Time for crystal ball gazing

A. VINOD

FINALLY, it is time for some crystal ball gazing. Fortunately that voyage into the realm of the great unknown should be a limited exercise as unlike in the previous three editions which had looked wide open initially, the coming World Cup has at least two strong favourites in holder France and Argentina. Yet, the million dollar question remains: which among the 32 teams would face the moment of truth in Yokohama, Japan, on the night of June 30?

Indeed, given the relative strengths of France and Argentina, it would be difficult for anyone to look beyond these two sides as possible finalists. This, also on the hope that the two would avoid each other in the second round of what remains a treacherous draw for the two-time winner from South America. But then, football being a sport wherein one false step is more than enough to bring down even the mightiest of teams, it would only be suicidal to zero in on these two teams alone and expect them to fight it out for the game's Holiest Grail.

The odds would seem stacked against Brazil, the eternal favourite, Italy, a three-time winner, England, unlucky not to have duplicated its home success of 1966 so far and last but not the least Portugal, one of the technically best equipped sides of the contemporary game, due to varying reasons. And again there are teams such as Spain, though often consigned to the bin as a perennial underachiever, Croatia, which surprised the entire world with its third-place finish at France '98 and Cameroon and Nigeria, both highly gifted but equally unpredictable.

In fact, only one thing seems certain. That neither South Korea nor Japan, despite being assured of overwhelming support from a patriotic audience, would be in the race for the title once the pace gains momentum just like the United States when the team hosted the game's prized event in 1994. While the story could be no different for the U.S. this time as well, the other two Asian teams in the fray could also be springing a surprise if they last beyond the first round. This, even if the Chinese campaign has the evergreen Bora Milutinovic at its helm.

The same could also hold true in the case of Senegal and Tunisia and to a certain extent Ecuador and Slovenia, given the nature of the draw which has divided the 32 teams into eight groups for the first round. With as many as 48 out of the total 64 matches forming part of this round, starting with the opener between France and Senegal in Seoul on May 31, it is only pertinent then that we focus on this crucial sequence which also holds the key to the fortunes of all the teams to make further progress, including the favourites.

Let us start with the outside bets and those sides which could well emerge as the dark horses of the tournament. But only after leaving out Brazil and Italy which, in the studied opinion of many, are the likely teams capable enough to take the fight into the French and Argentinian camps during Asia's first World Cup. We shall discuss the prospects of these teams later. However, having committed with the rest of the world on the possible leading contenders, it would be a great disappointment for one if the gallant Portugal, spearheaded by the immaculate Luis Figo and the equally brilliant Manuel Rui Costa, fails to make it into the round of last four.

Why Portugal? Simply, because the team alone looks capable and skillful from among the huge European contingent to play attacking football - artistic and creative all the way. Playing in a 4-2-3-1 formation, the side boasts of a solid defensive line-up with Fernando Couto and Jorge Costa in the lead, but where this team actually scores is in the midfield. Revelling in the presence of Figo, the FIFA Player of the Year, who could dribble, cross and invent goals for his colleagues up front at will in the company of Rui Costa, Sergio Conciecao, Nuno Capucho and Joao Pinto.

The tactical ploy of manager Antonio Oliveira, who has followed the same system deployed by his predecessor Humberto Coelho during the successful Euro 2000 campaign, would be to use one of his five playmakers as a defensive shield to the back four while determining to carry out his attacking options through either Nuno Gomes or Pauleta Resende. In the event, both need to be selected to provide the frontline with added punching power. The side is also capable of switching to the more conventional 4-4-2 system with Conciecao remaining in the side-bench.

Paired with the host South Korea, Poland and the United States, Portugal is expected to easily waltz to the top of Group D ahead of Poland before meeting either Croatia or Mexico (possible claimants for the runner-up spot in Group G behind Italy) in the second round. Should it sail into the quarterfinals, Portugal would then be left with the prospect of meeting Spain in what could be an exciting battle as Spain is widely expected to secure a semifinal berth by its die-hard fans back home and elsewhere.

Such hopes indeed stem from the expectations that the team as such would be inspired by the magical scoring skills of Raul Gonzalez and the playing relationship he has developed with Fernando Hierro, Miguel Nadal and Santiago Canizares over the last few years. The Spanish manager, Jose Antonio Camacho, has also tried to bring in new blood with Diego Tristan to provide an added impetus to the attack and should be hoping that Gaizka Mendieta and Juan Carlos Valeron would also live up to their reputation from the midfield.

