Countdown to South Africa: Group C

 

 

Michael LeClair and Jaime Heilbron

With 32 teams in the mix, the World Cup always plays host to some interesting rivalries. In 2010, there is no better matchup than the United States v. England. 60 years after the Americans pulled off (arguably) the biggest upset in football history, beating England in the 1950 World Cup, the two sides will face off under vastly different circumstances. England has been a perpetual failure in all major competitions since 1966, while the United States are one of the rising powers in the world’s game. Algeria and Slovenia should not be overlooked in this group, but for the English-speaking world, USA – England will be the marquee match in South Africa, and make this the group to watch.

Algeria

Algeria can most accurately be described as temperamental, at best. On any given day, you have no idea which Algerian team will show up. You could get the side that was obliterated by Malawi in the African Cup of Nations, or you could get the side that defeated the Ivory Coast two weeks later. Algeria could come out with an unbelievable amount of discipline, as they did in their one-off World Cup playoff with Egypt in Khartoum. Alternatively, they could lose 4-0 and pick up three red cards, as in their African Cup of Nations semi-final against the same Egyptian team.

Algeria’s qualification to the World Cup was shocking to the football world. Algeria has not won an African Cup of Nations since 1990, when they hosted the tournament, and until this January, they hadn’t even qualified for one since 2004. The majority of their national team plays in the Algerian Championnat National, a league ranked 48th in the world by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics, just below the Moldovan league. On the international stage, players who regularly compete at this low of a level can succumb to the intense pressure and spotlight thrust upon them by the world media.

Clearly, Algerian manager Rabah Saâdane and captain Yazid Mansouri have a lot of work to do in South Africa to keep this team in order. Imploding in the continental championship is one thing, but doing it on the world stage, especially early on, will condemn a team to a humiliating three-and-out, akin to Saudi Arabia in 2002. Problems may arise for Algeria, as this is their first World Cup appearance since 1986, and tensions and nerves will certainly be high both in the locker room and on the pitch. Fortunately, they open the Cup against Slovenia, who will almost certainly be the easiest of their three group

opponents.

Looking through Algeria’s roster, one gets a feeling of mediocrity, an impression that is certainly not misguided. They boast a solid midfield, and Madjid Bougherra is a top-class player out of the back, but the rest of the squad fails to impress even the most casual observer. Their greatest offensive threat, outside of Bougherra (and having a defender as your strongest attacking option is never a good sign) is Rafik Saïfi, a 35-year old currently playing for Istres, a club currently in the relegation zone in France’s Ligue 2. In a group filled with top-level talent, Algeria has the potential to get completely blown away.

Player to watch: Hull City forward Kamel Ghilas. Ghilas has put in a series of workman-like performances for the Tigers this season, much like all of Hull’s forwards. If he can re-gain the scoring touch he had at Celta Vigo in the 2008-09 season, Algeria’s offensive woes could be instantly cured. Algeria has a rough road ahead of them in South Africa, but good play from the 25-year old would make things a whole lot easier.

England

England will go to South Africa as one of the favorites, mainly due to their dominant performance in UEFA qualifiers. In meaningful matches, the English were undefeated, only losing to Ukraine once qualification had been secured. In group play, England scored a total of 34 goals while allowing only six, clearly displaying their quality on the pitch. Most impressive were their wins over Croatia, the side who kept England out of Euro 2008, beating the Brits 4-1 in Zagreb and 5-1 at Wembley. Their only real challenge came against Ukraine at home, where they still pulled out a 2-1 win. After World Cup quarter-final appearances in 2002 and 2006, the English will be hoping to earn a place in the semifinals, at the very least. They have the potential to take a World Cup trophy home from South Africa, satisfying a long-lasting desire for an English championship of any kind.

England is widely known as the birthplace of football. Their best World Cup performance was their title-winning run in 1966, when they hosted, but since then the best they have done is a fourth place finish in 1990. In 2006, as usual, the English arrived as one of the favorites, and advanced out of a tough group, earning seven points along the way. After a Round of 16 win over Ecuador, England took on Portugal in the quarter-finals. It seemed like England was en route to their first semifinal in 16 years, but they fell to Portugal in penalty kicks after drawing, 0-0, in a controversial match that saw Wayne Rooney sent off. This coming summer, great things will once again be expected from the English, who were awarded a relatively easy group with only the Americans posing serious competition. This squad who should go into the tournament with a “championship or bust” mentality, and an entire nation will again hold its breath and watch.

