Argentina only just scraped through to South Africa as the fourth best team in South America, yet they began the World Cup as third favourites, behind Spain and Brazil. Maybe this isn’t so strange when you consider that they’ll have Messi, Aguero, Milito, Higuain and Tevez to choose from up front. Many have focussed on the inclusion of Martin Palermo, who now at 36 is pretty useless, but the general consensus here is that he is a popular guy who will be good for team morale throughout the tournament. Furthermore, he’ll only get on the pitch in the last few minutes if Argentina desperately need a goal and they are putting balls into the box, in which case he would be a better option than any of the aforementioned. It´s true that he may be virtually unable to run, but he can still finish well as he showed the other night against Greece.
The defence is pretty slow, so for that reason they’ll be playing fairly deep and probably without their full backs going forward too much. Prior to the first game it was assumed that their starting eleven would be that used in a recent friendly win against the Germans in Munich. Since then however, the form of Tevez in training has apparently made Maradona alter his team. Velez Sarsfield defender Nicolas Otamendi has been replaced by Jonas Guttierez, who drops from right midfield to a right sided wing-back. His fellow defenders Heinze, Samuel and Demichelis will play far deeper, with young Otamendi and Burdisso as capable replacements on right side or centre of defence respectively. The attacking Clemente Rodriguez of Estudiantes can be used as a replacement for Heinze if they feel that they need a more attacking option from the left.
In front of the back four, Mascherano, despite wearing fourteen, will be in the traditional argentine ‘number 5’ role, closing down and preventing opposition attacks. A problem for Argentina may be if he gets suspended as Mario Bolatti, although an elegant deep-lying midfielder, does not have the same energy and defensive capabilities as Mascherano. On the left of midfield is young de Maria of Benfica, an exceptionally quick winger, which leaves 35 year old Juan Sebastian Veron as the teams playmaker, kniting together the defence and attack whilst trying to release the three youngsters further forward. In my opinion there is too much responsibility for a 35 year old, who has played two years of football without a break. Furthermore, I think that it’s a pity that Riquelme is absent from the squad as the would have provided the team with another creative option.
Ahead of the midfield trio will be Messi, who has been given a licence to roam around the pitch behind Higuain, to find spaces. After the Greek game, the Argentine press seemed concerned by the manner in which has was anulled by the Greek, Papasthathopoulos, who had seemingly superglued himself to Messi before kick-off. Surely illegal, no?
Tevez is likely to continue playing as right winger/forward in front of Guttierez, where he’ll be asked to continued hassling and harrying opposition defences when they have possesion. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the classier Aguero being introduced for Tevez, in the final 10/15 minutes of games if the score is tight, as he did to great success against South Korea. He was brought on with fifteen minutes to go with the score at 2-1-the game ended 4-1, with Aguero contributing gretaly to the two goals.
Diego Milito is a like for like replacement for Higuain, but following the Real Madrid’s hattrick against the Koreans, it was obvious that Milito had to do something special against Greece to retain his place. Judging by the fact that he was almost in tears as he sat on the bench following his substitution, i’d hazard a guess that he knows that he has missed his opportunity.
I still believe the absence of Zanetti could harm their chances of winning the competition, though as I said on the podcast the other week, there is a rumour in Buenos Aires that apparently when the players went onto the pitch at the start of a recent game, Zanetti gathered the team together and told them to disregard Maradona’s teamtalk and for that reason he’s out…who know’s if it’s true.
Just a further point: The main story in Argentina prior to the beginning of the tournament was that of the Barra Bravas (Hooligans) going to South Africa. There will be the odd story in the English press of one of their fans with a banning order being prevented from going to South Africa. In Argentina, it’s slightly different; Grondona the head of the FA, was being questioned as to why numerous leaders of various hooligan groups had free tickets on the official flight for the team, match tickets and even access to the training camp! Anyway, it seems that apparently the guys have ran out of money and are camping in a derelict school in Soweto and are now adored within the township…maybe they’re not such bad guys after all.
Across the River Plate, Uruguay are quietly confident in doing well. Unlike Scotland who pre-booked their return flights home from France ’98 to coincide with the end of the group stage, Uruguay have taken provisions to last them for the whole month including 150 kilos of Uruguayan mate tea-their obsession with it even extend to them drinking it whilst training!
