Perennial favorites England is considered by most to be the home of modern football as we known it and it would seem appropriate that they would have hoisted more World Cup hardware over the years. However, their only crowning achievement was a 1966 World Cup triumph on home soil. New boss Fabio Capello, winner of Serie A with AC Milan, AS Roma and Juventus, as well as a two-time La Liga champion at Real Madrid, will try and change that as the capo brings a much-needed sense of urgency back to a squad full of egos that at times has displayed a lackluster attitude at critical moments. The Three Lions is loaded with talent and leading the way is Manchester United super striker, Wayne Rooney. The England international, who has scored 35 goals in all competitions this season for United, has shaken off an ankle injury and will shoulder a majority the offensive load for the English side. He will get some help in the midfield from two of footballs leading set up men, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. The backline will be anchored by Chelsea skipper John Terry and centre back Rio Ferdinand. England was the most dominant team in European qualifying, recording nine wins from ten Group 6 games, scoring a European Zone high of 34 goals in the process. Their only defeat came in Ukraine with qualification already secured.
Another side that is favored to make it out of the group stage is Team USA. The Yanks have now qualified for every World Cup finals since 1990, but their results have been sporadic, playing well in 1994 and 2002 and imploding during their 1990, 1998, and 2006 appearances. The side is now under the watchful eye of new head coach Bob Bradley, who took over for Bruce Arena after his dismal in 2006. The 52-year old Princeton graduate has coached at the collegiate level as well as nine seasons in the MLS, managing the Chicago Fire, Metro Stars, and Chivas USA. The squad is a blend of proven internationals and up-and-coming stars, and are led by star midfielder Landon Donovan, of the Los Angeles Galaxy and Everton fame. The 28-year old American born attacker has put on some of his best performances wearing a USA jersey, and there is little doubt that Donovan will once again be one of his team’s leading men in South Africa this summer. He will get some much-needed help from an impressive supporting cast with the likes of Oguchi Onyewu, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey, all of whom are currently playing on European soil. The Americans reached the 2010 FIFA World Cup finals by qualifying in first place in the final six-team Hexagonal phase of North, Central America and Caribbean Zone qualifying, clinching their South Africa bid with a 3-2 win over Honduras at Estadio Olimpico.
Algeria stunned the futbol community when it knocked out African champions Egypt in qualifying to make its first appearance in the FIFA final in 24 years. The Desert Foxes have made it to the finals just two previous times with their greatest moment coming in Spain 1982 when they beat West Germany 2-1, but were kept from advancing to next round. They are the group’s sleeper for sure. Algeria are under the guidance of coach Rabah ‘Cheik’ Saadane who will face the daunting task of getting his side out of the group stage against the likes of England and the United States. Following an unpretentious playing career in his homeland and brief stint with France, he took over the reins of the national side on four separate occasions, with his current stint beginning in 2007. He will have at his disposal French born midfielder Karim Zian. The 27-year old will be the center of Les Fennecs attack. The squad is led by captain Yazid Mansouri, who will be heavily relied upon as the central playmaker, feeding the ball to Ziani as well as Mourad Meghni and striker Karim Matmour who has steadily been coming into his own. Antar Yahia anchors the backline along with goalkeeper Lounes Gaouaoui. The Desert Foxes put on a show during their thrilling qualifying run that ended with an exciting playoff win over archrival Egypt in Sudan.
Lastly, this former Yugoslavian nation made its debut as a formal side in 1992, and since then have really only made noise in its qualifying for a first European championship. However, after being a surprise entrant in 2002, Slovenia took the football world by surprise by defeating Guus Hiddink’s Russian squad to make its second appearance in a FIFA World Cup final. Former player Slovenia talent Matjaz Kek was promoted to the position of senior coach In January 2007 after initially taking charge of the national U-15 and U-16 teams. He has since formed one of the stingiest defenses in Europe and has gotten the side back to the game’s largest stage. Although the Slovenian squad has no household names, the side’s success has been built on collective strength, but that’s not to say the team is without international talent. The most well known player is Slovenia’s leading goal scorer, Milivoje Novakovic of Cologne fame. The Ljubljana-born striker scored five times during the teams qualifying campaign. Captain Robert Koren anchors the midfield along Inter Milan midfielder Rene Krhin. Slovenia’s run through the playoffs was somewhat of a Cinderella story as they blew by Poland, the Czech Republic and finally, Russia in the European playoffs. The Slovenians’ success was based on what was arguably the most physical defense in the entire European Zone.
With the tournament due to take place in the South African winter, conditions should suit the English players and style well. After an impressive campaign through their UEFA qualifying group, getting past the group stage will not be enough as the Three Lions will be looking to end their title drought. The USA cannot get caught up in the hype of playing England in their first game and should be considered a threat to reach the second round and should be able to notch wins over Algeria and Slovenia. Algeria is the most hardened and battle tested team in the group due to their tough qualifying campaign, and will need to take advantage of wins over unproven Slovenia and an erratic USA side. Slovenia has yet to win a match in a major international tournament, and with at least two teams they are likely to succumb to, I just don’t see them advancing.
Advancing: England, United States