Player to watch: Former captain and current Chelsea defender, John Terry, was recently involved in a scandal after news of an affair with former teammate Wayne Bridge’s ex-girlfriend surfaced last month. This situation cost him his captaincy and the respect of his teammates, especially now that Bridge has quit the England team in the ensuing fallout. Terry’s performance will be crucial to his team’s success, but nothing good will happen if he does not leave recent events in the past and concentrate on the task at hand.

Slovenia

Slovenia had a difficult group in UEFA’s qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. The Slovenians, however, performed admirably and advanced in impressive fashion. They were placed in a group with eventual group winners Slovakia and perennial powerhouse Czech Republic, a team that, despite never winning anything of value, always fields strong teams. They had a 6-2-2 record throughout the ten-game qualifier and a key part of their second place finish was how they played at home. Slovenia went 4-0-1 at home, allowing only a single goal in the five games. Their second place finish set up a two-leg playoff with Russia, going in as huge underdogs. The resilient Slovenians, however, overcame this hurdle, tying the Russians on aggregate, 2-2, advancing courtesy of the away goals rule.

South Africa 2010 is Slovenia’s second appearance in the World Cup, their first coming in 2002. There, Slovenia disappointed, losing all three group stage matches. The Slovenian national team is determined to have a better showing in South Africa and has proven that it can cause some unexpected damage to the bigger teams in their confederation. Their win over Russia shows that this team, despite their minimal international presence, should not be ignored.

Player to watch: In qualifying, Udinese goalkeeper Samir Handanovic was to Slovenia as Ryan Miller was to the U.S. Olympic Hockey team. Handanovic allowed only 6 goals in 11 games, only one of them at home. The performance that Handanovic and Slovenia’s defense bring to the tournament will be crucial in determining the level of their success.

United States

The United States has long been the primary target of derision throughout the footballing world. As one of the world’s largest and richest nations, America’s failings in the world’s game have delighted fans from Argentina to Zimbabwe. Since the US has pretty consistently imploded at the World Cup – 2002 being the exception – the world has always had an opportunity to laugh at America’s expense every four years.

Those days are no longer. The United States burst onto the world stage as a serious player in the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa, defeating the world number one, Spain, 2-0 in the tournament’s semi-final. During that game, America showed discipline all across the field, displayed amazing technical ability going forward and, of course, exhibited the drive and determination that has characterized American teams in all sports throughout the ages.

Still, somehow, the United States is being underestimated at this World Cup. The English media has portrayed Group C as a cakewalk, conveniently ignoring the fact that the United States has a level of talent never before seen on a North American side. Midfielder Landon Donovan, since going on loan to Everton in January, has been one of the top players in England. Goalkeeper Tim Howard is always in the conversation when discussing the world’s top goalkeeper. Young stars like Jozy Altidore, Maurice Edu, and Michael Bradley have been touted, rightfully so, as part of the next generation of world superstars. And at the head of it all is, quite possibly, the most underrated manager in the world game, Bob Bradley. His coaching efforts in the Confederations Cup can best be compared to Herb Brooks in 1980, as the American side put in a performance that absolutely no one, not even the most optimistic American fan, could have possibly expected.

Having the Confederations Cup experience will prove invaluable to the Americans, as the drone of the vuvuzela and the high South African altitudes will be familiar. In order to do well at this World Cup, the United States needs to replicate their previous South African experience, maintain their organization, and play as a collective unit. Doing so will propel the United States far beyond expectations, and a semi-final appearance is not out of the question.

Player to watch: Whoever starts at left back. A team is only as good as its weakest link, and the American left back will, undoubtedly, be the weakest player on this team, whoever it may be. While Howard’s performance in goal could save the United States, good play from the left back position is crucial for an exceptional US performance in South Africa. Come June, expect either Chivas USA’s Jonathan Bornstein or West Ham’s Jonathan Spector to be patrolling the left side of the United States’ defense.