In 2011, the unthinkable happened – three-time Ballon d’Or winner, Lionel Messi was booed by his own fans during the Copa America after they drew disappointingly against both Bolivia and Colombia.
As well as off the pitch, he had to contend with one of his own team-mates, Nicola Burdisso, who also questioned the Barcelona man about his form. Coach Alejandro Sabella has took it upon himself to prevent this and make sure that Messi is comfortable in his role and well supported by his able colleagues – Sergio Aguero, Angel di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain to mention just three – should the diminutive wizard be double-marked or out of form at times during any phase of the the competition. This is more than likely to happen, as it did in South Africa 2010 when the number 10 was dropping so deep to try and become a factor in the game, he was level with Esteban Cambiasso in defensive midfield and the Argentines became encamped in their own half at times.
Germany tore them apart in the quarter-finals and the dreams of a third World Crown were brutally extinguished. This time around, they are second-favourites, bouncing with the draw and knowing that they are definitely capable of inflicting their own Maracanazo on the hosts. One thing is for certain, though – they will top this section effortlessly, with maximum points and as top scorers in the group phase. This will give them a passage into the half of the draw which should include Spain, Uruguay, Belgium and Portugal. I see them beating any of those and reaching the final against their nemesis, Germany. The Germans have been their victors at both the last two World Cups, as well as being their opponents in the previous two finals their reached; back-to-back in 1986 (which Diego Maradona won almost single-handedly) and a penalty shoot-out defeat in Italia 90. Hands up for Seleccion revenge…
Sharing one of my (printable) nicknames with Bosnia-Herzegovina (Dragons) should make me want to favour the Eastern European side this year. It’s not like the sole-debutantes were lucky in making it to Brazil – on the contrary. They scored 30 goals in their ten games and won eight of them. The doubters say that Greece were able to achieve the same number of points and conceded fewer goals, but they only scored 12 goals and to repeat that feat, plus their pressing game in the heat and humidity of Brazil will be a big ask. Bosnia, on the otherhand, are a free-scoring, free-spirited, free-role-giving side and in two-time Premier League winner with Manchester City, Edin Dzeko.
Dzeko was second to European qualifying top scorer, Netherlands and Manchester United forward, Robin van Persie. They also have one of the most sought-after goalkeepers in the world, in Stoke City stopper Asmir Begovic, who may be looking to enhance his ever-burgeoning reputation with a good showing at the finals. Coach Safet Susic has only picked two actual centre-forwards, Dzeko joined by VfB Stuttgart front-man Vedad Ibisevic, who was joint-top scorer with Austrian winger Martin Harnik with ten goals in last season’s Bundesliga for a side that finished just one place and five points above the relegation playoff place; one-fifth of their total amount in the ‘goals for’ column. However, my favourite Bosnian player is the 24-year-old Roma midfielder, Miralem Pjanic. He will be the man pulling the strings in the centre of the park and helping supply ammunition, with his cross-city rival at club level, Lazio’s Senad Lulic likely to be regular at left-wing. Finish second here and they may well face France and you never know what you’re getting from them. But from the quarter-finals – as you would expect – it gets a lot harder.
There is a familiar name in the coaching hot-seat for Iran ; that of Carlos Queiroz. He has successfully made the side a hard one to break down and beat, so Argentina aside, don’t expect them to be on the wrong side of big scores. They will be able to enjoy themselves if they are able to get something out of the first game against Nigeria on Monday June 16, but then they will need to batten down the hatches for Messi and co, five days later. There are also recognisable names in the squad to English football fans; Andranik Teymourian, once of Bolton and then Fulham and current Cottagers midfielder Ashkan Dejagah, who is arguably their star man.
Look out for dependable right-back Khosro Heydari, who is adaptable and versatile and could also pop up at left-back or further up the right flank. The youngest man in the squad is Bakhtlar Rahmani and his quick attacking breaks from deep on the counter, may catch one or two teams out. Ultimately, though, unless they are able to take a win from their opening encounter, I see them finishing bottom, but having given a respectable effort.
We’re still waiting for that African country to come to a World Cup and show us what we’ve been expecting to see for a long time, now. That efferverscent predictor, Pele, boldly told us that one side from that continent would put both hands on the trophy and proudly walk it all the way back home with them, before the Millennium. That still hasn’t happened and it’s 14 after that deadline, which is why I take anything Edson Arantes de Nascimento with a pinch of salt. (His prediction that Germany will play Brazil in the final is merely a comedy soundbite for those of us who have actually looked at the draw and the paths of both to the final, but that’s another story).
Nigeria are another of those trying their hand at cracking the glass ceiling of the quarter-final stage and they will do well to better their four previous appearances, which have yielded only two second-round exits. This time around, their squad is again blossoming and filled with pace and power, but yet again, I can only see them falling short. They have a midfield four and front two capable of opening most defences up and a very able goalkeeper in Vincent Enyeama. But theirs and coach Stephen Keshi’s worries are if their defence can thwart the conundrum posed to them by their opponents. My answer is probably not and if they get out of the group alive, that question will again be asked by France or Switzerland in the knockouts.
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