Tuesday, September 17, 2013

In it...but Win it? #3: Early Birds

Most teams have a few games left to go before they know for sure if they can set aside a tonnage of unsatisfying hours wading through visa paperwork at the Brazilian consulate. But a few took care of their business in September and so have two months worth of "who-gives-a-#%*&!@$", as they prepare for next summer's World Cup.

Of course, just because they are going to the World Cup doesn't mean they're going to do anything during that World Cup. That's where our analysis comes in: as the glow of qualification starts to fade and the humdrum monotony of waiting for the matches to matter again begins, we're happy to buzz kill some fans and overindulge a few others.

File:FIGC logo.svgItaly
Contender Credentials: Italy knows what it does well and does it over and over and over again. Like your friend who goes on and on about their grandma's ravioli or pasta putanesca, once you've got the recipe right, just do it again and again. For Italy it's simple: get one or two great strikers and a squadron of brutal defenders and let the rest take care of itself. They used it to great aplomb in qualifying, only dropping points to Bulgaria and the Czech Republic on the road and winning every other match they had.

Pretender Problems: Even the most consistent of stratagems could use a little tweaking now and then, as Italy discovered to their detriment in South Africa, where they were utterly lost against such titans as Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand. Italy's national team has been as tumultuous as it's national political scene lately, thanks in no small part to a man with all of Silvio Berlusconi's appetites and only slightly more self control: Mario Balotelli. Their recent style has been "not-quite-good-enough" to launch them to the top of Europe as frequent drubbings at the feet of Spain have attested time and again. Maybe, just maybe, one goal and a cloud of dirt may need to change if Italy wants a fifth title.

Pie-in-the-Sky Scenario: Balotelli keeps his head in the game, grind 'em out defense wins the day and manager Ceasare Prandelli takes over the Prime Minister's job to improve the nation as a whole.

Pits-of-Despair Scenario: Balotelli goes a little cuckoo banana pants, a new troop of minnows swallows up the Azzurri before Berlusconi announces his return to futbol.

Prediction: Back in the saddle again, Italy is plenty good enough to win their group and cruise through one round, but a new style wipes them out in the quarter finals. (I had to sit through too many matches against Billings to root for Italy completely)

The Netherlands

File:Royal Netherlands Football Association Logo.svgContender Credentials: Widely seen as the best futboling nation to never win the World Cup, Holland came close in 2010 and is returning much of their same line up to the field. They positively dominated their qualifying group, with a single, inexplicable draw in Estonia halting their swift ascension to qualification.

Pretender Problems: Since finishing as runners-up (again) in South Africa, it's been a rocky road for the Oranje. Manager Bert Van Marwijk took the blame for an abysmal Euro Championship (where the Dutch went winless in three matches). And while an experienced line-up is a good thing, an older line-up is less impressive. How exactly the few young talents rising through the Dutch ranks will fare in the glare of a national spotlight is hard to say.

Pie-in-the-Sky Scenario: They put their past behind them and claim the title that has unjustly eluded Total Football for too long. A strike force of Kuyt, Van Persie and Robben dominate up top and hoist the Jules Rimet trophy while Johann Cryuff looks on and cries.

Pits-of-Despair Scenario: It's Euro 2012 all over again. A difficult group stymies the Dutch progress and weaknesses at the back leave them crashing out while those Belgian heathens rise to the top of lowland soccer prominence. Johann Cryuff looks on and cries.

Prediction: I hope I'm wrong, but I think there's something slightly off about Holland. Great as it would be to see them triumph, I can just as easily see them 3rd in the Group Stage

File:Afa logo.svgArgentina

Contender Credentials: If you judge a team's ability to win the World Cup based on the calibre of their players, it's hard to argue with Argentina given that they have the consensus best player in the world right now: Lionel Messi. The last time Argentina had a playmaker of Messi's calibre (some kid named Maradona) they won their two titles and finished runners up at another. Always strong performers in Latin America, it's easy to tip them for greatness again.

Pretender Problems: As Spain has shown again and again, it's best to have a full team behind you. So as much fun as it is to watch Lionel Messi y los Pips, you have to wonder about their long term success (particularly when they only mustered a quarter-final spot in 2010, and Messi was not especially miraculous at any point of the tournament.

Pie-in-the-Sky Scenario: Messi engraves his name in the history books along side other World's Greatests and La Albiceleste triumph over Brazil in their rivals' own stadium.

Pits-of-Despair Scenario: Exhausted from a full season with Barca and with the best defenders from the world draped over him like a bed sheet on a frat-boy during a toga party, Messi can only get Argentina to the Round of 16.

Prediction: An under-the radar team (well as under-the-radar as Messi can be) without the mercurial Maradona on the sidelines and with a game plan that has Messi feeding other talents (Higuain, Aguero and Rodriguez) is a winner in my book. Champion.

The United States of America

Shirt badge/Association crestContender Credentials: Uncle Sam's Army is playing the best soccer in recent memory, buoyed by an array of extremely talented players who came of age just as soccer reached its critical mass here with the World Cup in 1994. Led by Jurgen Klinsman, whose tactical approach helped an underwhelming German squad overachieve in 2006, there's a surplus of confidence that we may at last be coming into our own.

Pretender Problems: Americans. A surplus of confidence. What could possibly go wrong? While the Yanks have dominated CONCACAF it has helped that Mexico is playing like a bored pile of dog droppings, and any team that aspires to the top 16 of the world should beat Jamaica, Panama and Honduras as handily as we have.  Can we keep it going against the truly great soccer nations of the world...probably not.

Pie-in-the-Sky Scenario: Klinsman is a genius, DeMarcus Beasly continues his Lazarus act, Landon Donavan stays interested, and the Americans pull a shocker and make the semis as they did so long ago in Uruguay.

Pits-of-Despair Scenario: We lose to Ghana (as we always do), England (as retribution for last time) and Iran (just because Sepp Blatter wants to prove a point). Klinsman is forgiven, we're just dumb Americans after all.

Prediction: There's too much talent not to make the second round, but not enough to do tremendous damage. Without a draw to stop me I'll be optimistic: Quarter Finals

File:Costa Rica football association.pngCosta Rica

Contender Credentials: The forgotten power of North American futbol, Costa Rica has a habit of making other teams miserable. With an aggravating style of scrambled attacking and counter-attacking and an incensed fan base to make matches in San Jose as close to a sure thing as possible.

Pretender Problems: American Soccer Now rightly points out that Costa Rica is a forgotten power largely because they have forgotten how to use their powers, with Panama and Honduras taking the title of Central America's best in recent years. Like the US their qualification may not have come so easy if Mexico hadn't gotten in the way of that horrible gypsy curse.

Pie-in-the-Sky Scenario: It's back to the glory days of 1990 when Costa Rica stunned the world (particularly Sweden and Scotland), and a horde of fans make the relatively short trip to spur them on to the quarter finals.

Pits-of-Despair Scenario: It's back to the drubbing of 2006, when Costa Rica got walloped by everyone they faced, and they were little more than an afterthought.

Prediction: Bryan Suarez and Joel Campbell are a good enough tandem to get a win against someone...but the draw has to go in their favor to avoid: 4th Place.

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