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Wednesday, May 24, 2006
ESPNsoccernet: May 26, 3:50 PM UK
Group E Tactics Board

Nick Bidwell

Italy | Ghana | United States | Czech Republic
Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group G | Group H

Veteran Czech Republic boss Karel 'The Magus' Bruckner looks like he could be a sorcerer alongside Harry Potter, yet his brand of magic is only evident on a football pitch.

Famed for his tactical wizardry, Bruckner's uncanny ability to spot and exploit opposition weaknesses and to make effective in-running changes to his team's set-up, craftiness is not a word that does him justice. 'Bruckner reads a game like no other,' says Czech striker Milan Baros.

Whether Bruckner uses a 4-4-2 or a 4-5-1 as his base formation depends on the availability of giant striker Jan Koller, who faces a race against time to be fit after undergoing surgery last autumn to repair damaged knee ligaments.

Koller's ability to hold up the ball, provide an aerial threat and physical presence is greatly admired by Bruckner and he may well be tempted to play the Borussia Dortmund man even if he is somewhat less than 100 per cent fit.

If Koller makes the starting in the starting line-up, he should feature up front with Milan Baros in a 4-4-2, yet should he fail to make it, the Czechs are likely to go with Baros as the sole frontrunner in a 4-5-1, Vladimir Smicer coming in as the fifth midfielder.

A team of great tactical discipline which rarely loses its shape, the Czechs are basically set up to play on the counter and can turn defence into attack in seconds, the springboard usually being the creative midfield triumvirate of Karel Poborsky on the right, skipper Pavel Nedved on the left and Tomas Rosicky as the central playmaker. The unsung hero in midfield is enforcer Tomas Galasek.

While Chelsea's excellent keeper Petr Cech does not enjoy the same steel curtain defence as he does at club level, the central defensive duo of Paris Saint-Germain's David Rozehnal and Tomas Ujfalusi of Fiorentina is an underrated partnership. The full-backs, Zdenek Grygera and Marek Jankulovski offer much more going forward than in defensive mode.

Bruckner's experience is a key factor in the Czech challenge and the same must be said of USA manager, Bruce Arena. His international playing career may have lasted only 90 minutes, the duration of a game with Israel back in 1973, but that minimal exposure has not prevented him becoming America's most successful coach of all time, twice leading his nation outfit to victory at the CONCACAF Gold Cup (2002 and 2005) and qualifying them for the last two World Cup finals.

In his seven and a half years in charge of the USA, Brooklyn-native Arena has made great strides as a strategist and is now equally comfortable taking the initiative in the relatively weak North and Central American region as putting together a more cautious game plan against more illustrious foes.

While a 4-4-2 system is undoubtedly his favourite, he is certainly not married to it for better or worse, sometimes opting for a 3-1-4-2, a 3-4-1-2 or a 3-5-2. Much of this flexibility stems from two players: skipper and midfield general Claudio Reyna and versatile attacking-third performer Landon Donovan.

Reyna, who can play in front of the back-line, on the right or pushed onto the shoulder of the attackers, is the man to control the pace of the American game. Donovan's speed, flair and eye for goal are nominally used up front but he has lots of freedom, coming deep or pulling wide as the mood takes him.

Take those two out of the equation and you have a totally different US side, one that is well-drilled, athletic and hard-running yet not nearly so constructive.

Many an expert believe Italy will be a threat in this World Cup and their flexibility has moved on under the guidance of Marcello Lippi. Long gone is the time when the Italian football lived and died by the safety-first catenaccio system, whereby a team's first instinct was to sit back in defence, soak up pressure and then strike on the counter, yet their defence is still a crucial cog in their make-up.

Lippi may be a traditionalist in the sense that he sets great store by tactical discipline, teamwork and mental toughness, yet he also demands that his side is extremely proactive, throwing down the gauntlet at the first opportunity. 'We have been drawn in a tough group but we want to win it,' says Lippi. 'It's the only way to avoid Brazil in the second round.'

Lippi enjoyed great success in the qualifiers with a 4-3-1-2 formation, playing ace Roma No.10 Francesco Totti in the hole behind twin-strikers Luca Toni and Alberto Gilardino, but don't make the assumption that the Italian boss will automatically stick with it in Germany. He has always been one for ringing the tactical changes and this summer nothing can be ruled out.

He could go plump for a classic 4-4-2 in which Totti lines up alongside Toni or Gilardino up front, or he could employ the 4-3-3 that worked so well in a recent 4-1 friendly victory over Germany, Alex Del Piero starting as a left-sided attacker.

The Italian line-up has a very stabile look about it and only two spots are up for grabs. Cristian Zaccardo, Massimo Oddo and Daniele Bonera will contest the right-back berth, while the role of midfield hard-man sees Gennaro Gattuso under pressure from Daniele De Rossi.

Finally we come to the Group E outsiders Ghana, where Ratomir Dujkovic must be pondering how fickle public opinion can be.

Some seven months ago, he was a national hero for steering the Blacks Stars to their first World Cup finals, yet now he finds himself persona non grata after his team's first-round elimination from this year's African Cup of Nations. A 1-0 defeat by a strong Nigerian side could be excused, a loss to Zimbabwe could not, so the Serb is feeling the heat.

The main thrust of the criticism of Dujkovic at the African Championships related to his decision to abandon the team's usual 4-4-2 in favour of a 4-5-1. The Black Stars coach, however, was unrepentant: 'We don't have specific tactics which we use in all games. I set up my team according to what the opposition should offer. You must have a Plan B.'

With calls for his resignation ringing in his ears and Ghana in one of the toughest World Cup 2006 groups, it is likely that Dujkovic that will continue with the insurance policy of a five-man midfield and lone striker and that does make sense. The Black Stars are short of quality strikers and a reinforced engine room will give star midfielders Michael Essien and Stephen Appiah more licence to break into goal scoring positions.

Ghana's four-man defence will be hard to breach. Not only are they quick, resilient and athletic but coach Dujkovic might well issue instructions for the full-backs not to venture beyond their own half. Opponents will look to keep the tempo high against Ghana. The West Africans are less than comfortable when the pace is upped.


MAN TO WATCH - Francesco Totti

In outstanding creative and goal scoring form for Roma before suffering a leg break earlier this year, but Totti has now recovered and will be keen to answer the critics who claim he has thus far failed to deliver on the big occasion.

THE SAFE BET: Italy and the Czech Republic to share the spoils in their final group game in Hamburg as both should have qualified by then.

THE DARK HORSE: Quarter-finalists at the last World Cup, the USA comprehensively proved there is more to their sports scene than first downs, rebounds and home runs. A team worth far more than the sum of its parts.

COACHES CORNER: Messrs Lippi and Bruckner know the book of tactical A-Z off by heart. Their problem is that their Ghanaian and American counterparts have been studying it hard too, so this could be a group of shocks.

VERDICT: While the smart money will be on the Italians and Czechs progressing from this highly competitive group, the ever-ambitious Americans will push them hard. With the runners-up in Group E likely to face Brazil in round two, topping the pool is crucial.


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