But the real problem for Spain is that it is placed in a somewhat tricky Group B in the first round, alongside Paraguay, Slovenia and South Africa. Paraguay and Slovenia are capable enough of upsetting the Spanish apple cart on their day, particularly if Spain, true to its reputation, remains complacent and takes things for granted. Barring such an extreme, it should otherwise be a cake-walk for Spain before it meets either Germany, Ireland or Cameroon in the second round and takes guard to progress further.

While the attack looks quite solid and dependable, the heart of the Spanish problem in Asia could be its defence where Hierro and Nadal have slowed down a bit through the last couple of years leaving both Aitor Karanka and David Albelda with more than a handful to bother. The fate of Spain's 11th odyssey into the World Cup, thus, is expected to be decided in this crucial area and a lot of that would depend on how Karanka and Albelda rise to the occasion.

A lot has been said and written about the prospects of England through the last several weeks. Especially after the inspirational revival the team has enjoyed under Sven Goran Eriksson. But with skipper David Beckham still in the injured list and defender Gary Neville out of the tournament, again through injury, the clock suddenly seems to have stopped on the team. And its problems don't end there. England seems headed for further trouble having been paired with Argentina, Nigeria and Sweden in what has come to be referred to as the "Group of Death".

This also ensures that the sparks are bound to fly right from the early stages as Argentina would be trying its best to top Group F in its attempt to avoid France in the second round. So, even the second spot could mean trouble for England as then it will be driven straightaway into meeting the all-conquering France, which is widely expected to top Group A, pitted against the likes of Senegal, Uruguay and Denmark. That, needless to say, would be another titanic battle for Michel Owen and the rest as at the next hurdle, in the event of the England getting past its Gallic rival, it could be meeting Brazil in the quarterfinals.

With Owen having developed into a superb striker through the past few years and the midfield still capable to deliver the goods, what should be worrying Eriksson is the defence where the loss of Neville means that Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole and Rio Ferdinand would be left with that more acreage to cover in their efforts to stop the marauding forwards. Also of concern to the English fans should be the form of Emile Heskey, expected to be paired with his Liverpool partner Owen up front, who has failed to impress wide in the left flank so far. England, given the circumstances, can ill-afford a slow start but how well it plays against Nigeria and Sweden could well give us a clear idea of how far it is prepared to progress in its 10th World Cup.

Germany, when compared to England, has been somewhat lucky with the draw. Pitted against Cameroon, Ireland and Saudi Arabia in Group E the team could be expected to make it into the second round without much trouble. However, the injury to Mehmet Scholl is a big body blow to Germany which is already overburdened with the poor form shown by Oliver Bierhoff lately. None expects the nation to make it to the final at Yokohama, but Rudi Voller's men could still prove to be more than a handful to the key contenders if they top their group for a clash with either Paraguay or Slovenia in the second round.

Well known for its tactical discipline and resilience, Germany will then be looking ahead to its expected place in the round of last eight, provided Michael Ballack comes up with the form he showed in the qualifiers. As far as the defence is concerned, Germany seems to be better placed than most other teams what with skipper Oliver Kahn guarding the goal and seasoned Christian Ziege and Christian Woerns manning the back-line. However, to get that far, the players need to have confidence in themselves and their true worth.

Perhaps, luckier than Germany with the draw has been Belgium figuring in its sixth straight World Cup and 11th overall. Though its record is not at all awe-inspiring, the 'Red Devils' could well be one of the dark horses of the tournament along with Ireland, Sweden and Uruguay, as the team emerges from its initial battles against co-host Japan, Tunisia and Russia in Group H.

But like Cameroon and Nigeria, the problem with Belgium is its own unpredictability. Solid and convincing on its day, Belgium could vanish without a trace the very next day and this is where manager Robert Waseige has to instill some more discipline into the side. The Belgium side is however built around a strong back line and will thus be hard for opposing forwards to break down that easily. The team also has a good leader in the inimitable Marc Wilmots and a sound attacking pair in Bob Peeters and Branko Strupar, with Emile Mpenza being an added option.

However, the side lacks a creative midfielder who can take some of the pressure off Wilmots and keep the counter-attacks going in full steam. But this alone should not stop Belgium from going ahead and meeting either Turkey or Costa Rica in the second round and perhaps even further against Argentina in the quarterfinals. That is, unless Brazil does some tactical jockeying in the group-phase to avoid the French in the round of last eight.

Yet, Belgium, along with Spain and Germany, seems to be a decent bet to make the quarterfinals. At least as of now.