France & Argentina look to be favourites


FRANCE and Argentina still look to be the favourites for the 2002 World Cup. Though, the French, the holders, wasting many chances, failed so surprisingly to beat Russia in Paris, held to a 0-0 draw. While on the same day, Argentina had an important 1-0 victory in Stuttgart over Germany whose manager Rudi Voller, so strangely confessed that his team had been overawed: "Maybe in some ways we turned them into supermen before we even played them."

But why? This was an Argentine team which lacked its key playmaker, Juan Sebastian Veron, and in its previous outing in Switzerland had been held to a slightly embarrassing 3-3 draw by Cameroon, showing vulnerability in the air and in defence. As ebullient as Voller, once such a World Cup star himself, was defeatist as the Argentine goal scorer, the attacking left sider, Juan Pablo Sorin remarked, "It hurt Germany when we started to play football intelligently and we were able to show them what we are capable of."

I'd admired Sorin's dynamic overlapping in the first half of their previous friendly against Wales in Cardiff when time after time he surged down that left flank. Just as I had admired the huge contribution of Veron who, given the scope and the space largely denied him at Manchester United, showed just what a gifted and influential force he can be. He showed as much subsequently when United beat Deportivo La Coruna at Old Trafford, when, in the absence of Ireland's Roy Keane, he was allowed to play his proper role in central midfield and was instrumental in two goals. Alas, when it came to the subsequent home match versus Bayern Leverkusen, he was again banished to the flank and although he had one powerful shot superbly saved by the German 'keeper, Butt, he was inevitably prevented from giving his best and most effective display.

In Argentina's Group F, the crunch game once again comes versus England on June 7 in Sapporo under a roof; the second match for both teams. As we know Argentina beat England in the Azteca in 1986, helped by Maradona's notorious Hand of God goal, and eliminated the English on penalties after extra-time at Saint Etienne in 1998. This after a piece of petulance by David Beckham had him sent off, thus condemning England to play the majority of the 120 minutes with 10 men.

What England do possess, other than Beckham's remarkable right foot, his shots, his free kicks, is the exuberant pace and incisiveness of Michael Owen: hamstring injury always permitting. As we know the little fellow, still only 22, demolished the German defenders in Munich last year, and sped through to score against Argentina in France.

David Seaman, after giving away that potentially fatal free kick goal against Germany at Wembley, has recovered his form, agility and authority in goal, but Owen and Beckham apart, world class talent is lacking. Sven Goran Eriksson, probably placing too great an emphasis on power and speed, has high hopes of Newscastle's midfielder Kieron Dyer, but he too is sadly susceptible to injury and in the game so easily won against Paraguay had a poor time of it.

The young centre backs Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell are beyond doubt players of talent but liable to make the sudden unforced expensive error; which could be fatal against such Argentina cracks as Hernan Crespo and Claudio Lopez, the Lazio pair. The prolific Gabriel Batistuta has been less so with Roma these days, and a kick in the face in April from Italy's Fabio Cannvaro, however unintentional, has hardly helped. Yet talent in attack does abound in that squad, little Pablo Aimar having largely reasserted his claim to be among football's most talented "inside forwards." But coach Bielsa has locked horns with officialdom over his not being paid.

Which brings us to England's 20-year-old Joe Cole of West Ham, probably the only midfielder in the country capable of springing surprise with his skills and flair yet still as his manager Glenn Roder reiterates not fully fledged. Yet 20 seems a mature enough age to me to try him.

Sweden, in that Group, have a Frederik Ljungberg who has been on fire with Arsenal as an attacking midfielder but a dull 0-0 draw with Norway suggested that the rest of his team is less inspired. Nigeria have been radically rebuilt under a new somewhat contentious manager. I saw them draw in West London with Paraguay and they went on to beat the Scots in Aberdeen. Jay Jay Okocha remains a formidable force in midfield, and the young team makes up in pace and exuberance for lack of experience and guile. But I think England will join Argentina next round.

