Monday, May 19, 2014

World Cup Preview: Group G Predictions

Another scintillating World Cup preview. Check out the rest of the group previews here.

Group G: Germany, Portugal, United States, Ghana

"We're Team USA, and we're going all the way."
This is the Group of Death. Let's see how the US can escape with their lives.

Prediction: Germany win group, USA second.


"You've been a very bad boy."
Germany is clearly one of the favorites to win the tournament. It's not a question of whether they'll win this group, but more of how far they'll get once the knockout stages start. They're solid from front to back, with world-class players at every level of the pitch: Miroslav Klose up top (old, but still deadly for the national team), Mario Gotze, Mesut Ozil, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Thomas Muller (to name a few) in the midfield, Phillip Lahm and Per Mertesacker anchoring the backline, and perhaps the world's best keeper in Manuel Neuer.

They'll be fine. Let's move on.

United States.

I'm fully aware that my prediction of the US moving on is based less on analysis and more on deep-seated, red-blooded American homerism. Having said that, let's take a look at how the US can escape this group. 

As soon as the draw came out, everyone was moaning and complaining when we were drawn into Ghana's group, because they've knocked us out of the last two World Cups. Well fuck that. Where some see bad luck, I see motivation. Ghana is the weakest team in this group, and we play them first. Jurgen Klinsmann has stated the obvious in interviews: we NEED to beat Ghana in the first game. If we don't, we're screwed.

Fortunately, I think we have a good chance to pull it off. Our peak players are rounding into form at the right time, with Clint Dempsey scoring 8 goals through 9 games in the MLS and Chris Wondolowski netting 5. First-choice forward Jozy Altidore struggled through a tough season in English Premier League side Sunderland, but he always steps up his game for the national team. The US should go into this game with fire in their veins and revenge in their hearts, and I predict them emerging with a win.

And then, we play Portugal. The team that Men in Blazers described as "Cristiano Ronaldo and 10 other guys." Yes, they're ranked 3rd in the world. Yes, they do have arguably the best player in the world. And yes, they have world-class players like Pepe, Joao Moutinho, and Nani supporting the number 7. But. Hear me out.

First off, C-Ronny is kinda injured. And as he goes, so goes the team. Secondly, Portugal play Germany first, and that game will be an absolute war. They'll both be vying for control of the group, and that game may determine who wins the group outright. That game is the 16th of June, and the USA-Portugal game is the 22nd. A short training period, a first-match hangover, and potentially a few niggling injuries could conspire to hamper the Portuguese. We can pull out a draw against them, or veeeeery possibly a famous victory.

Then, we just have to hang on against Germany and pray for the goal difference to go in our favor.


"Coochie coochie"
Again, rampant homerism here, but for all the skill and speed that Portugal have, I don't see them getting out of this group. 

Portugal's World Cup history is a mixed bag. They didn't qualify from 1934-1962, then burst onto the scene in England with a third place finish in 1966. Then they proceeded to not qualify from 1970-1982, didn't get out of their group in Mexico in 1986, and didn't qualify again until 2002, when they bowed out of their group in Korea after a loss to the mighty United States. Recently they've been a bit better, with a fourth place finish in Germany in 2006 and a Round of 16 exit in 2010. 

I'm thinking geography plays a part with this nation - all their good results have come in Europe (England, Germany), while less than stellar finishes (group stage in Mexico and Korea, round of 16 in South Africa) have come when they travel abroad. Brazil does not bode well for them, despite the familiar language. 

I also feel that Portugal will be hampered, as they usually are, by the lack of a true striker. Or more specifically, the confusion resulting from the best way to use their best player, Cristiano Ronaldo. If I were the manager, I'd just put him up front and let him wreak havoc on defenders, with two wingers to whip crosses in to him. This is the case some of the time, but for whatever reason Ronaldo feels more comfortable out on the wings, where he can cut inside to hit shots or play 1-2s to get the ball in space attacking from the flanks. If I'm playing against Portugal, the further away from goal he is, the better. 

He's their leading scorer and the main reason they're in the World Cup at all, all of which means that teams will be keying on him hard. If Portugal can't get goals from other places on the field, they might be in trouble. 


Fuck this moment.
There is no question that this is the Group of Death. In almost any other group, Ghana would be a serious contender to go through. Aging but still tremendously skilled players like Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari, and Kevin-Prince Boateng anchor the Black Stars, and scourge of the US Asamoah Gyan is a threat in front of goal.

They've also played some meaningful games lately. They took on all comers and nearly conquered Africa, coming up just short in the African Nations Cup final, where they lost on penalties to Libya. They have tune up matches against Montenegro, the Netherlands, and South Korea before their first group stage match with the US, which will test the limits of their skill. 

