With CONCACAF teams paired with the representatives from the Asian Football Confederation, the chances were pretty good that a Group of Death awaited one of the teams from the “New World.” But Dame Fortune was kind to the 3 CONCACAF members, giving them all manageable groups. She was kindest to the USA, who will kick off their tournament in one of the most anticipated group games of the World Cup against England. The English are favored to win the group and have a team capable of surviving deep into the tournament, so long as they can avoid the injury bug. Slovenia slew a Russian giant to gain entry into the tournament, and Algeria dispatched 3-time Africa Cup of Nations winner, Egypt for their ticket. Each is capable of pulling another upset.
June 12 – 2:30 PM EDT England – USA // Rustenburg
June 13 -- 7:30 AM EDT Algeria – Slovenia // Polokwane
June 18 -- 10:00 AM EDT Slovenia -- USA // Johannesburg
June 18 – 2:30 PM EDT England -- Algeria //Cape Town
June 23 – 10:00 AM EDT Slovenia -- England // Port Elizabeth
June 23 – 10:00 AM EDT USA – Algeria // Pretoria
World Cup Appearances: 14
Best Finish: Champion, 1966
Coach: Fabio Capello (Italy)
World Cup Memories: England captured the Jules Rimet Trophy after defeating the West Germans in extra time at Wembley for their first, and only, World Cup triumph in 1966.
English fans had to wonder what they had done to deserve such rotten luck when they saw Wayne Rooney first roll his ankle and then strain his groin a few weeks later. In the previous two world cups, England injuries limited the effectiveness of key players: David Beckham in 2002, and Rooney in 2006. Thankfully, the Manchester United striker will be ready to go June 12.
Under Swedish coach, Sven Goran Ericksson, England’s last two World Cups ended in bitter disappointment with losses in the quarterfinals. Things got much worse under Stephen McClaren, who failed to guide the Three Lions into Euro 2008, leading the FA into their boldest move yet: Fabio Capello. The Italian has done a lot more than just change the fortunes of the team. He has deftly handled several contentious issues that could have sabotaged England’s World Cup campaign. The Demanding rigors of the EPL had sidelined many of England’s starting XI at one point or another, but they all appear to be 100% for the Cup. Maybe all those injuries were a blessing in disguise: England might have their freshest legs in major tournament in quite a while.
“If England can keep our key players fit/injury free, we have a fighting chance in the WC. Capello has brought tactical discipline, helped gel the squad, and has them believing in themselves again.”
World Cup Appearances: 9
Best Finish: Semifinals, 1930
Coach: Bob Bradley
The US won their first ever knock-out game, summarily dispatching arch-rival Mexico, 2-0, in the 2002 Korea / Japan Round of 16.
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If the US struggles to find a replacement for Charlie Davies (who made a yeoman’s, yet fruitless, effort to be fit after being injured in a tragic auto accident), then even more of the offensive burden will fall on the shoulders of Landon Donovan. In what will be his third world cup, the 27 year-old all-time leading scorer for the US is as clutch as they come.
The US almost got their wish of getting everyone back and healthy before June 12. Oguchi Oneywu is in full training after suffering a knee injury last October. Stuart Holden sustained a fractured fibula in March and is also back. But Davies didn’t make it. Several candidates have emerged as possible replacements. The most surprising of these is Hercules Gomez, who became the first norteamericano to claim at least a share of the MFL scoring title. This is a squad that is tactically disciplined, and has the speed, physique, and endurance to match-up with anyone. And it is one of the few teams that has played together under the same system for more than one world cup cycle.
“The USMNT has developed to the point where they should advance from a group of England, Slovenia, and Algeria. But I don't see them progressing to the quarterfinal. They have a host of talented players like Donovan, Dempsey, Howard, etc. But they also have serious question marks in defense and forward, due to the long-term injuries to Onyewu and Davies. If those two come back and become match-fit, Howard has a great tournament, they find a goal scorer, have some luck... then they can get quite far. But that's a lot of if's, and too much to ask for in the next few months.”
World Cup Appearances: 3
Best Finish: 1st round, 1982, 1986
Coach: Rabah Saadane
Algeria was expected to be nothing more than fodder in their World Cup debut vs. West Germany in Spain 1982. But Les Fennecs stunned the Germans, 2-1. The North Africans should have advanced past the group stage, if not for some Teutonic hanky panky in Gijon. The Germany-Austria shenanigans forced FIFA to stage the last group games simultaneously.
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Let’s face it, Algeria doesn’t have anyone up front that elicits fear from their opponents, so Les Fennecs will likely have to assume a defensive posture if they have any chance of advancing. Counter attacks will be the Algerian weapon of choice, and will likely start off the foot of Rangers defender, Madjid Bougherra. He has just returned from a knee injury, and barring any setbacks, Magic will anchor the back line.
Algeria may not be the strongest team in Group C, but it would be hard to call them weak. A good number of Algerians thrive in leagues all over Europe. They do have some offensive deficiencies, though, that will put pressure on their defense. They will also be without Portsmouth defender, Nadir Belhadj, who will be serving the second of a two match suspension stemming from his red card in the African Cup of Nations. Algeria plays with a lot of passion and will put up a fight, but it might not be enough. But didn’t we think the same thing in 1982?
“Algeria has a pretty tough team. They have a chance to advance to the second round ahead of the United States and Slovenia, and they might even pull a shocker against England like they did against West Germany in 1982. But in reality, they have many injured players, which leads me to believe that their chances are now slimmer than ever.”
World Cup Appearances: 2
Best Finish: Group stage, 2002
Coach: Matjaz Kek
With a population of 2 million and an independent nation since 1991, Slovenia has made it to their second world cup. Their first one was a winless affair, so a much happier memory is the more recent ousting of Russia in the UEFA playoff to reach the finals for the second time
If Slovenia is to make it to the knock-outs, they are going to need a huge performance from their star striker, Milivoje Novakovic. The Cologne forward was their leading scorer in qualifying and at 6-4, he makes an excellent target striker in what will likely be very tight games.
In 2002, fans were expecting to see offensive fireworks from the newly independent Eastern Europeans. But it was their defense that faltered, and Slovenia exited with nary a point. This World Cup, it is their defense that stands out. Bostjan Cesar is the tall leader of a group that only allowed 4 goals in their UEFA group. Add to that an above average midfield and capable forwards, and we have a solid team. In other words, Slovenia is no push over. Ask Poland. Ask the Czechs. Ask Russia.