Surprise Selections (and other news) from Group C, the Most Overrated Group in South Africa -- England, USA, Slovenia, and Algeria
The hype surrounding this group could move mountains. That's because it contains the Cup's two most overrated teams, at least by their fans - England and the USA. But interestingly, Group C also has two of South Africa's more underrated squads - Algeria and particularly Slovenia. Upsets are definitely possible in a group without a truly dominant squad.
So, it's on to recent developments with the teams, in an order of finish on which we wouldn't bet the farm:
Every four years, the English are convinced that "football is coming home." But the reporters who cover the team - who usually join in the mass delusion - have begun to notice that the good ship England is taking on water. Note the recent headlines: "England Remain A World Cup Longshot," (from When Saturday Comes) and "Rest of the World Will Not Fear England Squad, says Oliver Kay" (from the UK Times). After a season in the always tough and physical Premier League, England's players are tired and hurting, and the team never had a keeper, or a decent second striker, or enough defenders to be a top-flight contender anyway. That's why manager Fabio Capello tried to get both the aged Paul Scholes (Man U) to return (he failed, fortunately) and defender Jamie Carragher of Liverpool (he succeeded, unfortunately), who had already lost a step several years ago. This is the same Jamie Carragher who wrote in his autobiography after he retired from international duty two years ago, "I was never in love with playing for England in the first place." Not a good sign.
There are surprises on the squad galore as Capello seems to be going with quantity over quality due to injuries that kept out Wes Brown, Owen Hargreaves, David Beckham, and Joleon Lescott. The provisional squad has an astounding ten defenders, including the distinctly mediocre Leighton Baines (Everton), Michael Dawson (Tottenham), Stephen Warnock (Aston Villa), and Matthew Upson (West Ham). They will join Carragher and a banged-up John Terry and Rio Ferdinand, not to forget the often-injured Ledley King (Tottenham). ("John Terry is a liability for England," wrote the Guardian's Amy Lawrence recently.) There's no Wayne Bridge, of course, after the tabloid scandal that revealed that his girlfriend had had an affair with Terry, which would have caused its own set of problems at the back.
In midfield, Adam Johnson of Man City and Tom Huddlestone of Tottenham grace the side since Gareth Barry may be too hurt to play, while at striker, Darren Bent and Emile Heskey (yes, the same striker who ended a remarkable six-year goal drought for the national team last year) have been recalled, to the surprise and cheers of defenders everywhere. England better hope that Wayne Rooney stays healthy, despite his long season; we would have partnered him with Fulham's Bobby Zamora or Aston Villa's Gabriel Agbonlahor but both were left off the squad.
With the weak defense, the news is that Capello may switch to a 3-5-2 playing three central defenders, which would be a fairly new innovation for the Italian, though, alas, not for England which tried the formation four years ago in a key qualifier against Croatia, only to see it fail miserably. (English players tend to be far more comfortable in the more traditional 4-4-2.)
And yet, this may well be the easiest group in South Africa, meaning England shouldn't have much trouble getting to the next round. That's when this squad may run into problems. As usual.
Soccer, of course, is a team sport but no team in South Africa is more dependent on only two players than the Americans - which might tell you something about why we have trouble with the sport. At last year's Confederations Cup, outstanding Fulham midfielder Clint Dempsey accounted for about a third of the team's shots and keeper Tim Howard (Everton) kept the US competitive, even though it was out shot 2-1. If either should be off form in South Africa, this squad is sunk.
As with its English counterparts, the issue for the U.S. has been the extent to which it can count on players who have recently been injured. The good news is that even though striker Charlie Davies (Sochaux), injured in a car crash last fall, won't be healthy in time to make the trip, other players such as Stuart Holden (Houston Dynamo on loan to Bolton), Aarhus midfielder Benny Feilhaber and defenders Oguchi Onyewu (Milan) and Steve Cherundolo (Hannover) are recovered - at least enough to make the squad.
One remaining problem is that with Davies out, the US still doesn't have a serviceable second striker to pair with Jozy Altidore (Hull City, on loan from Villarreal). That's why Eddie Johnson (Aris Thessaloniki) has been recalled to the squad, despite disappointing performances at many of his recent clubs. The other major problem is that the team tends to run out of gas at the end of games - a problem that may be exacerbated in the altitude of certain games in South Africa.
It probably also won't please the Americans that while they will have a sizable rooting contingent in the stands, South Africa's police chief, General Bheki Sele, won't be among them. "Our famous prayer is that the Americans don't make the second round," he said, afraid that moving on in the tournament would bring President Barack Obama to South Africa to watch, creating a security nightmare.
Will he get his wish? The U.S. should be more competitive against England than people expect but Algeria - and especially Slovenia - are underrated. Overconfidence could cost the team if it's not careful.
Slovenia may be the most underrated squad in South Africa and it has used its lack of a reputation to perfection in getting here - first finishing second in a group that included the tough Czechs, Slovakians, and Poles and then upsetting the heavily favored Russians in a playoff. With their disciplined defense and propensity to score late in games (in contrast to the English and Americans), they could spring a surprise again.
Given their tight organization, it's no surprise that the provisional squad is pretty much exactly what people expected. The one new player to watch could be 21-year-old striker Tim Matavz, who had an excellent season with Groningen in Holland and who could join rising star Rene Krhin, all of 19, who occasionally sees action at Inter.
No-names, yes. A weak offense, yes. But they dare you to break them down on defense. Most can't.
FIFA instituted a rule after the qualifiers were all completed, allowing youth players for one nation to declare for another as long they had not played for the senior squad. No nation has taken better advantage of the change than Algeria - which promptly has added French youth defenders Habib Bellaid (US Bologne in France) and Carl Medjani (AC Ajaccio) to the team.
This is consistent with the way "Les Verts" have built their team. In a reverse of the pattern of French superstar Zinedine Zidane, most of this squad are players from families that emigrated to France but have come back to play in Algeria, which is why this team plays like a kind of France Jr. - tough on defense but inconsistent too.
As with Slovenia, this is a team that relies on organization and a tight defense and wasn't apt to make a lot of changes in the lineup heading to South Africa. "I wanted to keep the core of the team and maintain equilibrium," said coach Rabah Saadane, who was also the coach when Algeria last went to the tournament 24 long years ago. Only four players are on the squad who play their club soccer at home, including three keepers.
Algeria may also benefit from news that key defender Nadir Belhadj (Portsmouth) may be allowed to play in Algeria's opening matches despite a red card against Egypt in the African Nations Cup in January, that should have led to a suspension.
According to When Saturday Comes, most conversations in the North African nation go something like this: "Ha, ha, Egypt didn't qualify! We're going to get trounced. But who cares? Let's party!" They're probably right but this squad is capable of one upset in its three games. The other three teams are hoping that the lightning doesn't strike them.
Steven and Harrison Stark are the co-authors of World Cup 2010: The
Indispensable Guide to Soccer and Geopolitics, recently published by
Blue River Press. They will be analyzing the World Cup for Real