With the biggest show on the planet around the corner, TheHardTackle brings to you a special series that provides you with group-wise capsules of information on each nation. No more hiding away from discussions and debates, we promise to make you a World Cup scholar before the showcase event begins. The world is getting ready, are you?
Argentina, Nigeria, Greece, South Korea
Best Performance: Winners in 1978, 1986
Coach: Diego Maradona
From Diego Maradona to Lionel Messi, who would have thought South Africa’10 would be the special place to witness the magicians of their respective eras together. Regardless of their recent inconsistencies, the quality Argentina possesses in their armory is for all to see. There has always been this iota of unpredictability associated with the La Albicelestes – especially during the last decade – despite featuring some of the most skillful players in the world. They always fall short of realising their true potential. But you can erase all that’s happened before because Argentina, as ever, will go into the World Cup as a force to be reckoned with. With only two trophies, still three behind their greatest rivals, is it finally time for Argentina to capitalise on the talent of Messi?
Before the last round, talks of Argentina missing out on the World Cup dominated the footballing world. It wasn’t pretty, but they scraped through. The qualifying campaign for La Albicelestes was thoroughly inconsistent. With great struggle, they managed to secure the fourth position in CONMEBOL – the last automatic selection spot for the main event. They finished their campaign with 8 wins, 2 draws and a massive 8 defeats, including a 1-3 trashing at the hands of arch-rivals Brazil. A narrow 1-0 win over Uruguay in the do-or-die last round encounter brought a sigh of relief for the millions of Argentine fans all over the world.
The biggest strength for the team lies in their unmatched strike-force in this year’s World Cup. FIFA’s World Player of the Year, Lionel Messi, will be eager to replicate his club heroics in the national jersey as well. To partner Messi in the devastation of opposition defences are the likes of Sergei Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Carlos Tevez, who are amongst top strikers in the world. Veteran Martin Palermo and Diego Milito – if selected in the final 23 – have the capabilities to provide the surprise punch. Benfica winger Angel Di Maria can prove to be another potent weapon for Maradona. Di Maria, along with Messi and Aguero, forms a lethal combo upfront – which can be validated from their success in the 2007 Under-20 World Cup and the 2008 Beijing Olympics games.
Comfortable on the field, but off the field?
If it is going to be a mesmerizing Messi bonanza upfront, it is an equally messy affair at the Albiceleste’s defense. Apart from Walter Samuel and Nicolus Burdisso, the other young defenders selected are largely untested. Moreover, Argentina’s squad does not feature any world class full backs to counter the wing threat of opposing teams. The goalkeepers – Mariano Andujar, Sergio Romero and Diego Pozo – have a total experience of 11 senior national appearances between them; their nerves will definitely be tested.
While there is absolutely no doubting the football acumen of Diego Maradona, perhaps the greatest player the game has ever seen, the same cannot be said about his managerial prowess in his relatively short tenure at the helm of the things in this Argentine squad. Some of his tactical decisions were as baffling as his controversial player selections – leaving out Zanetti and Cambiasso. His well known refute with Riquelme means that Argentina has lost one of the top playmakers in the world, as well. Words like “disastrous” and “suicidal” have been thrown around describing his managerial reign, and most of the football analysts believe that he may not be the right man to take Argentina to World Cup glory.
TheHardTackle’s Player to Watch Out:
Lionel Messi (Forward)
The Messiah has all the tricks in his armory to light up South Africa. Lightening pace, incredible dribbling, immaculate vision and a mature brain above the shoulders are some of the qualities that make him stand apart from the crowd of other talented players of this generation. Although he is yet to replicate his magical Barca form in the national colors, it will not be surprising if he decides to shut his critics up in this biggest stage of world football.
