win 3-2. The Confederations Cup let Head Coach Bob Bradley see his side play at altitude on the subcontinent. The USA dispatched Egypt 3-0 at the Rustenberg stadium where they will face England in the opener, while Spain were out-run in Bloomfontein, at an altitude of 1400 metres.
Young striker Jozy Altidore emerged as a great prospect during the tournament, whilst, at the other end, Tim Howard has been consistently excellent between the sticks. Bradley’s free-scoring midfielders are his trump card though. Fulham’s Clint Dempsey, 120-cap Landon Donovan and the coach’s son Michael Bradley bagged five each in qualifying, and epitomise a hard-working side who will be very hard to beat.
Algeria: ‘The Desert Foxes’, as Algeria are known, were one of the last to qualify for South Africa, coming through a heated tiebreak game with fierce rivals Egypt. Centre back Antar Yahia was the unlikely hero, his volley the only goal in neutral Khartoum, Sudan, after the two sides finished dead level in their qualifying group. It will be the North Africans’ third appearance at FIFA’s premier tournament, but they’re unlikely to be shy, having beaten European Champions West Germany in the group stages in 1982. Head coach Rabah Saadane, known as ‘the wise’, is enjoying his fifth stint in charge, and has dragged the side from a record low FIFA world ranking of 103rd in May 2008 to 28th currently.
Qualification was based being tight at the back, with just over one goal conceded every two games. Portsmouth defender Nadir Belhadj is one of a number of European-based players, led by holding midfielder Yazid Mansouri. Although his game time at Wolfsburg in Germany has been limited this season, talented playmaker Karim Ziani will be relied on to provide the spark. A great deal will depend on how they get on against Slovenia on 13 June, but Algeria have the discipline, ability and African fans to cause an upset.
Slovenia: If Slovenia needed any more motivation going into the World Cup, then the chance to gain revenge over an England side that beat them 2-1 in September might just be it. Bostjan Cesar has accused Wayne Rooney of injuring him on purpose, whilst winning the home side a penalty during their Wembley encounter. Slovenia showed enough efficiency, if not inspiration, that day to make them a dangerous member of the group. That was confirmed by an away goal playoff victory over the strongly-tipped Russians, which gave Slovenia – a nation with a population of only 2 million – a place at their second Finals.
Slovenia head coach Matjaž Kek has built success around a strong defence, with only 4 goals conceded in 10 qualifying group games. West Brom’s Robert Koren provides some guile from midfield, but the danger man is 6ft 4inch striker Milijove Novakovic, who plays his club football for Köln in Germany. Slovenia will keep it tight and rely on him to pinch a goal or two if they are to make it out of Group C.
Group C Fixtures:
Saturday 12 June – Royal Bafokeng Stadium, Rustenberg:
England - USA
Sunday 13 June – Peter Mokaba Stadium, Polokwane:
Algeria – Slovenia
Friday 18 June – Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg
Slovenia – USA
Friday 18 June – Green Point Stadium, Cape Town
England – Algeria
Wednesday 23 June – Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria
USA – Algeria
Wednesday 23 June – Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth
Slovenia - England
Tom Sheldrick is a freelance writer and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org