If the tenet "Know thine enemy" has any truth to it, then the US should be well prepared to face these Ghanaians. The Yanks have gone out to Ghana in both of the last two World Cups, and this is quickly turning into one of the most unlikely rivalries in world football (at least from a geography perspective). 

I'm not sure if Ghana can keep their nerve in this group if they lose to the United States in the first match. My prediction for them involves a loss to the US, followed by an utter collapse as their World Cup dreams drift away.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

World Cup Preview: Group F Predictions

The Cup is less than a month away. These previews will be coming fast and furious. Check out my other wild speculations here.

Group F: Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria

The flow!
Prediction: Argentina win group, Nigeria second.


I have so many questions.
This won't be a surprise to anyone: Argentina is good. Like, best-team-in-the-world good. They have arguably the greatest player in the world in Lionel Messi, and a host of other players who actually play better than him when playing for the national team. Names like Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, and Ezequiel Lavezzi jump out at even the most casual soccer fan, and their midfield and back line are anchored by veterans including Javier Mascherano, Fernando Gago, and Pablo Zabaleta.

Honestly, they're just stupendously talented. Add in the fact that they're in South America and they're in a very weak group, and you can seriously start to talk about their championship aspirations. 


Cool story, bro!

Now we've come to the unpopular opinion. Nigeria, the 45th-ranked team in the world, will escape this group over the combined powers of both Bosnia AND Herzegovina, who are ranked 25th. It seems very unfair that B+H get to draw from two countries, but I digress. 

Nigeria, to put it bluntly, has got this. First off, they open up against Iran. Iran is a horrible soccer team. Nigeria will win 3-0. They'll get some momentum going, and then roll into the clash with B+H with a full head of steam. B+H will be coming off a royal pounding at the hands of the Argentinians, who will come out for their first World Cup match with fire in their eyes and lava in their hearts, or whatever the saying is.

Nigeria's momentum will help them in this match, but it won't carry them through to the win. What will? Oh, I don't know, how about talent and recent big-game experience?

This Nigerian team has some serious skill. Peter Odemwingie, despite his flitting around the bottomer-regions of the EPL, is still a talented goalscorer (though he does have trouble putting them away in international competition). John Obi Mikel Obi Mikel (or whatever he's calling himself these days) has been a stalwart at Chelsea since like the JFK assassination, and he's still only 27 somehow. After the final game of the group stage, defender Joseph Yobo will have collected 100 caps for Nigeria, taking him further into the lead for most-capped player in the nation's history. Captain and keeper Vincent Enyeama is the first-choice tendy for French Ligue 1 side Lille, and came within 114 minutes of setting a record for most minutes without conceding a goal earlier this year. So yeah, they're pretty good. 

Furthermore, the Nigerians have played some legitimately important matches recently. They came in third in the African Nations Championship, which just ended in February. They beat host nation South Africa 3-1, stormed back from 3-0 down to grab an extra-time 4-3 victory over Morocco, and only lost to runners-up Ghana on penalties. Meanwhile, B+H have been prancing around places like St. Louis and Austria, playing teams like Egypt and Lithuania. They do tune up against the Ivory Coast and Mexico in the coming weeks, but still, I'm not convinced that they're ready to play under pressure.

Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

"Are you not entertained?"
So I'm not really sure if this whole Bosnia AND Herzegovina thing is one country, two countries squashed together, two countries that used to be one country and are now two but just say they're still together so their friends don't think anything's wrong, or whatever. I'm calling them B+H.

Also, I just don't think they're that good. For God's sake, WE beat them. And we kinda suck. 

They do have that man up there, Edin Dzeko, who plays for EPL champions Manchester City. He's pretty good. He scored 16 goals for Man City in 31 games. Not shabby. However, they really don't have any other players of note. They have another forward who plays for Stuttgart, Vedad Ibisevic, who has 20 goals in his 53 national team appearances. So I guess he's OK too. 

However, I just see this as a strange World Cup. Brazil is a weird place, and European teams tend to falter on South American soil. I think in any sort of Europe vs. non-Europe clash, the crowd will back the non-European team out of some kind of underdog, us-against-the-old-guard mentality. As mentioned earlier, B+H haven't played in any sort of cauldron lately, and they won't before next month. 


"I ran so far away"
Sidenote: I just realized I put a song link in the caption for my last-place team in the previous post too. Since twice is a trend, I guess I'm doing this from now on.