Best Performance: Second Round 1994, 1998
Coach:: Lars Lagerback
Once considered the powerhouse of Africa, the Super Eagles have sadly lost their edge over the last decade. The likes of Jay Jay Okocha, Sunday Oliseh and Emmanuel Amunike from the “Golden Generation” will sorely be missed in this world cup. But the biggest positive for them is a well balanced outfit comprising of experienced performers and exciting young starlets. The Super Eagles will be looking forward to the likes of Vincent Enyeama, John Obi Mikel and Yakubu Aiyegbeni to prop them up through to the second round – the highest they have been able to achieve so far on the world’s biggest stage. Playing in their home continent is another major advantage of them and they will look to draw inspiration from their passionate supporters.
Will take more than one Nigerian to stop Messi!
Nigeria made it through to the main event of the world cup in dramatic fashion, literally snatching the berth from Tunisia’s hands. In the final round of the qualifying campaign they showed nerves of steel to dump an equally determined Kenya in a fascinating contest – which resulted in a narrow 3-2 victory for the Nigerian squad. A favorable result in Tunisia saw them getting elevated to the prestigious main event.
The biggest strength for the team is determination and a never-say-die attitude. Having proved that they are made of stern stuff in the African Zone qualifying, they will be eager to leave a lasting impression on the hearts of football viewers all over the world. With his vast experience, Nigeria’s newly appointed coach and former Sweden boss Lars Lagerback will also add to their strengths as far as tactical aspect of the game is concerned.
The team lacks an inspirational leader; one who can lift the morale of the entire team in a tournament of the ranks of a World Cup. Also, having been unable to qualify for the previous World Cup in Germany, this will be the first of its kind for majority of the Nigerian footballers. It will be interesting to see how this young talented lot copes up with such a high pressure environment.
TheHardTackle’s Player to Watch Out:
Vincent Enyeama (Goal Keeper)
This talented shot stopper, who is largely considered to be the best African goalkeeper around, has been the first choice custodian for the Super Eagles since 2002 – with 53 national caps against his name. Enyeama has been showing steady improvements over the years and at this moment, perhaps, he is playing at the peak of his career. He is not only a proven penalty stopper, but also holds 100% record for converting spot kicks – a rare quality for any goalkeeper.
Best Performance: Group Stages 1994
Coach: Otto Rehhagel
This will be Greece’s second World Cup finals appearance, after USA 1994. They bowed out of their only previous campaign – losing all the three group stage encounters and unable to find the back of the net even once. But they are no longer pushovers. The surprise winners of EURO 2004 will surely be looking to improve on the world cup records under the able guidance of veteran coach Otto Rehhagel. Boasting of a solid defense and an inspirational skipper of the caliber of Giorgos Karagounis, Greece will be hopeful to overcome the group stage hurdles this time around.
Karagounis – the Greek god of World Cup hope
They finished their qualifying campaign securing second spot behind Switzerland – winning six, drawing two and losing the remaining two matches of their UEFA Group 2 qualifying matches. They saw off the challenge from a strong Ukraine side in the play-offs to make their way up into the main event.
A rock solid defense, boasting of Liverpool’s Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Panathinaikos’s Giourkas Seitaridis – a pair that have won them many memorable battles, including the EURO 2004 – will be the key strength for Otto Rehhagel’s team. Giorgos Karagounis, another experienced campaigner in the midfield, will have the responsibility of supplying his trademark defense-splitting passes to the striking combo of Angelos Charisteas and Theofanis Gekas. Greece, traditionally, have been very strong from set pieces.
Goalkeeping is a major area of concern for Greece. After the retirement of Antonis Nikopolidis, the country has failed to produce a quality replacement. Former Portsmouth shot stopper, Kostas Chalkias, is currently their first choice goalkeeper. Although he has vast experience of 17 years in playing at the top flight, he does not seem to instill confidence while playing for the national team. The midfield is also overly dependent on captain Giorgos Karagounis.
TheHardTackle’s Player to Watch Out:
Giorgos Karagounis (Midfielder)
The Panathinaikos playmaker is known for his trademark defense piercing through passes. His calm, composed approach and excellent vision of the game is a rare trait in modern football. ESPN-Star football analyst George James once stated that Karagounis is “one of the most underrated players in the world”. Besides marshalling the midfield with his immaculate touches, Karagounis has a keen eye for goal as well.
