Group C is without question the group of death at Germany 2006. In fact, this group may be one of the all time toughest with four squads that in my estimation could win the group and could win just about any other group in the competition. However, Argentina and Ivory Coast appear to be slightly better than Serbia and Holland. I will admit that picking this group was difficult and it is entirely possible I have the order of finish totally reversed from reality.
Despite an embarrassing exit four years ago Argentina is brimming with confidence. In fact, Manager Jose Pekerman claims Brazil aren’t the favorites because Argentina has regularly beaten them in qualifying. However that was the case in the run up to the 2002 World Cup when Argentina were considered among the favorites and Brazil was written off as an injury plagued and tired squad. But beware a sleeping giant, as Brazil proved in 2002. Now Argentina appears to be sleeping, with the fewest tune up games of any Germany 2006 participant and probably the most injuries to significant contributors than any other contending nation. Argentina may have the most exciting young player in International Football with Lionel Messi, Barcelona’s teen wonder, and due to the rash of injuries Messi may be called into substantial duty. Messi will partner up front with Hernan Crespo, who hasn’t been sharp with Chelsea and often times found himself on the bench but is still formidable attacking force. Midfielder Pablo Aimar who Argentines compare to Ronaldinho has not only been injury plagued, but he has also been inconsistent when playing for the national side. Nonetheless, Aimar had a decent season for Valencia. The defense as it has for years is led by Roberta Ayala who too has been hobbled by injuries. Ayala is a class footballer, and a master organizer whose leadership will serve Argentina well even if he is not 100%.Argentina does not have what it takes to win a World Cup with this squad. However, they will advance deep into the Tournament.
Henri Michel is one of the most experienced coaches in international football. He led his native France to the semi-finals at Mexico 1986, and has since led Cameroon, Tunisia and Morocco into the World Cup. Now he takes the Ivory Coast in its World Cup debut to Germany. Didier Drogba who stars for Chelsea leads the Elephants to Germany with a good cast of supporting players. Kolo Toure who played well during Arsenal’s FA Cup run in 2005 leads the defense. Emerse Fae could be the key midfielder. Fae is controversial case, having played for France at the under 17 and under 20 levels, but never for the senior international side. Now 22 he was cleared by FIFA to join the Ivory Coast squad last year. Emmanuel Eboue made his mark with Arsenal this season as a classic wing player and hopes to settle into a similar role with the Elephants during the World Cup. Ivory Coast has one of the world’s most exciting and attacking players in Didier Drogba as well as discipline, organization and cohesion of team play often times lacking from talented African sides. Don’t kid yourself. Despite never qualifying for the World Cup previously, the Ivory Coast will advance beyond the group stage.
Serbia and Montenegro has a tactical discipline and team cohesion that was lacking in its last campaign as Yugoslavia in 1998. Yet that side had just enough to make it past round one, and this side will similarly advance. This will be last campaign for the two nations under one banner, as Montenegro voted by popular referendum on May 21st to separate itself from Serbia. Inter Milan’s midfield dynamo Dejan Stankovic leads his side and the battle tested and savvy Savo Milosevic returns as a top attacking threat. Serbia and Montenegro were undefeated in both Euro 2004 and World Cup 2006 qualifying, which is testiment to shrewdness of manager Illija Petkovic. Defense is a trademark of this teams success and once they get a lead in a match, they pack the back and make it impossible to find space. Nikola Zigic, a 6’7” target man in the attack could be one of the surprise players of the World Cup. Zigic was called up to several qualifiers late in the campaign and was very impressive. The Serbs may not have enough of to get out of this group of death, but they are a serious side that could advance with the right breaks. If they advance they will be dangerous in the quarterfinals.
Marco Van Basten has shook up the Netherland’s lineup so dramatically it is hard to imagine the Dutch clear the opening round, given the level of competition in this year’s group of death. Gone are Edgar Davids, who had a good season with Totenham and was one of Holland’s leaders in its semi-final run at France 98, the DeBoer brothers, Jimmy Floyd Hasselback, Clarence Seedorf, Jaap Stam, and Patrick Kluivert. The Dutch have arguably the least experienced team of any contending nation, and talk has been active in the Dutch press that this squad should peak at Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010. Some key players remain, including Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Philip Cocu. Among the young players keep an eye on Denny Landzaat a classy midfielder with a very strong defensive mind. The Dutch are still one of the great Footballing nations, but this squad is too young, and in too difficult a group to be taken seriously as real contender. But the difficult experience of World Cup 2006 should serve this group of players well as Euro 2008 qualifying begins this fall, and perhaps this team will still be together for deep cup run in 2010.
WHO ADVANCES: ARGENTINA, IVORY COAST
BEST PLAYER IN GROUP: DIDIER DROGBA (IVORY COAST)
BEST YOUNG PLAY IN THE GROUP: LIONEL MESSI (ARGENTINA)