The fearsome four

A. VINOD

IT is the unpredictability of the final outcome that makes any contest interesting. But as the stage is set for the start of the World Cup, the favourites seem to be France and Argentina alongside Brazil and Italy, all teams with considerable firepower and sufficient bench-strength which by itself could turn any opponent green with envy.

And then as a safe option, a fifth could well be added to the above list by placing Portugal as an outside bet, given the wealth of talent at its disposal. The likes of Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Jorge Costa, Joao Pinto and Nuno Gomes are too good to be ignored but they could find the going tough towards the second-half of the tournament by running into Spain and Italy in successive rounds.

Just like France, placed in the same-half of the draw with Brazil and Argentina, would be required to fire on all cylinders as it begins its quest to retain the title which it won for the first time at home in 1998. No team other than Brazil has ever won the World Cup twice-in-a-row in the post-war era and no team as such has won three major titles in one go in football history. Asia's first World Cup, thus, is certain to be a make or break one for France as it begins its campaign to ensure for itself an exalted position in the pantheon of the modern game's greatest teams such as the Pele-driven Brazilians of 1970, the Beckenbauer-led Germans of 1974 and the Rossi-powered Italians of 1982.

Can France, the reigning World and European champion, really do it? Indeed, it looks quite capable, given the fact that the nucleus of the formidable side which triumphed at France 98 remains almost intact, despite the retirement of Didier Deschamps and Laurent Blanc, and it now has a superb striking pair in Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet up front - the cutting edge which was found lacking before it took the mighty Brazil in its stride at Stade-de-France four years ago.

In fact, weaknesses are hard to find in this squad which is justly formed around the incomparable Zinedine Zidane, arguably the best player in contemporary football and the most expensive footballer in the world. The Real Madrid star very much at his peak (though he has given himself only a rather mediocre 7-point rating in a table of one to 10 during a recent interview). "Zizou", reeling off his magical flicks, drag-backs and back-heels is certain to handle the central role in the French midfield where he is likely to be paired with Emmanuel Petit and Laurent Robert (the most possible choice to replace the injured Robert Pires).

Having not tinkered much with the side built up by Aime Jacquet, his predecessor, Roger Lemerre is also certain to play Patrick Vieira as the defensive midfielder in the 4-1-3-2 formation that France has consistently employed through the better part of the last three years. The team known for its poise at the back could have Bixente Lizarazu, Lilian Thuram, skipper Marc Desailly and one among Frank Leboeuf, Willy Sagnol and Philippe Christanaval manning the defence in front of goalkeeper Fabian Barthez, who, after having a disastrous start during the first part of the English season, is back to great form.

The task of qualifying from Group A should prove a simple race for France, which is paired with Denmark, Uruguay and debutant Senegal in the first round. However, it could be a tough second round with the World champion slated to meet the runner-up of the 'Group of Death' comprising Argentina, England, Nigeria and Sweden and most possibly Brazil in the quarterfinals. Should Argentina progress, as is expected, as winner of its group and move along, France could then come face-to-face with the fancied South American in the semifinals in its attempt to defend the World Cup. Quite a treat for any fan, undoubtedly.

Argentina, in search of its third success in the World Cup, seems to have it all - abundance of talent and skill and most importantly experienced players who could really stand the twists and turns of a demanding campaign. It is also the firm favourite, being tipped by a vast majority, to win in Asia even ahead of the all-conquering and near-invincible Les Blues. And if it does it as expected, it would certainly be a great achievement.

The outcome of Group F is almost impossible to predict and any stumbling at this stage by Argentina could well result in only either it or France remaining behind to have a direct assault at the title. But that seems only to be a long shot as Argentina looks far better than England, Nigeria and Sweden to find itself finishing second in this group, though, admittedly, it would be forced to remain on guard all along. A fact it has already realised and which was echoed by key defender, Roberto Ayala, recently: "As one of the most powerful sides in the world that we wish to be, I do not think we should look so much after our opponents. What we should do is to think of how to win the World Cup. And if we wish to go to the final, we have a job to do and it depends only on us."

But the big question, then, is whether Argentina would be able to reproduce the same form which saw it ensure its 13th appearance in the World Cup with as many as four of the 18 matches in the South American qualifiers still in hand. With Marcelo Bielsa having worked wonders with the confidence of the players, employing tactics which combined the natural attacking flair of the Latin Americans with a well-disciplined European team ethic, Argentina all through its qualifying campaign was halted only once (by Brazil at home) as it came through in style.