Best Performance: Fourth Place 2002
Coach: Huh Jung-Moo
South Korea, the only Asian qualifying country to come through qualifying stages with an unbeaten record, will look to draw inspiration from their splendid display in 2002 World Cup. By securing a place in the main event, South Korea achieved the feat of being the Asian team with most appearances at the greatest football extravaganza. This will be their seventh consecutive appearance in the main event. Although there is a considerable amount of doubt on whether they will be able to outline this regional dominance while playing against some of the quality opponents from different parts of the world, there is no denying of the fact that their unmatched high energy work rate can result in some thrilling action packed display.
AFC Coach of the Year 2009/10 Huh Jung-Moo, under whom South Korea achieved the impressive record of 27 consecutive games unbeaten – including World Cup qualifying matches, will be hoping to pay back the trust showed upon him by the country’s football administrators, by guiding the nation to, at least, the knockout stages in the World Cup.
Ji-Sung Park – The key to Korean tactics
South Korea topped AFC Group B qualifying table with seven wins and equal number of draws. They are the only team from Asia to go through qualifying unbeaten. They conceded only four goals in their journey to the main event, which underlines their dominance in the Asian region.
Highest standard of work ethics and tremendous stamina sets them apart from other Asian teams. South Korea usually plays a tight defense and rely more on counter attacking football. The team revolves around Manchester United winger Ji-Sung Park, who not only contributes to the attack but also tracks back to regain lost possession. Monaco striker Chu-Young Park and Bolton’s attacking midfielder Chung-Young Lee have the ability to pose threat to the opposition defense with their sheer pace, and have the experience of playing at the top level.
Despite their Asian dominance, South Korea might struggle against the quality European teams with better all-round technical players. Height factor is a major disadvantage for Huh Jung-Moo’s side. South Korean defenders are vulnerable against set pieces and aerial balls because of their short stature.
TheHardTackle’s Player to Watch Out:
Ji-Sung Park (Attacking Midfielder)
Manchester United’s Ji-Sung Park will be the key man for the South Korean team. He is a workhorse, has great positional sense and the ability to play at any position distinguishes him from his teammates. It was because of Park that the coach has the luxury to choose between his two preferred formations, either 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, depending upon what the situation demands. With his vast experience in European football and a knack of doing well in big games, Park could make a serious challenge for his nation to grab a place in the knockout stages.
|Match||Date – Time||Venue||Team 1||Team 2|
|3||12/06 16:00||Johannesburg – JEP||Argentina||v||Nigeria|
|4||12/06 13:30||Nelson Mandela Bay/Port Elizabeth||Korea Republic||v||Greece|
|19||17/06 16:00||Mangaung / Bloemfontein||Greece||v||Nigeria|
|20||17/06 13:30||Johannesburg – JSC||Argentina||v||Korea Republic|
|35||22/06 20:30||Durban||Nigeria||v||Korea Republic|
This group evokes the memory of USA 1994 – when Argentina, Nigeria and Greece all were pitted in the same group. Argentina will definitely go through from this group because of the sheer talent they possess. La Albiceleste’s big names and status as former winners make them undisputed favorites to top the group.
But it will be a tough battle of nerves for the other three teams to grab the solitary remaining berth. Nigeria has a slight edge here, being an African country, – well acclimatized with the environment in South Africa. Greece has traditionally been the quintessential ‘hard nut to crack’ under Otto Rehhagel, but it will be pretty hard for them to progress as well. South Korea will look to draw inspiration from an excellent qualifying campaign and they can well be the “Dark Horse” in this closely contested combat.
3. South Korea
The group matches may turn out to be more important in helping Argentina to knit together and get better organized for the knockout stages, than the actual qualification for the knock-out stages. Argentina’s fortune will depend heavily on Maradona’s scheme of things to extract the best out of Lionel Messi. TheHardTackle predicts Nigeria to pip South Korea for a knock-out berth, while Greece will struggle to break teams down.