Portugal were among the biggest disappointments at Korea/Japan 2002. From John O’Brien’s goal that put USA in the lead early in the opening match until the final whistle in a hard fought loss to South Korea, it seemed Portugal’s vast talent was being wasted in desperation comeback mode. This time will be different for passionate and experienced Portogueese. Portugal’s attacking lineup features so many quality playmakers and finishers I am not even sure where to begin. Pauletta is one of the truly great goal scorers in the world, and he is anxious to show critics that he can score when the pressure is on. Luis Figo has returned to the squad after a two year hiatus and the former world footballer of the year is still in prime form, despite being 34 years old. Deco is one of the greatest holding midfielders in the game. He is an attacking magician holding the ball until the perfect moment to service a teammate in goal scoring position. Deco is also one of the greatest defenders in the world from a midfield position. Deco simply put controls the tempo and flow of a game. And how can we forget Christiano Ronaldo, Man U’s golden child whose ball skills make him so difficult to defend?
The defense is led by Miguel, a converted attacker and Ricardo Carvalho who had another excellent year with the Lions of Chelsea. Portugal is loaded and unlike World Cup 2002 they are hungry and not taking the opposition lightly. Portugal drew a tough group with Mexico, Iran and former colony Angola who has deep ties to Portugal, but it will not matter. This squad is ready to take the next step and will win the group.
Ricardo LaVolpe may be the most despised figure in Mexico these days. Lavolpe is however from my vantage point and excellent manager who will have Mexico’s side more unified and organized then ever. Cuauhtemoc Blanco cannot fit into LaVolpe’s system and despite his prolific play of the past is not on the World Cup roster. Mexico will start Jared Borgetti, the nation’s all time leading goal scorer up front along with Francisco Fonseca. Pavel Pardo and Claudio Suarez both return to the national squads after being dropped for the 2002 World Cup. Carlos Salcido is a player to watch as he has developed nicely under LaVolpe’s direction. Salcido is a dynamic all around defender, as a solid tackler, good on the ball skills, and excellent pace. LaVolpe’s changes to squad have made Mexico quite possibly the most versatile and varied team in the World Cup finals. Mexico as has been seen in many CONCACAF qualifying games can seamlessly switch formations and tactics in the middle of a match. This is a tremendous asset and LaVolpe has prepared his squad for every circumstance imaginable on the pitch. Expect to also see LaVolpe mix up his lineup from match to match much like Bruce Arena did during the successful 2002 World Cup run for the USA. Mexico doesn’t quite have the attacking flair they once did but are a much more cohesive team and will once again make it through to the knock out phase.
Iran is a serious, technically savvy side with a number of strong players in European leagues. However Iran is without question over matched in this group. Ali Karimi has been one of Asia’s best Footballers over the past several years and has also had a successful run with Bayren Munich of late. Ali Daei one of the leading scorers in the history of international football will start up front but at 37 he probably does not have much left in the tank. Vahid Hashemian is back on the national team after being involved in a nasty dispute with the Iranian Football Federation. Hashemian’s success in Germany as a potent goal scorer and creator was too much for even the proud Iranian leadership to pass up. Mehdi Mahdavikia who socred in Iran’s 2-1 win over the USA at France 98 is back for another World Cup. Iran has some horses and would have been a solid bet to advance if they were in a weaker group. Facing Portugal and Mexico however means Iran can forget about the second round.
Angola’s qualification for Germany 2006 is among the better international sports stories in recent years. The nation which since its independence in 1975 has been torn apart by Civil War is united behind its Football team. The team will be emotional when they face Portugal who rules Angola until 1975, and many of the players have deep Portuguese ties. Flavio and Mantorras who plays in Portugal for Benfica are the two best attacking options for Angola. Figueiredo who grew up in Portugal leads the midfield, and top defender Kali returns from a 6 month FIFA drug ban also have major international experience. This squad however is one of the weakest in the entire World Cup and will be fortunate to get a point, particularly with 3 very solid sides in the group.
WHO ADVANCES: PROTUGAL, MEXICO
BEST PLAYER IN GROUP: PAULETTA, PORTUGAL
BEST YOUNG PLAYER IN GROUP: CHRISTIANO RONALDO, PORTUGAL