They looked excellent in recent friendlies as they outclassed Switzerland 3-1 in Basel and when they took apart Israel 4-1 in front of 80,000 estatic fans in Montevideo. As ever they have a strong defence, using a back three, including the impressive Lugano and Godin who for me have been the best defenders of the competition thus far. I assumed that their coach, Tabarez would revert to a back four against the stronger teams as he did against France, but now i’m not so sure. After outclassing both South Africa and Mexico whilst playing 3-4-3, I think it could be safe to assume that he’ll continue playing in this manner against a competent South Korea team in the second round.
Prior to the competition, a dilemma for Uruguay arose due to the emergence of a superb ‘number 10’ style player called Nicolas Lodeiro. The boy is class. To the extent that in the play-offs they changed their style to incorporate him into the team. As they have two strikers and a number 10 behind them, it had changed the role of the midfielders behind Lodeiro, in that they were needed to perform a far more defensive function compensating for the three forward players. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in the opening game against an athletic French midfield, Tabarez cautiously opted to replace Lodeiro with the stronger, more defensive Gonzalez. Tabarez seemed to read the game perfectly as he prevented France from being able to open up the Uruguayans and then with 20 minutes remaining, brought on the wonderkid Lodeiro. Unfortunately, the wonderkid then got himself sent off within 5 mins receiving a two-game suspension.
Subsequently, Tabarez was put in a difficult position. With two games remaining he had a functional, though unexciting team, but without the option of a ‘number 10’ to change the game. His tactical move was inspired; he withdrew Gonzalez and replaced him with the strong and quick Palermo striker, Cavani to accompany Luis Suarez scorer of 49 goals in 48 games for Ajax last season. Diego Forlan, playing in a withdrawn role, tore apart South Africa, picking the ball up deep from the more defensive Uruguayan midfield, sprinting forward with the ball, linking up the midfield and attack and frequently shooting from long range.
Uruguay emerged from their group unbeaten with 7 points, without a goal conceded, and with Korea in the second round and the prospect of either the US or Ghana in the quarters, I can tell you that they are already eyeing up a semi-final place. Not bad for a country of just over three million.
Tragically for Paraguay, their key man in the team, Salvador Cabanas, was shot in the head in a Mexico City nightclub in January. Miraculously he survived the attack, though the bullet still remains in his skull. About six weeks or so after the assault he gave an interview, that was broadcast across Latin America, saying that he still hoped to play in the World Cup. Unsurprisingly he has not been able to recover in time, nor is it clear if he will ever be able to play again. The last I heard was that he would be accompanying his teammates at their camp in South Africa.
Inevitably, these events have overshadowed Paraguay’s preparations for the World Cup. Cabanas’ replacement, the Argentine born Lucas Barrios, has scored three goals in as many games since being drafted in. As well as Barrios, Paraguay have his Dortmund strike partner Valdez, Cardozo of Benfica (who seems to score against us everytime we play Benfica) and Santa Cruz of Man City. They perhaps have the strongest group of forwards in the competition, outwith Argentina and Spain.
They have carried on their tradition of good and organised defensive play, though I do think that they lack a bit of quality in midfield. Of course, it was sufficient to beat a decent Slovakian team, though I think that against a higher quality midfield the midfield may struggle to provide enough opportunities for their excellent strikers. Despite this, they have comfortably topped their group, avoiding Holland in the next round. If they beat the capable Japanese team, they will reach the quarter finals for the first time in their history. Before the World Cup began, this seemed ambitious, now it seems highly possible, if not probable.
Prior to the World Cup in 2002, Argentina were the favourites to win the competition. Their manager Marcelo Bielsa had employed a 3-3-1-3 formation which had enabled them to qualify with ease whilst playing fast attacking football. Of course, in the actual World Cup they completely flopped, going out in the group stage. Subsequently Bielsa, who had been proclaimed as a genius was depicted as tactically naïve, with it being claimed that his attacking formation had been exposed by the more athletic and direct style of Sweden and England.
Since resigning as Argentina manager, Bielsa took a sabbatical before accepting the post of Chile’s manager. Again using his 3-3-1-3 formation, Chile stormed through qualification, finishing second in the South American group just one point behind Brazil. The team also achieved many landmark results, being the first Chilean team to get a point in Montevideo and more importantly being the first Chilean team to win a competitive game against arch-rivals, Argentina.
I actually had the pleasure of attending the game that ensured their place in South Africa as they beat Colombia 4-2, in Medellin. The Colombians really needed to win the game to give themsleves a chance of qualifying, which completely played into Bielsa’s hands. As soon as the Chileans received the ball they looked to quickly play a counter attack, instantly playing the ball up to their wide forwards, Mark Gonzalez and Alexis Sanchez, who then tried to play in their number 9, Suazo. And it worked perfectly.