France? The loss of the injured Robert Pires in midfield has been severe and it's ironic that just as the World Cup approaches, Laurent Blanc, retired from internationals, should at last find form at Manchester United. There is still superabundant talent in attack; Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet, Sylvain Wiltord but I think they will run a risk if they keep the veteran Frank Leboeuf at centre back alongside Marcel Desailly.

Senegal, Uruguay and Denmark make up that Group A. Senegal showed in this year's African Nations Cup in Mali how quick and talented they are, with numerous players based in Europe and a hitherto obscure French coach, Bruno Metsu who has surpassed himself. Senegal open the ball against France who'll have to keep a close watch on Sedan's striker, Moussa N'Diaye and above all on Lens' El Hadji Diouf.

Uruguay have the devastating left foot of Inter's Alvaro Recoba. Denmark recently collapsed 3-0 in Dublin against Ireland and may find it hard to revitalise themselves. The Irish, who tend to do so well in World Cups, excelled themselves in eliminating Holland, have a trump card in the blond Blackburn attacker, Damien Duff, and a swift foil up front in Robbie Keane even though he's had limited chances at Leeds. The Irish play in Group E where the Germans should be favourites but have looked uneasy ever since that thrashing by England 5-1 in Munich. Even Oliver Kahn, claimed by some to be the world's best goalkeeper, has had some shaky moments and the refusal of often injured midfielder Mehmet Scholl to be considered a blow indeed.

Michael Ballack has had an excellent last season at Leverkusen; he's due to join Bayern Munich - but the defence tends to lack pace and the attack has no proper successor to Voeller, Klinsmann, Muller. Cameroon, still kings of Africa, could qualify here. The team is experienced and resilient with accomplished strikers in Samuel Eto'o and Patrick M'Boma.

In Group G Italy shouldn't have excessive trouble in qualifying, against Croatia, Mexico and Ecuador. With head and left foot, Christian Vieri, such a power in the 98 World Cup and Euro 2000, remains one of the game's most lethal strikers, and the resplendent form of Roma's Vincente Montella has given manager Giann Trapattoni another ace.

Milan's Pippo Inzaghi has recovered from injury as an alternative striker, while behind the front pair will operate Roma's skipper Francesco Totti who was quite outstanding in Italy's Euro 2000 finalist team. Alessandro Nesta will presumably have recovered lost form by then in defence. "Trap"can use the 3-5-2 system operated by Dino Zoff in Euro 2000 or a 4-4-2. Perhaps this time for once Italy won't be condemned to elimination on penalties. But injury has ruled out Demetrio Albertini from midfield.

And Brazil, eternal challengers? They are in Group C with Turkey, no mean adversary, China and Costa Rica must surely survive. Whether Big Phil Scolari is the ideal manager, given his propensity towards hard knocks and caution, is obviously to be questioned, but note that this is nothing new in Brazil's World Cup adventures. Remember Claudio Coutinho, Carlo Alberto Parreira and even Mario Lobo Zagallo in 1974. Obviously there are high hopes of Ronaldo whose 1998 World Cup was blemished by that convulsive fit hours before the Final and who has been fighting a series of injuries ever since. But he has managed of late to play in friendlies for Brazil and to score goals for Inter, even though he has on occasion complained of cramp all the way up his legs. On form he can of course win any game and he should have an electric partner in young Ronaldinho, now that he has settled down at last with Paris Saint Germain.

Cafu and Roberto Carlos are there to overlap down the flanks from full back, Emerson has had a fine season for Roma in midfield, as has Lucio at centre back with Bayer Leverkusen. But you do wonder why Big Phil has paid such scant attention to as gifted a midfield attacker as Barcelona's Fabio Rohemback, outstanding against Real Madrid at Nou Camp in the European Cup semifinal, not to mention the lively young Adriano lent by Inter this year to Fiorentina even if he couldn't save them.

The Turks should be the other team to emerge from this Group. They have plenty of ability in their team, and the vigorous emergence in the Bayer Lweverkusen, midfielder of 23-year-old Yilidiray Basturk has been a great boon. Here is a gifted little playmaker who will be abetted in the central areas by the Inter pair, Buruk Okan and Belozglu Emire, with Leicester's Muzzy Izzet waiting in the wings. Hakan Sukur, frustrated at Inter, has played regularly for Parma and is a well-weathered international striker with his height and strength. This is not a team to be taken lightly.

