Side Kicks: Six months feels like a decade
With Thanksgiving and the World Cup draw taking over the last two weeks, we had to take a brief hiatus, but the leftovers are gone and the 2010 World Cup is now officially underway if you're a fan of the Beautiful Game. Not unexpectedly, the majority of our readers are focused on the World Cup next summer ... can you blame them? Just one note before we get down to business — Landon Donovan to Everton? While I love the idea of our best player showing what he's got in one of the best leagues in the world, there's also a part of me that just wishes he would take a break. One aspect of Donovan's play which is oft neglected is his toughness and ability to handle the wear and tear. The kid gets hacked every match and rarely goes down to injury (maybe he should charge van Persie a consultant fee for some advice). But hey, if he's had himself a career year playing every day, who am I to knock his schedule? Just stay healthy LD — we'll need you in top form six months from now. Let's do this thing ... So it's time for us fess up. The USMNT does not have the fire power to win the group. Many people I've heard, in my community, not on TV mind you, believe that we will walk straight through our group with 3 wins! Beating England will be quite a task. Yes, England are not a sexy team by far. But a solid smothering midfield and one of the strongest backlines with surely make it a monumental task for us to score even one goal. With the disarray that injuries have put the US in, I don't even see us making it out of the group. Please give your thoughts.
Bob Hunt of Mishawaka, Ind. Robert: While I'm not as giddy as many in the U.S. camp since last Friday, I am optimistic that we have as good a chance (if not better) as the other two challengers not named England. And let's also be clear that the Three Lions are also fallible. Remember that our miserable display in 2006 had only one positive, and that was earning a tough draw with the eventual champion Azzurri. Not one other team took a point off of the Italians in Germany, so that just goes to show that a lot is possible at a World Cup. And while winning the group would be a bonus, it's not essential. Why? Because the two Group C entrants will have to take on the winner and runner-up from Group D, which I believe to be the most difficult group in the World Cup (more on that later). If we win the group, we might just as easily get a Round of 16 date with Germany or Ghana, while if we finish second, we could face Serbia or the Aussies. None of those opponents will be easy, so let's just concentrate on getting past Algeria and Slovenia. No, there won't be an easy match in this group, but I still feel the U.S. will qualify for the next round. John: Bob, a lot can happen between now and June. It's still a bit early to talk about tactics since some of our players who are injured now might be healthy, and vice versa. Same for England — what if Wayne Rooney happens to break his ankle in a Premier League match in April? But anyhow, I'll play along for the sake of fun. I'm happy to be playing England, but am very concerned that they're a different team under Fabio Capello. If Steve McClaren was still managing them, I'd have joined the "we're going to waltz through this group" crowd. But Capello has them focused and organized, and nothing would make me happier than an utterly boring goalless draw in the Group C opener. If we absolutely must get into tactical specifics through, then having a defensive midfielder like Jermaine Jones would go a long way to neutralizing guys like Gerrard and Lampard, and having Charlie Davies (knock on wood) would be an outstanding counter-attacking weapon if England's fullbacks decide to push up the flanks. But that's the hardest part to assess right now since everyone's health/fitness status is completely up in the air. Check back with us around Easter time, cool?
How does FIFA allocate a certain number of World Cup slots to each footballing region? Things just don't seem "fair." Why does CONCACAF have 35 countries battling for 3 or 4 spots, while CONMEBOL has 10 countries fighting for 4 or 5? The same thing goes for UEFA's number of spots. Is this done to give preference to the better regions (giving a more entertaining WC), or are there other reasons for doing this? And would allocating spots to regions proportionally, based on their number of nations, be such a disaster?
Chris W. of Baton Rouge, La. John: It's kind of based on how strong FIFA determines each qualifying region to be. Remember, Africa only had two spots in the World Cup as recently as 1990, and now they're up to six (OK, five if you discount South Africa next summer). But that to me is proof that a region can help its own cause by getting results against the big boys. Also, you kind of fall into a trap that isn't your fault, but the World Cup Finals are not the extent of the World Cup. They're just the finals of a two-year tournament, and that's it. In my opinion, the World Cup starts during the very first day of qualification. Some people I know like to bitch along the lines of "there are so many teams from UEFA that didn't qualify for the finals, but would easily destroy sides like North Korea, New Zealand, etc who are playing in South Africa next summer." To me, that's completely irrelevant and beside the point even if it's true. If they really are that good, then they should have been able to qualify out of the UEFA region. UEFA already has almost half of the 32 spots, for crying out loud. How many more do they want? The "World" Cup finals are set up perfectly the way they are right now. It incorporates teams from every region of the world, not necessarily the best 32 teams in the world. And that's what makes the upsets so special and entertaining. Robert: If FIFA decided to only go with the number of entrants per region, then South America would most likely only get one spot with only 10 nations, so who do you pick? Brazil or Argentina? And do all the tiny island nations of the Caribbean deserve to be represented when they can't even qualify through the 'soft' CONCACAF region? No, FIFA allocates spots based on coefficients through results and performances. There is a system in place, and in this case, it's a good one. Think of it like Congress and the House — one is based on 'fairness' while the other is strictly based on the numbers. And that's worked out pretty good ... more or less. I do have one wish though and that would be to finally eliminate the matches with the real small 'minnows' via a qualifying tournament. How many years do San Marino or Andorra really need to run up Germany's goal differential? I think it's time for the lesser countries to play a mini-qualifying tournament of their own in order to be the one team allowed to go through proper World Cup qualifying. Nobody really gets that much of a thrill watching the Dutch pound Liechtenstein — not once, but twice during the cycle.
