Group A Preview: Is the Host Nation Finally Too Weak to Advance?
Every host country in the history of the World Cup has progressed beyond the first round of the World Cup. No pressure, South Africa. We Yanks were unexpectedly able to do it in ’94 and both South Korea and Japan did it in ’02, so there’s some hope for South Africa to make some noise. There really isn’t much firepower on Bafana Bafana, so a lot of pressure will be up to Steven Pienaar to facilitate offense. The one thing going for the host nation is that, from top to bottom, the variance among teams in Group A is slight (plus, they don’t have a seeded team in their group). France is the weakest they’ve been in years and they barely qualified for the tournament. That debacle of refereeing with a Thierry Henry handball still has people in Ireland complaining.
Uruguay played surprisingly strong in the qualification stage and is actually predicted by ESPN to win the group. Their opening game vs. France will likely set the tone for the group and they’ve got plenty of world class experience since most of their players currently suit up for European club teams. The group rounds out with Mexico, a team who is historically overrated. Mexico has never advanced to the quarterfinals in any World Cup when they weren’t the host country, yet they’re constantly recognized as a world soccer power. Most people will jump on the bandwagon after defeating Italy in a friendly leading up to the World Cup, but it’s a friendly and we really shouldn’t get too excited about results in friendlies.
It’s a little disconcerting that France struggled to qualify for this year’s World Cup, but it’s possible that they were waiting to play in South Africa before switching things into high gear. There’s plenty of talent on this year’s French team, which includes Franck Ribery, a winger who’s in the conversation for the game’s next best player after Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Les Blue might struggle in the center of midfield with a big-name stud, so it’ll be up to William Gallas at the back to make sure the team maintains a strong defensive record while wingers Florent Malouda and Ribery look to complement the likely strikers of Henry and Nicolas Anelka. Their path to the semifinals won’t be the toughest with the slated opposition of Nigeria in the second round and a vulnerable England in the quarterfinals. Should they advance that far they’ll likely run into the juggernaut from Brazil, where things would end.
I’ve already mentioned that I’m not on board with the home of Corona beer, so I’ll look to Uruguay as somewhat of a group sleeper. They’re traveling under the radar as the least-talked-about team in the group because they’re playing with the host nation and two historically followed teams. Uruguay showed two things in the qualification round that give them credibility. They won games against Argentina and Brazil, which demonstrates they have the ability to beat high-class opponents. The second quality is they showed the ability to win in various ways, taking victory by both scoring many goals and also playing defensive soccer. Given the lack of talent in the top half of the draw, Uruguay might be able to sneak their way into a fifth or even sixth game.
Player to Watch
Franck Ribery. Don’t get scared by the scars on his face, the result of a childhood car accident. Ribery dazzled during the World Cup in Germany four years ago as he sped down the right side creating numerous opportunities. We should expect more of the same this year as the presence of Malouda, who was in tremendous recent form for Chelsea, on the other side, will allow Ribery to take his defender one-on-one and either run to goal or sling over dangerous crossing balls. The French Strikers should keep defenses somewhat honest.
Given the wide-open nature of the group, there’s a lot of value in betting whoever you believe will win the group. Here are some suggestions if you feel like risking it:
Uruguay +350 to win Group B
Mexico +225 to be eliminated in the Round of 16
Florent Malouda +1000 to lead France in scoring