Pointers to World Cup 2006

THE recent Confederations Cup was taken rather more seriously than it has been in the past. It still looks like a superfluous affair and it was no surprise that a number of key South American players should refuse to take part in it. Hernan Crespo, scorer of two goals for Argentina when they beat Brazil 3-1 in Buenos Aires shortly before the German tournament. Ronaldo, Brazil's celebrated striker who now says that he fears for his place in 2006. Possibly with reason knowing how the present Brazilian manager, Parreira, foolishly left the brilliant Romario out of his teams in the qualifiers for the 1994 World Cup until he had to bite the bullet and bring him back for the vital life saving home qualifier against Uruguay.

THE recent Confederations Cup was taken rather more seriously than it has been in the past. It still looks like a superfluous affair and it was no surprise that a number of key South American players should refuse to take part in it. Hernan Crespo, scorer of two goals for Argentina when they beat Brazil 3-1 in Buenos Aires shortly before the German tournament. Ronaldo, Brazil's celebrated striker who now says that he fears for his place in 2006. Possibly with reason knowing how the present Brazilian manager, Parreira, foolishly left the brilliant Romario out of his teams in the qualifiers for the 1994 World Cup until he had to bite the bullet and bring him back for the vital life saving home qualifier against Uruguay.

Brazil's two celebrated overlapping full backs, Cafu and Roberto Carlos, also decided not to go. But if Javier Saviola, the other key Argentina striker, missed the Final, that was his own fault for kicking an opponent in the drawn match against Mexico.

How to reconcile and explain Argentina's two most recent games versus Brazil: the 3-1 win in Buenos Aires, the embarrassing 4-1 collapse in the Confederations Cup Final in Frankfurt? You can hardly explain and exonerate that collapse on the grounds that both the top choice strikers were missing, since it was, after all, the defence, which so feebly collapsed. By the end of the final, Brazil's attacking right back, Cicinho, a more than adequate replacement for Cafu, had acres of space in which to overlap as he pleased, time and again delivering dangerous crosses into the Argentine box.

Yet what of Brazil's own defence? It never looked centrally secure, especially in the person of Roque Junior, whose moment of distraction enabled the tall Mexican striker Jared Borgetti to head the only goal of the game from a corner. And Roque Junior gave away a penalty kick against the Germans, who also scored a headed goal through their young centre forward, Podolski; given a ludicrous amount of time and room to do so.

Moreover, with a quicker and more mobile centre back than Chelsea's reserve de luxe, Robert Huth, I doubt if two of those Brazilian goals would have been scored. Huth just hadn't the ability to contain the prolific, powerful Adriano.

The Brazilian pattern was roughly 4-2-2-2. That is to say, two midfielders in the shape of Ze Roberto and Emerson guarded the back four defence, Kaka and Ronaldinho attacked from midfield, backing Adriano and Robinho.

Adriano on this form is clearly untouchable, so if Ronaldo hopes to get back in the team he would have to replace Robinho. But, the lack of wingers means that when Brazil come up against a packed and decisive defence such as Mexico's, so well organised by their own Brazilian coach, La Volpe, then even the brilliance of Ronaldinho, Kaka and company are insufficient to get goals. The Mexicans will clearly not win the coming World Cup, but they have every chance of causing a lot of trouble on the way.

In Buenos Aires, Argentina hustled and bustled Brazil out of the picture, and they can surely not play as ineptly again as they did this second time around. They do at least have a resourceful defender in Manchester United's left sided Gabriel Heinze, but the central defence badly needs shoring up on this evidence, ideally with an Ayala in his best form. Coloccini, in the vernacular, puts it about, as Argentine centre backs have done down the years, but it's arguable that, in his case, he does so because he sometimes finds it hard to contain the opposition. Certainly Adriano and his ferocious left foot had a field day against Argentina's defence, which their manager Pekerman will now have to look at very carefully.

Michael Ballack, that versatile, commanding, incisive midfielder, captain of Germany, felt encouraged by their performance though he admitted that progress had still to be made. Certainly by comparison with the inept performances over recent seasons, not least in Euro `04 where Ballack had to carry such a burden. Jurgen Klinsmann's aegis has much improved the side. If only they could find a centre forward like him, for they still lack real punch up front.

Still, at least and at last the gifted young Deisler? Here used largely on the right flank, he has got over his injuries and his depression to bring balance and skill to the midfield. And you do wonder what might have happened in the 2004 World Cup Final, which the Germans frankly reached by default, had Ballack himself not been excluded, being suspended.

Germany should surely provide a regular place for the young blond midfielder Bastien Schweinsteiger of Bayern Munich, who impressed me whenever he came on in Portugal in 2004, with his energy, drive and ambition. And at least the Germans will have home advantage in the coming World Cup.

Mexico's formation, which usually has five men across the midfield but can at choice leave the resourceful Borgetti on his own upfield, is not merely defensive. Brazil's Parreira himself, before the tournament began, was paying tribute to the Mexican technique. They can break incisively and quickly when they have the opportunity, and they emphatically showed up the deficiencies both of the Brazilians and the Argentineans, who struggled to score against them.

Overall, however, the Brazilians will as always be among the favourites for the World Cup, which they already hold. But they can be beaten.