In Group H Russia look the strongest though the hosts Japan must have hopes of qualifying. Their 2-0 win in Poland will surely have given them the confidence they so patently lacked in last summer's Confederations Cup when they simply couldn't score enough goals. Though he has had an uneven season at Parma, Hitoshi Nakata remains a midfielder of real quality, while Shinji Ono has gained invaluable experience in the midfield of Rotterdam's Feyenoord. Naohiro Takhara, the striker, has, like other foreign imports, found life difficult in Buenos Aires with Boca Juniors, but he is still a player who could come to life on his home ground.

Russia have much improved of late, under the knowing managership of Spartak's Oleg Romantsev. He seems to have regenerated his centre forward, Vladimir Bestchastnyhk, who had a miserable time of it in Spain with Racing Santander but flourishes again in Moscow. Alexander Mostovoi, now nearly 34, still thrives in the midfield of Celta Vigo, while another Sparta player, since the age of 7, Yegor Titov, is an expert maker of chances who can take them, too.

In Group D, South Korea, on home soil, will hope at long last to win a match in the World Cup finals; they have been trying since 1954! Though Portugal look favourites in this Group, despite that embarrassing home loss to Finland 4-1 - without Rui Costa and Luis Figo - the Koreans may be encouraged by the recent decline of the previously impressive Poles, beaten at home as we know, by the Japanese. Though the little naturalised Nigerian striker, Emmaneul Olisadebe, is always capable of opportunist goals.

In Group D, simply on the law of averages, because they are on home ground, it would be logical to expect that South Korea at long last win a game in the World Cup finals. They begin in Busan against Poland, their other opponents being Portugal, surely Group favourites now, and the USA, who have been giving a respectable account of themselves in, admittedly, friendly matches. I didn't think the Americans disgraced themselves in 1998 though there was bitter dissension between the team and the manager Steve Samson, and the defeat by a technically superior Iran team was perhaps a setback, but hardly a catastrophe. The Americans have two notable goalkeepers in Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel, as you might expect from a country where hands have it over feet in most of its preferred sports. Bruce Arena is an effective manager but his material is limited. As emphasised by the fact that the squad still included the forward Eddie Lewis, who cannot remotely command a first team place with Fulham.

Portugal were a force to be reckoned with in Euro 2000 and with Figo and Rui Costa on parade could certainly win this Group, the 4-1 defeat by Finland without them being something, perhaps of a blip. Pauleta has had a fine season in the Bordeaux attack, right winger Sergia Conceicao, who devastated Germany in Euro 2000, has had plenty of playing time with Inter, Nuno Gomes may have found life hard in the ailing Fiorentina team, but remains a centre forward of renown. Portugal's Iberian neighbours, Spain, flattered to deceive in the last World Cup and Euro 2000, but there is no doubt of the ability of many players; notably striker Raul, who, though he may have missed a chance or two in Euro 2000, has had a splendid season with Real Madrid. If Gaizka Mendieta can only recover the form he seemed to have lost at Lazio this season, if Josep Guardiola can maintain the form he's displayed in the Brescia midfield since Barcelona let him go, to his relief, then Spain should have scant trouble in winning Group B, in which Paraguay look indifferent, South Africa just mediocre, Slovania underdogs, but sometimes capable, as we saw in Euro 2000, of rising above themselves. Should they win the Group, then Spain would meet the second team of the substantially stronger Group E, perhaps Ireland or Cameroon.

The French, who can still call upon the all-round brilliance of Zinedine Zidane, header of those two goals in the 1998 Final, would play as winners of Group A the second team of Group F, quite possibly England; a hard row to hoe for any opponent of the holders.

China are outsiders in Brazil's Group C and have hardly set the Far East alight, though comfortably qualifying. I'd simply say that any World Cup team managed by that good old fox Bora Milutinovic, who previously coached Mexico, Costa Rica, the USA and Nigeria in the Finals, must always be treated with caution.