Who will be big in Japan?

Where it all began

It was World Cup 1998 where I first began writing these occasional columns, in fact it is probably the most negative fact to come out of the whole experience. So here we are once again. Who will win? Who will be the stars? Who will be the turkeys? And how many hair styles will Beckham try out in the two weeks before England are eliminated in the groups stages. Snigger.

Group A France, Senegal, Uruguay, Denmark
One of those strange groups that looks tough for current World and European Champions, France, but probably won’t be. Senegal were runners up in the African Nations Cup last year and may surprise a few people on their debut. That will probably be limited to a draw or two against anyone but France. Uruguay only qualified through a play off win over Australia and do not have players to match the calibre of previous campaigns such as Fonseca and Francescoli. The Danes topped their qualifying group and will be the biggest threat to France. Indeed they only conceeded six goals in ten games.
Final group Prediction 1 France 2 Denmark 3 Uruguay 4 Senegal
Look out for Alvaro Reboca (Uruguay and Inter)
Group B Spain, Slovenia, Paraguay, South Africa
Paraguay are going to join Slovenia as serious threats once again to Spain’s ability to win a World Cup. In WC98, Paraguay conceeded just one goal in four games before going out in golden goal-extra time to France in the Second Round. In qualifying, they showed patchier form this time around, but drew twice with runaway winners Argentina and defeated fellow qualifiers Brazil, Ecuador and Uruguay. Slovenia were undefeated in qualifying and came through a play-off against fancied Romania. Their tiny nation will consider a second round place a huge triumph. South Africa are last, and least. They made little impact at WC98, and with their qualifying only requiring them to stay above the likes of Zimbabwe, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Malawi, their hopes cannot be high. In the end, Spain’s quality (Raul, Hierro, Morientes, Tristan, Mendieta) should keep them above the others – but there will be some scares.
Final group Prediction 1 Spain 2 Paraguay 3 Slovenia 4 South Africa
Look out for Milkenko Acimovic (Slovenia and Tottenham)
Group C Brazil, Turkey, China, Costa Rica
Brazil will enjoy striking back at the critics, and they should do so in style this summer. Expect maximum points against their group rivals, even the talented Turks, who they face in their first game. The Turks will have a crunch game against China in their final group game, but Turkey should be able to oust the plucky Chinese in their first WC appearance. Costa Rica make their first appearance in twelve years, and with Paulo Wanchope up-front, they have the ability to snatch third – but a repeat of their 1990 heroics (they made the quarter-finals) seem unlikely.
Final group Prediction 1 Brazil 2 Turkey 3 Costa Rica 4 China
Look out for Hakan Sukur (Turkey and Parma)
Group D Korea Rep, Poland, USA, Portugal
Korea seeded first? It won’t make any difference to one of the tournament favourites, Portugal, who should just clinch top spot in this tough group. The big surprise here could be the USA who have been getting better and better since their WC90 appearance. Poland are a team on the rise, and they lost only once (a meaningless game in Belarus) in qualifying. However, the underrated Americans may be able to edge out Poland with the joint-holders lagging behind with pride and a few goals in the credit column.
Final group Prediction 1 Portugal 2 USA 3 Poland 4 Korea Rep
Look out for Landon Donovan (USA and San Jose Earthquakes)
Group E Germany, Saudi Arabia, Ireland, Cameroon
One of the toughest groups to call, but made a little easier by the ejection of Irish star player, Roy Keane. Germany have been struggling in the last few years and coach Rudi Voller is on a hiding to nothing with his side unlikely to make the last four, in fact they may struggle to get out of the group. Cameroon are African champions but their unpredictability and suspect defending may open the door for the tougher European opponents. Ireland will struggle without Keane and if they lose the opener to Cameroon, they can start packing their bags. Saudi Arabia might just catch someone off guard. They are without doubt the best side in the middle east and have qualified for the WC for the third time in a row.
Final group Prediction 1 Cameroon 2 Germany 3 Ireland 4 Saudi Arabia
Look out for Damien Duff (Ireland and Blackburn)
Group F Argentina, Nigeria, England, Sweden
The obligatory group of death. If you thought you might have to toss a coin, with Group E, you can toss dozens here. Argentina are the side to beat with their resurgence as a force being plain to see for the last four years. England have also improved immensely under Sven Goran Eriksson and his selection of young talent has seen England classed in the top eight sides in the competition (despite a largely unimpressive qualifying campaign). Sweden are as strong an outsider as you will get. Their qualifying was impressive – eight wins, two draws, no defeats, and just three goals conceeded. Their players are proven (Larsson, Ljungberg, Allback, Ibrahimovic, Andersson, Hedman, Mellberg), and they give off the aura of a championship club team than a national side. Somtimes thats an advantage. The wild card in all this is Nigeria. Impressive in a 2-1 win over Ireland recently (unbeaten at home for two years), if they get it together, they are capable of beating everyone in the group. However, it’s a big if. Whatever happens, it will be very close.
Final group Prediction 1 Argentina 2 Engalnd 3 Nigeria 4 Sweden
Look out for Freddie Ljungberg (Sweden and Arsenal)
Group G Italy, Ecuador, Croatia, Mexico
Another group that will be close – and I think will spring a surprise in the form of emerging South American nation, Ecuador. Finishing second in qualifying behind Argentina, they have produced some quality players in the last couple of years – Delgado, Aguinaga and Kaviedes form an attacking trio that will turn heads. Italy always manage to start slow and if Ecuador turn it on, they might end up relegating the Italians to second place. Mexico should never be taken for granted and you should not be surprised to learn that they are ranked seventh in the world. But their qualifying campaign was disappointing (although not as disappointing as the USAs) and their team has gone through three coaches. Croatia are suffering from an ageing squad – Prosinecki, Jarni, Suker and Boksic are the wrong side of 30 – and this will be this generations last day in the sun. This is more likely to be a tournament that merely gives the new generation some experience and next time around will be better.
Final group Prediction 1 Italy 2 Ecuador 3 Mexico 4 Croatia
Look out for Ivan Kaviedes (Ecuador and Barcelona)
Group H Japan, Belgium, Russia, Tunisia
Rather amusingly referred to as the ‘Group of Bored-To-Death’. Hehe. Lets just say that life has been kind to the co-hosts, Japan. Coach, Philippe Troussier, will hope to build on Japan’s three narrow one-nil defeats in WC98, and take advantage of the home setting. They should do, and in fact should win the group. Troussier’s tactical prowess will see the talented hosts overcome Belgium and Tunisia, and battle with Russia for top spot. Belgium are no pushovers, but their squad was not exactly pushed in the qualifiers (they came through the play-offs after finishing second in a poor group), and with the exception of Wilmots and Goor in midfield, their is not much top-draw talent around. Russia are not the USSR, and although they are improving and should make the last sixteen, they will struggle to make a lasting impact at the tournament. Tunisia are a better side than they were in 1998, but they are still learning and might be resigned to nicking a win off Belgium and finishing third.
Final group Prediction 1 Japan 2 Russia 3 Tunisia 4 Belgium
Look out for Hidetoshi Nakata (Japan and Parma)

So there we go. This would make the second round draw as follows

Cameroon v Paraguay
France v England
Argentina v Denmark
Spain v Germany
Italy v USA
Brazil v Russia
Japan v Turkey
Portugal v Ecuador

Lets cross that bridge when we come to it….

And finally…

This is the biggest event in the sporting world. Lets just all enjoy the next month and love each other and all that kind of stuff. We’re all together on this…aren’t we?

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