Wagons…East!

The Draw

What were you doing at ten a.m. on Saturday morning? Probably sleeping off Friday night, like me. Meanwhile, in the Far East, a number of FIFA officials and pretty Oriental women were helping to decide what sort of summer Irish and English fans were likely to have. As it turned out, the 2002 FIFA World Cup draw brought mixed fortunes for the two “home” nations, as such.

England-Argentina-Nigeria-Sweden

“The Hand that Rocks the Cradle” star, Rebecca DeMornay, once said “what goes around, comes around”. And that is the way it turned out for England. After making a meal of the less-than-taxing qualifying group, they now have a challenge and a half in the competition proper.

The obvious place to start is the rather excellent Argentina team who stood out in qualifying, miles ahead of the fading Brazilian side. Their midfield contains some of the most sublime talent west of Barnsley – Simeone, Veron, Gonzalez, Zanetti, Aimar. Crespo and Lopez are potent up front and you wonder how Keown, Southgate and Campbell will cope with this pair.

Nigeria are often cited as the dark horses, but the truth is they will be fortunate to advance over the fence that is Group F. Despite harnessing talent like Finidi George, Victor Ikpeba and Arsenal’s occasional star, Kanu, their indiscipline and legendary disorganisation at the back normally sees them drop points when it matters. They bring style and excitement but also a defence you could park the QE2 in.

Sven Goran Eriksson will have to face his home nation of Sweden in the first game, and that is just the sort of spice needed to motivate his England team. Although they have not beaten the Swedes since the 60s, it will all count for nothing in Japan. The Swedes were unbeaten in qualifying and will fancy their chances next year. But their game is built on workrate and togetherness, and their few outstanding players (Larsson and Andersson) need to be on their game for Sweden to make it through this group.

As it stands, I fancy England to edge through at the expense of Nigeria and Sweden. It is without doubt ‘the group of death’ and immense plaudits will go to the team who manage to advance with the South Americans.

Ireland-Germany-Cameroon-Saudi Arabia

Was it also Rebecca DeMornay who said, “why won’t anyone give me a film role anymore?”. It probably was, for all the relevance it holds to this column. For Ireland, the stiff qualifying campaign which saw them go unbeaten until the last minute of their play-off win in Iran, knock out the Dutch and frighten the Portuguese, has been rewarded with a less challenging task.

Rather naively the Germans have been written off by many, but if history has thought us anything it is “Don’t Write Off the Germans”. Look, they got whacked by England, and on the basis of failing to score in 300 shots against Finland and witnessing Beckham’s last minute face-saver against Greece, barely missed out on automatic qualification. They then went on the destroy the Ukraine in the play-off and now with 6 months to prepare, are likely to re-group and be fresh as a daisy in June.

In Kahn, they have one of the worlds best goalies. Babbel and Nowotny are quality players in defence. What about that midfield? Scholl, Ballack, Ziege, Hamann, Jeremies, Deisler. You need more? Kirsten and Jancker are no slouches up front, and what a time for Bierhoff to sign off from international duty which a tournament to remember. The Germans will be a challenge for the Irish and anyone who thinks otherwise is a bit mental.

Speaking of mental, now is the time to stick a few quid on Cameroon receiving a few red cards. We spoke of Nigerian indiscipline, but these guys are incredible. Although rather excellent in 1990 (when they beat the holders Argentina in the opening game and lost in extra time in the quarter-finals to Engalnd), they have not performed since. In 1994, they drew the opening game against Sweden and were hammered 0-3 and 1-6 by Brazil and Russia respectively. In 1998, they drew two games with Austria and Chile but were well beaten by Italy. Although occasionally hard to beat, the best teams seem to over-run them.

Saudi Arabia qualified in 1998, and managed to bag just a point against South Africa. I wouldn’t expect them to fair any better this time around, and it should be noted that they have just changed coaches as well.

Ireland should be well capable of getting second place in this group, but that’s what we thought in 1990, only for a scoreless draw against Egypt to throw the cat amongst the pidgeons. Expect Germany to win the group with 7, or maybe even 9 points. Ireland should be able to net two wins from three, but if they fail to take maximum points against one of the outsiders, then they will need a result against Germany.

So with a bit of luck, we’ll see Ireland and England progress. It promises to be a terrific tournament, with the added thrill of seeing first-timers, Senegal, and the home nations Japan and Korea aim to please their adoring millions with a good run in the competition.

The big question is, who will have the best World Cup song. My money is on Tunisia.

And finally…

There’s a lot of rubbish conjecture going on about Robbie Fowler’s move to Leeds. Some Liverpool fans are falling into the same trap that Spurs fans did with Sol Campbell in the summer, by declaring that Robbie was in fact no good at all. Other fans are heartbroken and tearing up their season tickets. Some are just off their heads on drugs or in jail for aggravated burglary, so don’t know about it yet (joke!).

The truth probably belongs somewhere in the middle. Fowler is not the player he was 3 or 4 years ago, and has been surviving on past reputation, that’s for sure. The injury and personal problems that have dogged him for some time have overshadowed his career, and in some ways it is a miracle that he is still playing. He is out of shape and his attitude certainly needs to be tweaked, but it is probably a symptom of his unhappy life under Gerard Houllier and Phil Thompson. In some cases you can sympathise with Fowler, as Thompson is a total arse.

The emergence of Michael Owen in 1998 put another nail in the Fowler coffin. With Fowler and Owen too similar to combine well together, Houllier decided to bring in target-man, Emile Heskey. Three into two doesn’t go, and in the end it was Fowler who predictably walked out of the Shankly Gates. For some Liverpool fans, Heskey is the epitome of a non-Liverpool player and if forced to choose between the two, many would want Fowler to stick around. But despite his limited ability and general awkwardness, Heskey is a good foil for Owen and this helped Houllier make the decision.

But Fowler is not finished and although we may not see too much of him this year, he is now playing in a bright skilful squad (a stark contrast to the rather uninventive style that Houllier employs at Anfield), and he should get stronger and more consistent in the next year or so.

Money well spent? If it blunts the Anfield Championship challenge and enhances the Leeds one, then he is a bargain. But we all know how the last big club-to-rivals striker transfer went – Andy Cole anyone?

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