What, in fact, also proved advantageous for Argentina was the 3-3-1-3 formation which Bielsa sewed into the side, giving a free role to Juan Sebastian Veron (dubbed by his rivals as La Brujita or the Little Witch) to glide across the whole pitch with his eye-catching dribbling skills and elusive dummy runs. Working from a slightly withdrawn position but effective nevertheless while combining with the likes of Javier Zanetti, Diego Simone, Marcelo Gallardo, Kily Gonzales or Pablo Aimar to turn the game on its head at any given time. Beilsa's men, in the event of quick counter-attacks, are also capable of switching to a 4-4-1-1 combine which then would have a mobile attacking midfielder (either Claudio Lopez or Ariel Ortega) playing behind the striker (Gabriel Batistuta or Hernan Crespo) to take care of the clearances from the back - manned usually by Walter Samuel, Nestor Sensini, Ayala and Juan Pablo Sorin or Mauricio Pochettinno.

Though it did give its fans the shivers during what proved to be a traumatic qualifying campaign, Brazil seems to have recovered fast enough to emerge as one of the favourites for the title in Asia. Its quick revival was marked, undoubtedly, by the return of Ronaldo to competitive football after a lapse of two years owing to recurring injury problems. However, not everyone is convinced as yet that the 'phenom' is fully fit to handle pressure, given the fact that it was his mysterious illness which paved the way for that disastrous night in France four years ago.

But then, Brazil being Brazil it would be difficult for anyone to write this team off, which is capable to wriggle out of tight situations and take the fight back into the enemy camp with a fastidious approach laced with flair and felicity. And then, much to its luck, Brazil is placed alongside Costa Rica, Turkey and debutant China in the first round. It should be an easy picking for the four-time champion to top Group C and lay in wait for the runner-up of Group H comprising Japan, Russia, Belgium and Turkey in the second round.

A quarterfinal berth, thus, should be there for the asking for the Samba Kings who under Luis Felipe Scolari are now known to execute the 3-5-2 system to keep the team's fortunes going. With Cafu, Luico and Edilson or Roque Junior placed in front of goalkeeper Marcos and Roberto Carlos as usual left with the task of moving behind to help out the defence when the team is under attack. In the midfield, the Brazilian flag would be carried by skipper Emerson, Juninho Paulista, Vampeta and Ronaldinho Gaucho to ensure that Ri-Ro are not starved of passes, up front. A lot, however, depends on the Brazilian frontline and should either Rivaldo or Ronaldo fail to deliver, Scolari, already declared back home as "public enemy No. 1" for overlooking the claims of veteran striker Romario, could be in for bigger trouble.

Italy would be in Asia searching for a record-equalling fourth title and the team under Giovanni Trapattoni looks to be in fine fettle to start its campaign, taking advantage of a favourable draw. Drawn alongside Croatia, Mexico and debutant Ecuador in Group G, Italy might be a slow-starter and quite defensive in its approach. But having added muscle to its attack through the last three years, Italy looks to be a formidable side capable enough to waltz its way past the initial round without much difficulty. In the second round, it is likely to meet Poland/South Korea and in the quarterfinals either Cameroon or Germany and should it go ahead, as is being expected, its next hurdle should be in the form of Portugal.

With veteran Paolo Maldini leading the defence in the company of Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro and Gianluigi Buffon manning the net, Italy should not be worried about conceding too many goals. And fitting into the 3-4-1-2 system that Trapattoni has constructed ever since he took over from Dino Zoff, should be midfielders Gianluca Ambrotta, Franceso Coco, Luigi di Biagio and Damiano Tommasi with Francesco Totti left to play the role of a creator behind strikers Christian Vieri and Filippo Inzaghi or Vincenzo Montella.

Totti could well be Italy's trump card in Asia not only providing plenty of assists but scoring goals as well. The AS Roma skipper is also a permanent threat from set pieces and thus competent enough to provide an additional thrust to the team attack, leaving Alessandro del Piero permanently on the bench. Should he deliver, Italy could go all the way. For, it is the attack which eventually could help Italy forget the bad trend of losing thrice in-a-row in the World Cup on penalties.

From among the firm favourites - France, Argentina, Brazil and Italy - one of the teams could well be facing its moment of truth in Yokohama, Japan, on June 30. In fact, it is hard to think about any other team sneaking in to spring a surprise, for the fearsome four are loaded with talent, skill and experience to blow away the rest once the action gets under way on May 31.