Anyway, not much to say here. Iran is freaking awful. It's a testament to how colossally screwed up the FIFA rankings are that this team is 37th. They'll be lucky to scratch out a draw in this group.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Thursday, May 1, 2014

World Cup Preview: Group E Predictions

Everyone's favorite desk-bound prognosticator is back with another World Cup preview. Read previous installations here.

Group E: Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras

"Guys? Has the game started?" - 2,000 people
Intriguing. Switzerland as a Pot 1 team, eh? Let's see where this goes.

Prediction: France win group, Switzerland second.


"We ride at dawn!"
Even before starting this writeup, I already hate my predictions. This is kind of the same thing that happens with my NCAA basketball picks - I make my picks based on what should happen, and then it all goes to Hell. I'll pick the wrong upsets in this World Cup as well, I'm sure, so don't be surprised if Ecuador sneak out of this group.

Having said that, I think France is pretty safe. They just have way too much quality to not survive and advance, even with the shocking exclusion of Manchester City midfielder Samir Nasri. It's well known that England, German, Italy, Spain, and France house the top five domestic leagues in the world, and out of France's current roster, 22 of 23 players play in one of these leagues. 

For contrast, Honduras, Ecuador, and Switzerland combined can claim 20 such players between them. 

Meteoric talents like Ribery, Benzema, and Lloris will carry Les Bleus through to the knockout stages, despite the French's historical record of mixed World Cup performance outside Western Europe.


Seems that it was recently goal time.
For the same reason that I have France winning this group, I have Switzerland emerging as the second-place team. They are simply a deeper team, with more experience playing high-stakes, top-notch football. Since a shock victory against Spain in 2010, the Swiss have been rightly seen as a global threat.

Age will not be a factor that slows this team down. They have the youth to overcome the oppressive Brazilian heat, as captain Gohkan Inler is only 29, and studs like Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka are 22 and 21, respectively. In fact, their oldest player is 30, which is mighty young for a goalkeeper with 55 caps to his name in Diego Benaglio.

Also, read those names. This is not your father's Switzerland side. (Did your father have a Switzerland side? Whatever). Players born in such former Socialist Republics as Macedonia, Yugoslavia, and, um... Cape Verde have made their way onto this roster, and they're poised to represent the Schweizer Nati to the best of their abilities. 

Granted, I don't know a ton about their players. What I do know, however? They play against better teams both at the club and country level, and they're currently 8th in the world. That's gotta count for something. 


A preview of how the Ecuadorian team might feel after this group stage.
The dude above is Antonio Valencia. In addition to eating an unfinished prototype of Willy Wonka's newest face-enlarging candy, he's the only player I've heard of on this Ecuador team. He plays for Manchester United and has an alarming habit of suffering shocking injuries (don't click that link if you're a fan of left ankles).

He's got some skill, for sure, but Ecuador will need to rely on more than one player to make it out of this group.

And although they might only have one household name, the Ecuadorians come absolutely chock-full of international experience. An astonishing eight players have over 40 caps, including 34-year-old left back Walter Ayovi - a man who played in all 16 of Ecuador's World Cup qualifying games.

This kind of steady play at the back is one of the reasons that I could see Ecuador moving on. Another chief reason is one that I make reference to repeatedly, because it bears repeating: the atmosphere.

Now, again, I'm not simply talking about matches that will be played in high heat and humidity. I'm talking about mini sports wars that will be fought in a cacophony of drums, heat, haze, smoke, firework residue, g-strings, sweat, sunscreen, weed, booze, and humidity.

Granted, this is a major international tournament, and it's in a relatively underdeveloped country, so the police presence will likely be formidable. However, this isn't always the best idea.

Ecuador plays in South America. They know what it's like to go into big stadiums and deal with the best teams in the world. They fought Uruguay to a 1-1 draw on away soil, and nearly nipped a point from top-5 world power Colombia, losing 1-0 away. The crowds of their home continent will be behind them and against the European adversaries of France and Switzerland. I like these Ecuadorians. I'm just not sure if they can make up for the gulf in quality.


"Sup, fresh? It's our turn, baby"
Sadly, despite Maynor Figueroa's cool-ass facial expression up there, I just don't think the Hondurans have the depth to make this a contest.

(Sidenote: it's hard to write this with a straight face while listening to the song in that caption's link. I suggest you play it.)

Yes, we all remember this complete nonsense, but the Yanks redeemed themselves in the Gold Cup with a 3-1 victory. The Honduras were solid at home and shaky on the road in CONCACAF, and I'm guessing they won't get much in the way of support when they run into the big boys in Brazil. A road loss to Panama and a tie in Jamaica are causes for concern when facing top-notch opposition, and the Honduras should probably prepare for a quick exit.