Group B: It Isn't All About Rooney
In the last few weeks the injured right foot of Wayne Rooney has caused more worldwide speculation than nuclear weapons in Iran or the final of American Idol. Supposedly, a further scan will be done on Rooney's famous foot on Wednesday to determine whether he will be kept on the roster with the hope that he'll be available in the later rounds or if he'll be sent home to England to be with his girlfriend, which might not be such a bad thing.
Thing is, I wouldn't write off England just yet even if Rooney is a no go. Obviously, his loss would be felt as he is young, talented, and clearly England's best option up top, especially with Michael Owen coming off his own injury, Peter Crouch ready to be blown away by a stiff breeze at any moment, and Theo Walcott only recently out of diapers. Rooney's loss would be felt, for sure. And just thinking of the gratuitous shots of his girlfriend in the stands that would be lost is making me sick.
England, however, is loaded with or without Rooney. Their central midfield combo of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lamapard gives them an engine and heartbeat to rival any team in the tourney. Of course, there is the tiny matter of those two coexisting together. Not that they don't get along. They do. But they play virtually the exact same role for their clubs so working alongside each other is not as easy as it seems. It's sort of like having Shaq and Tim Duncan on your team. It's a great dilemma to have, but how do they play the same role at the same time? Where is the give and take? That said, both Gerrard and Lampard are in their primes, at the peak of their powers, and neither has ever displayed an ego that might prevent a compatible partnership. I think they'll work it out and get it done. Personally, I think Gerrard is the key. If he's allowed to be "the man" he can carry a team on his shoulders to great heights, as he has proven with Liverpool. Sven Goran Erickson needs to unleash Gerrard and let him do his thing.
David Beckham and Joe Cole provide experience on the outside flanks with young Aaron Lennon showing solid form at the moment that is demanding to get him minutes as well. This is most likely Beckham's last World Cup, which means soon we will no longer have to suffer through all the Americans who think Beckham is the world's greatest player simply because he's so hyped. Man, that pisses me off. (Note to Americans: he isn't even close.) That said, Mr. Posh Spice does provide crosses as well as anyone in the game, and I'm guessing one or two of those find the head of the endlessly lanky Crouch.
People are down on Crouch, but I don't buy it. Is he Gary Lineker? No. Is he Alan Shearer? No. He's not even Rooney and the world is, oh, so quick to point that out at the moment. But he might just surprise some people. Despite seemingly having the coordination of string in the wind, Crouch does find himself in the center of many scoring chances, and in recent friendlies, has been putting some away. He gets in the mix and that's about all you can ask of the guy at this point. Playing against Paraguay in the group stage, and potentially Ecuador or Costa Rica in the second round, Crouch's uncanny height could be decisive as the Latino players are generally on the shorter side and often struggle in the air. One funny-looking goal from the lanky one could be all the difference in such a game. And if so, he will have more than done a decent job of filling in for Rooney. And then he can unleash his robot dance.
John Terry, Ashley Cole, Rio Ferdinand, and Gary Neville, while maybe not the most dominating backline, have loads of experience if nothing else. Meanwhile, Paul Robinson is an underrated keeper, a position England has been notoriosly lacking in for several years. As long as backup David James doesn't see the field, England should be adequate between the pipes. It would also help if they don't find themselves in a penalty kicks situation, which has never been a good thing for the Brits.
England has the tools to go far, maybe even reach the final. Their achilles heel in many World Cups has been their penchant for running into a super power early on. In 1986 they were ousted by Argentina and Maradona. In 1990 it was eventual champ Germany via penalty kicks. In 1998 it was Argentina again and in 2002 Brazil. Point is, they haven't had much luck as far as how the bracket breaks. Are they due for a change of luck? Perhaps. However, a matchup with Germany as early as the second round is a distinct possibilty, and that would seem typical for the English.
Sweden is never a bad bet if you're looking for a darkhorse. Invariably, nobody will talk much about the Swedes other than to point out some fine babes among their supporters, and then they'll quietly advance from the group stage and, after that, who knows? It's what the Swedes do. They excite nobody, but play just well enough to make their mark. This year could very well be no different. Perhaps they'll follow the lead of their hockey brethren, who have won both the Olympics and World Championships already this year, and do the country proud. It wouldn't be shocking.
With players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrik Larsen, and Fredrik Ljunberg, the Swedes don't lack for star power. Ironically, though, all are attackers on a team that is normally driven by its stellar defense. But in qualifying, the Swedes averaged a remarkable three goals per game. Can they maintain that pace in the coming weeks?
Thus, their matchup with Paraguay should be interesting as the Paraguayans are known for their defensive prowess. And much like Sweden, Paraguay is usually underrated. Playing in the shadows of Brazil and Argentina, they don't get much spotlight, but they've advanced to the knockout stages in each of their last three World Cup appearances and in 1998 were only eliminated by a late, late golden goal by France, who were eventual champs.
Paraguay isn't all defense, however, and probable strikers, Roque Santa Cruz and Nelson Haedo Valdez, are not only dangerous but both play their club soccer in Germany, meaning they'll be familiar with their surroundings. Definite sleeper possibilty.
Trinidad and Tobago? If there is one team that should be legitimately "just happy to be here" it's probably T&T. It's a great story - you know, the tiny islands finally hitting the big show for the first, and perhaps last, time - but they just don't have the talent to stack up. Their two most famous players, Dwight Yorke and Russell Lapaty, are 34 and 37, respectively. Stern John has long been a prolific striker, but he'll be afforded as much space to operate up top as Star Jones filling out her panties. He can't go it alone.
I'm guessing nobody partied as hard upon qualification, so the people of T&T will always have that.
Don't get me wrong, I'll be pulling for T&T and I'll be pulling hard. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for the Soca Warriors. Much like Jamaica, there's just something about small Caribbean islands making it to the circus of the World Cup that is refreshing.
On to the second round: England and Paraguay.