Could you rate the 8 World Cup groups by difficulty and who do you see as likely darkhorses in South Africa next summer?
David of DenverRobert: The classic 'Group of Death' argument is always a good one. While most say that the GoD is the one containing the highest ranked teams (meaning one top 20 team will certainly not advance), I subscribe more to the idea of every team being more than capable of beating the others and advancing. So here goes ... 1. Group D: Germany is Germany, nothing more need be said, but facing a tough Ghana side in Africa, a well-disciplined, organized and talented Serbia squad, and a plucky, never-say-die Socceroo team will never be a walk in the park. 2. Group G: Poor, poor Kim Jong Il ... the kid with the funny haircut just can't catch a break. Brazil is of course the odds-on tournament favorite (what else is new), while the Ivory Coast may very well be the most solid top-to-bottom African team next summer. Portugal? Well, they've only got the best player in the world. 3. Group E: The Dutch better hope that their usual internal combustion under the bright lights doesn't start up just in time to derail their World Cup hopes. This is a very strong group that won't be easy for them with tough foes in Cameroon, a very focused Denmark and the wild card Japanese. 4. Group A: South Africa in truth is a pretty awful squad, but they'll have an entire continent behind them so they should rise to the occasion and make every match competitive. The French will have time to recuperate from the 'Hand of Frog,' while Mexico is always solid in the group stage and Uruguay is certainly no slouch. 5. Group B: Argentina is the class of the group, but their recent issues need to be sorted out quickly if safe passage is to be assured. Nigeria presents their own set of problems, but it will be the South Koreans and the Greeks who just might give Maradona a scare. 6. Group F: The reigning champs couldn't have asked for a better draw as they'll take on a Paraguay squad that's tough in South America, but tends to flounder a bit against international opposition. Slovakia boasts some solid individual players, but hardly instills fear. I think there's someone else in that group too, but I can't remember (this will greatly upset my Kiwi friend Liam, but he knows what's up). 7. Group C: England avoided every major danger presented and nobody was more thrilled than David Beckham. A light draw for the Three Lions means that Capello will have a bit more room to work the Galaxy midfielder into his roster. The U.S. turned some heads globally this past summer in SA, but in truth no one in this group frightens England terribly. 8. Group H: Could this finally be Spain's year to win the World Cup? They broke the 40-year international jinx in 2008 with the European Championship and nothing could have pleased La Furia more than dates against the Swiss and Honduras. Chile? They're very solid since Bielsa took over and could provide the only opposition to del Bosque's troops. Darkhorse? I think that Denmark has a solid shot at going far into this tournament. They're not spectacular (how could you be with Bendtner leading the charge?), but they know how to win, as evidenced by their Group 1 performance in qualifying. If they manage to finish first in their group, they'll get a softy from Group F and from there anything is possible. John: Good one. Let the games begin already. OK, from toughest to easiest: 1. Group G: All right, I'll say it. Brazil finally has to contend with a difficult group, and I wouldn't fall out of my chair if they actually failed to qualify for the knockout stages. On a related note, the U.S. and North Korea were both in the same pot for this draw. Could you imagine if Bob Bradley's boys had been drawn into this group instead of C? I think Burnsy would have done a head-first dive into an empty swimming pool. 2. Group A: Proof that FIFA doesn't "fix" the draw in favor of the host nation. If that was their intent, then someone really screwed up this task. 3. Group D: Germans may not breeze through this group as easily as some of you might imagine. 4. Group E: Netherlands should win the group, but they'll have some tricky matches along the way. 5. Group C: Two big fish, two minnows. 6. Group B: Argentina gets a pesky greek squad and the task of slowing down Nigeria's non-stop attacking style. 7. Group F: Even Italy's habit of slow starts to World Cups won't be a problem here. 8. Group H: Seriously, could Spain have picked an easier group themselves? As far as my biggest dark horse, I'll call it right now — if they can stay healthy, Ivory Coast will win Group G and reach the semifinals of this tournament. They might even do a little better than that.
Okay, so the last 16 have been decided in the Champions League - when is the draw for the matchups and who do you think looks best set up to win the title?
Frank P. of Sacramento, Calif. John: Well, since the draw is still a week away, then it's hard for me to say which teams look like they have the easiest path to the finals. Barcelona can obviously repeat, but their draw is significantly tougher if they find themselves facing Bayern in the Round of 16, then the winner of something like a Real Madrid-AC Milan fixture in the next round. But is it just me, or am I way more excited for the World Cup to begin than I am for the Champions League? Robert: It is a World Cup year Johnny, so it's easy to lose focus when you're dreaming of South Africa every minute of the day. Frank, the draw is next Friday, December 18th, so you'll have to wait until then to really be able to predict a winner with any credibility. Two teams that have really impressed during the group stage though are Bordeaux and Fiorentina. The French champions only gave up two points throughout the group stage while leaving European giants Bayern and Juventus in their wake, while the Viola also topped a difficult group that included Liverpool and Lyon. Could this be the year of the underdog like FC Porto in 2004? Probably not as the big boys like Chelsea, Barcelona and United look to be in fine European form, but if any of the unfancied squads are to make a deep run, I see it being one of those two. Robert Burns is the senior editor of FoxSoccer.com and John Juhasz is a fantasy writer for FoxSports.com.