2006 World Cup: Strong sides
Italy: The Italians are famous for playing an aggressive, suffocating defense that is extremely difficult to penetrate. If you don't give up goals, you cannot lose and hence, the Italians find themselves a frequent visitor to the World Cup's final four.
Italy was robbed by a series of poor referee decisions in the 2002 World Cup against South Korea. The result against South Korea is, in retrospect, a bit of poetic justice, given the perspective of today’s events in Italia. The news in Italy right now is dominated by details of corruption in serie A that includes game fixing. It would be an embarrassment to football and an injustice if the Italians won this tournament. I wouldn’t complain if a bad referee decision pushes the Italians out in the 2006 World Cup but I don’t believe a bad ref is required. The Italians are playing so poorly of late that I think they are bound to play below their potential and have a second- or even first-round exit. That stated, Italy is loaded with world class talent and perhaps the controversy surrounding the team will actually take some pressure of the Azzurri.
Key player: The Italian defenders are marvelous but the key player for Italy is Luca Toni, who is quickly emerging as one of the world’s best forwards. Except for Toni, the other Italian forwards are playing sluggishly and not scoring. Toni led serie A in goals scored in the 2005-2006 season and he combines an awesome physical presence with a nose for the goal. If he can score a goal per match, the Italians have a chance to go all the way. If Italy’s opponents are wise, they will hang their best defender on Toni and shadow him all around the field.
Match-up notes: Italy has a tough first round with the Czech republic, USA and Ghana all waiting for them. Nonetheless, Italy matches up well with all of these opponents and I predict Italy will struggle but in the end, they will advance out of their group. If Italy finisheds second in their group, it will be a second-round dream match vs. Brazil, and therefore practically a certain elimination for the Azzurri in the second round. However, Italy will likely win their group and meet up with Australia or Croatia in the second round. Italy might get lulled to sleep against the Aussies and experience a shocking upset.
Portugal: The Portuguese are banking on a very good draw in the tournament brackets together with a very strong midfield in the Cup to carry them past the first round, but this aging team will need more than a little luck to advance past round two of this tournament.
Key player: Christiano Ronaldo is a young a highly skilled midfielder who plays with a self confidence that is visible, and he is one of those rare players who seems to lift the play of his teammates. He is the one player capable of lifting this team to the Final Four but he will need to play flawlessly for this to happen.
Match-up notes: The tournament draw gives Portugal what should stack up as an easy first-place finish in round one. In round two, Portugal will probably have to match up against dangerous Holland. If Portugal can face down Holland, they will likely have England next, and the Portuguese simply do not have the talent to take the English squad so they will likely play defense against the English and hope for a tie to be broken with the penalty kick shootout.
Sweden: Sweden has one of the world’s best forwards, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a smooth and dominant force on the attack. Sweden also has a great coach in Lars Lagerback, a steady, experienced hand who will get the most of his team.
Key player: Ibrahimovic is capable of carrying his team but he is also surrounded by a steady group of experienced players.
Match-up notes: England, Paraguay, and Trinidad & Tobago are Sweden’s group one partners. I believe Sweden will advance to round two but not any further.
Australia: I love this team. This is the first World Cup appearance for Australia in 32 years yet the Australians have a solid core of players who are experienced in the toughest European leagues. Australia also has Guus Hiddink as coach, the same gentleman who took South Korea (with a hand from the referees) to their astonishing appearance in the 2002 semifinals. I would rate the Aussies as having a great chance to get to round two.
Key player: I almost never talk about goalkeepers because, truth be told, a goalkeeper can have a great game and still give up five or six goals. In world class level football, a goal scored by the opponent is almost always the fault of the defense and midfield and not the goalkeeper. That said, perhaps the best goal keeper in this tourney is Australia’s Mark Schwarzer. A well-known presence in the English Premiership, Schwarzer will lend a pair of steady hands to the Aussies’ coming out party in Germany. If this team ever has to go to penalty kicks, they have a great advantage with this chap in the goal.
Match-up notes: If Australia finish second in their group, they will likely face Italy in round two, which could be a set up for the biggest upset of the tourney as the Italians would likely get caught looking past Australia.
Spain: Spain has performed so poorly internationally that they have the advantage of having to live up to really low expectations. Couple that with a pretty easy first-round draw and a team full of good players and you certainly can bank on Spain getting into round two.
Key players: Raul is Spain's closer but he is coming off a serious injury. Raul has played well in World Cup warm-ups but I believe the key for Spain will be how young talent like highly touted midfielder, 19-year-old Cesc Fabregas, and 20-year-old defender Sergio Ramos perform.
Match-up notes: If Spain finishes second in their group, they will likely face France in round two. If the kids can step up in round one and help Spain win the group, Spain will be poised for a run to the quarterfinals. If not, a second-place finish will mean yet another round-two exit for the Spanish.
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