Monday, June 05, 2006

Group A: Home Cooking

For starters, let's be clear about one thing. There has been rumblings that Germany may not even make it out of the group stage. Initially, many pundits and fans were dismissing Germany's chances of competing for the title, but some questionable results in friendlies have some now even contemplating the possiblity of the knockout stages without the Germans, which would be like the NCAA tournament without Duke or the NFL offseason police blotter without the Cincinnati Bengals.

Germany gone early?

Hogwash. You can forget all the talk about the Germans being vulnerable. Sure, this isn't a vintage German team and I'm not counting on them to lift the trophy, but nobody other than Brazil knows how to slither through a World Cup like Germany. And 'slither' is the right word as they often look less than inspiring but somehow sneak into the deep stages regardless, often by the skin of their teeth, often despite being outplayed. Like clockwork. 2002 was a perfect example. The Germans were far from the most impressive team in Japan/Korea, but when it was all said and done, nobody was left standing but them and Brazil. As bad as Germany has looked at times under Jurgen Klinsmann, don't be surprised if the 2006 final is a repeat. That's not my prediction, but it wouldn't surprise me in the least.

Granted, Klinsmann is working with far less talent than his days as a player in the late '80s and early '90s when the German team was stacked with legends such as himself, Lothar Mattheus, Rudi Voller, and Klaus Augenthaler. German talent does seem to be at a low point at the moment. But fret not. Playing in front of their crazed home fans should make up for what they lack in sheer ability.

Michael Ballack is the only current German worthy of world superstar status, but he's a great foundation to build upon. He isn't flashy, but his skills are more than adequate and combine with a rugged toughness, sheer will to win, and innate sense of leadership to make Ballack the rare player who can singlehandedly carry a team. There is no way Germany makes it to the 2002 final without him. Unfortunately, there is also no way of knowing how Germany would have fared in that game had Ballack not been suspended for accumulating two yellow cards. (This rule must be fixed, by the way.)

After Ballack, there is a dropoff in star appeal, but Miroslav Klose has been a consistent scorer for a long time. Bastian Schweinsteiger is a young stud who will partner with Ballack to form a great 1-2 punch in midfield. (Schweinsteiger was once caught late at night in a whirlpool with his girlfriend at the training center of his club Bayern Mucnich, which earns him all sorts of brownie points in my book.) Goalkeepers Oliver Kahn and Jens Lehmann are both aged and notorious for disliking each other, but both have been among the world's best for years. Robert Huth is the typical stoic, nothing-if-not-consistent defender that Germany is famous for. He'll be solid in the center of the backline.

Most importantly, keep an eye on Lukas Podolski, who is only 21 but a natural goalscorer who I'm guessing becomes one of the breakout names of this World Cup. Dude is a star in the making.

Bottom line? The Germans should reach the quarterfinals with relative ease, and after that, with their famed perseverence and the home soil advantage, anything is possible. I'm guessing that at least once they get outplayed yet force the game to penalties and prevail. That would be so Germany.

The German's stiffest test in Group A should come from Poland, which will be making the short trip across the border, an advantage for them. Unfortunatly, this also means that Poland's hooligan fans, among the world's worst, will have easy access to acting out their demented fantasies of violence and carnage.

Thus, I suppose it would be best to hope for an early Polish exit, but I don't see that happening. In fact, Poland, to me at least, screams out surprise team. Something tells me that a run to the quarterfinals isn't out of the question. It wasn't that long ago that Poland was a top soccer nation, finishing third in both the '74 and '82 World Cups. They suffered several years of failures after that, but the current generation seems to be bringing back Polish tradition and will be eager to erase a dismal performance in '02. In fact, their disgrace in '02 may actually be the best thing that could have happened to them as far as this year is concerned. They'll be hungry to make amends.

Expect Poland to be one of the more explosive teams. They scored the third most goals in European qualifying and striker Maciej "Magic" Zurawski may emerge from this World Cup as a big name, despite his name being virtually impossible to pronounce. The Poland-Costa Rica game could be one of the most enjoyable from a purely aesthtic aspect.

Combine a relatively weak group, the Poles ability to score, and a defense guided by coach Pawel Janas (who was a defender on Poland's outstanding team in 1982), not to mention the proximity to Germany, and Poland is just sitting there as a possible surprise. Don't sleep on them.

I was also liking Ecuador as a possible sleeper, but then I heard that before recent friendlies, they had played on European soil exactly three times. Ever. Yes, ever. That almost sounds impossible, but it's true. That doesn't bode well for a team that is famous for taking advantage of the high altitude in Quito to vanquish visiting opponents in South American qualifying.

Augustin Delgado is their biggest name and most prolific scorer, but he's on the wrong side of 30 and past his prime and very few Ecuador players play in Europe.

But then, Ecuador did beat both Argentina and Brazil in qualifying, and though both wins came near the clouds in Quito, that can't be underestimated. A win is a win and a win over Brazil or Argentina is always noteworthy.

Costa Rica deserves to be taken seriously if for no other reason than both of their previous World Cup appearances ended with them being a surprise team. They debuted in 1990 and quickly knocked off both Sweden and Scotland to reach the knockout stages, and in 2002 were elimated after the group stage, but only on goal differential in a group that featured champions Brazil and Turkey, which finished third. Point is, the Ticos have proven that they are never to be taken lightly and have reaced a point where if they do manage to squeeze into the second round, well, nobody will be surprised anymore. They're one of those teams that you can't help but root for.

On to the second round: Germany and Poland


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