||ESPNsoccernet: World Cup
Wednesday, May 24, 2006
ESPNsoccernet: May 26, 3:51 PM UK
Group H Tactics Board
Spain | Ukraine | Tunisia | Saudi Arabia
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Group B |
Group C |
Group D |
Group E |
Group F |
Group G |
Trying to explain why Spain are serial international under-achievers has confounded many an expert over the years.
When assessing why they have never gone beyond the quarter-finals of a World Cup, former Argentina boss Cesar Luis Menotti once said that the Spanish could never make up their mind if they were the bull or the matador, whether to play elegant football or scrap it out, but it is not a view shared by current national coach Luis Aragones.
This controversial character has no intention of choosing between the artistic and the hard-hitting as he expects his team to show both qualities.
Where Aragones is at a distinct advantage compared to previous Spanish managers is in the number of foreign-based players he can call on.
The likes of Cesc Fabregas and Jose Antonio Reyes at Arsenal and Liverpool's Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia are not just highly-talented but are also in a position to offer Spain another dimension - the fast pace and intensity of the English game.
Although Aragones has experimented with a 4-3-3 recently, he is likely to use a 4-2-3-1 in Germany.
The two key men are the deep-lying midfielders, the slick-passing pair who set the tone for the Iberians' attacking movements. Alonso and Fabregas could start in these roles, though Barcelona's Xavi may be in with a shout after making a quicker than expected recovery from knee ligament surgery. Barca understudy Iniesta has a shout too.
Further forward, Reyes on the left flank, Joaquin on the right, while Raul or Luis Garcia sit on the shoulder of lone strikers Fernando Torres or David Villa.
Carles Puyol is the control tower at the back. Despite usually playing for Real Madrid in central defence, Sergio Ramos should play right-back, with the recently naturalised Argentine Mariano Pernia at left-back.
No doubt about Spain having the talent and the strength in depth and the question is do they have the mental strength? Luis Aragones speaks in the affirmative: 'Each and every member of the squad is convinced we can we can make some history. Why not? I look at Argentina, England, Italy or France and don't think they are any better than us. And even Brazil aren't light years away.-
The old maxim that one man doesn't make a team certainly does not apply to the Ukraine, whose hopes of a decent World Cup lie literally at the feet of superstar attacker Andrii Shevchenko. 'Sheva' is not only a extraordinary finisher as he also makes chances for others with his speed, touch and vision and if his knee injury injury does rule him out, the point of no return would surely have been passed.
That is not to say, however, that the other ten members of the side make negligible contributions. Lining up just behind Shevchenko in the 4-4-1-1 favoured by coach Oleg Blokhin, Andri Voronin's powerful runs from deep constitute a real threat, the dynamic central midfielder Anatoliy Tymoshchuk combines bite in the tackle and purposeful breaks into enemy territory, while right-sided midfielder Oleh Husiev and playmaker Ruslan Rotan are not short on class either.
The back-four, ably marshalled by sweeper Andrii Rusol is well-organised, robust and strong aerially, yet there may be a weak link in the full-back positions. On the left, Andri Nemaschnyi clearly prefers galloping forward to marking, while broad-shouldered right-back Volodymyr Yezerskyi has muscle but much less pace.
Strangely for someone who was once a flying winger for Kyiv Dynamo and the USSR, Ukraine boss Oleg Blokhin does not like taking risks tactically, making a solid shape a priority.
Indeed, some would say he was a dour thinker on the game. 'I'm not so arrogant that I will predict great things for us in Germany,' says Blokhin. 'But with the fighting spirit we have and the incredible skills of Shevchenko we will always have a chance to be the surprise team this time.'
Tunisia coach Roger Lemerre may hate talking to the North African nation's media corps and rarely extends a press conference beyond a few minutes of bland chat, but he remains good copy for the local hacks thanks to his insistence on constantly changing his starting line-up to keep his players on their toes .
While in charge of France in their ill-fated World Cup 2002 campaign, Lemerre was heavily criticised for not being flexible, for stubbornly persisting with a 4-2-3-1 formation even when it was obvious it was not working. However with Tunisia, he has shown himself to be quite the opposite, using a 4-4-2, 3-5-2 and a 4-5-1.
When push comes to shove, he will probably go with a 4-4-2 in Germany, the same system with which Tunisia won the African title in 2004. The composition of the midfield perfectly sums up Lemerre, featuring the hustle and bustle of Riadh Bouazizi, Adel Chedli and Sofiane Melliti and just one creative type, playmaker Slim Benachour.
In attack, the naturalised Brazilian Francileudo Dos Santos shoulders most of the goal scoring responsibilities and the back four is built on the rock of Bolton's Radhi Jaidi and sidekick Karim Hagui.
Lemerre says he is confident of beating Saudi Arabia and insists Spain and Ukraine will not find his side accommodating opponents. 'I have to pay tribute to the character and togetherness the players have shown since I took over. Their commitment has been total. We've developed the same sort of tactical discipline a European team would be proud of.'
As the coach of the Brazil under-17 and under-20 sides which won world titles in 2003, Marcos Paqueta's main concern then was to how best to allow his richly-gifted young guns to express themselves.
Now in charge of Germany 2006 rank outsiders Saudi Arabia, he has a quite different set of priorities that basically entails keeping defeats to reasonable proportions.
'I've a squad with lots of technical ability and great desire to learn and improve,' says Paqueta. 'We face a huge challenge in Germany but it's heartening to see how keen the players are to make an impact. We want to make Saudi football respected.'
A packed defence and a 4-5-1 or 5-4-1 should be the order of the day. Heart, grit and enthusiasm will be in plentiful supply, but given the dearth of top-level international experience in the Saudi ranks, Paqueta has no option other than to pull down the shutters and hope there is no break-in. Asian Player of the Year, stopper Hamad Al-Montashari and keeper Mabrouk Said will be busy boys.
For the fourth World Cup running, the Saudis' slim chances of punching above their weight lie with clever forward Sami Al-Jaber who will look to feed off the passes of little left-sided midfielder Mohammed Al-Shlhoub.
MAN TO WATCH - Cesc Fabregas
Rightly described by Arsenal academy chief Liam Brady as 'one of the biggest talents in Europe', the teenage midfielder may have only made his debut for Spain in March but he has never been fazed by anything up to now and the World Cup stage looks made to measure.
A SAFE BET: Shevchenko to emerge as the top scorer in Group H. If he doesn't managed to achieve that feat, Ukraine are likely to be on the first plane home.
THE DARK HORSE: Though Tunisia rarely weave pretty patterns, coach Roger Lemerre has welded them into a cohesive, feisty unit. Striker Dos Santos will score goals.
COACHES CORNER: The onus will be on Spain's Luis Aragones to entertain, as functionality is the credo of the others. Don't expect too many fireworks in Group H.
VERDICT: Spain and Ukraine marching on is perhaps the only realistic scenario. For Tunisia, an honourable first-round exit, while the Saudis are unlikely to leave with anything other than three heavy defeats.