As this World Cup began, the problem for Bielsa was that their centre forward Suazo pulled his hamstring in an exhibition game, missed the first game against Honduras and was used sparingly in their win against Spain. Having accumulated six points in two games, Chileans would have assumed that they’d be delighted, but no so. Due to Spain’s surprising loss against the tedious Swiss team, it is quite likely that three teams will finish up on 6 points, in which case they will be separated by goal difference. So whilst most of the world has marvelled at Chile’s exciting play, Bielsa and the Chilean media have been worried about the lack of goals scored so far and cursing the absence of Señor Suazo, top goalscorer in the South American qualification phase.
As it is being assumed that Switzerland will beat Honduras, just a point will be required for Chile against the Spanish (who need the three points) to top the group. But can Chile’s 3-3-1-3 formation possibly work against such a talented and attacking Spanish team? Will Bielsa remain loyal to his attacking formation that failed so spectacularly in 2002? Or with just a point required, will Bielsa be more pragmatic? It’ll be fascinating to watch.
After scoring against the Ivory Coast, Luis Fabiano sought out a camera and raised six fingers, indicating that Brazil were on their way to their sixth title. At the time of writing, they are the tournament favourites following a comfortable and impressive victory over the Africans in their last match. In all honestly, they look like a good bet.
And yet I really hope that they don’t do it. And it doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that i’m currently living in Buenos Aires…honestly! For me, this Brazil team is just far too pragmatic. As it is argued that the eventual failure of the elegant and attacking Brazil’s ’82 squad changed Brazil’s mentality to be more cautious and defensive, then a win by this (atheltic yet comparatively boring) squad will surely be further affirmation of a more defensive Brazil.
Since USA ’94, Brazil has persisted in playing two defensive midfielders to compensate for their attacking full backs. Fair enough, but can Brazil not find a defensive midfielder who can actually pass and control a football? Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo both began their careers as centre backs and it really shows. Effectively they are just playing as defenders in front of the two centre backs, usually Lucio and Juan. A dearth of competent Brazilian left backs has resulted in Dunga converting the competent but limited Lyonnais midfielder Bastos to play there. On the right side though, they have a genuinely world class player in Maicon, who seems to steamroller through the opposition’s left side.
Elano, who plays ahead of Maicon on the right hand side, seems to cut in, allowing for Maicon to drive forward. As well as being a neat passer of the ball, possibly Elano’s most important attribute for Dunga is his delivery from set pieces. With such an aerial threat provided by Lucio, Juan, Felipe Melo, Kaka and Luis Fabiano, both Elano and Bastos consistently provide high quality cross balls.
Kaka, now 28, has been entrusted in providing with the team’s creativity, with Robinho floating around the left side of the box attempting to play his quick ‘one-twos’ with the aforementioned Kaka and the clinical Luis Fabiano in order to open up tightly packed oppostion defences.
And indeed it is these defensive oppostion tactics that is causing worry amongst the Brazilian public. In the South American qualifications, ‘O Seleção’ found it nigh on impossible to beat defensive tactics, as they could only manage a series of scoreless draws at home against Argentina, Colombia and even South American minnows such as Venezuela and Bolivia. Uruguay also tried to defend deeply in Sao Paulo and were narrowly defeated 2-1. In the return game in Montevideo, Uruguay dominated possesion, yet were hammered 0-4. Likewise, when Argentina dominated possesion in Rosario and were beaten by the counter-attacking Brazil 1-3.
And this in my opinion is an indication of both Brazil’s greatest strength and their weakness. This pragmatic, athletic Brazilian team is absolutely made for the counter-attack, and they do it superbly. When the opposition loses the ball, you’ll see the deceptively quick Kaka immeadiately sprint upfield, likewise Maicon on the right and Robinho to his left. And despite Luis Fabiano not being in the same class as Ronaldo or Romario of past Brazilian teams, he is an excellent finisher. The problem for Brazil occurs when a team has no ambition to compete with them for possesion and is content to ‘sit in’, forcing Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo to play the ball as much as possible. When they inevitably give the ball away, the oppostion can break upfield. These tactics were fairly success for lowly North Korea (despite the narrow defeat) and very successful for numerous South American teams in the qualification games. In short, Brazil bizarrely may be better suited to playing the talented Chilean or Spanish teams in the second round who they could punish on the counter attack, rather than Hitzfeld’s dogged Swiss team.