Group E Predictions:
The Netherlands returns to the World Cup finals as one of the perennial favorites to win the entire tournament in South Africa this summer. The Oranje win a lot of games, but have very few pieces of hardware to show for it. The side has made it to the WC finals twice — losing 2-1 to West Germany in 1974 and 3-1 in extra-time to Argentina in 1978. Few teams can match in terms of overall skill, but the and pressures of the World Cup always seems to get the best of the Dutch when it matters most. New boss Bert van Marwijk will try to change that. The 56-year-old led Rotterdam to the UEFA Cup trophy in 2002, and spent two-years at the helm with Borussia Dortmund in Germany. He will have at his disposal a multitude of players including Dutch wizard Wesley Sneijder, winger Arjen Robben and the steady influence of midfielders Rafael van der Vaart and Mark van Bommel of Bayern Munich. Up top, Arsenal hitman Robin van Persie and Liverpool striker Dirk Kuyt provide all sorts of problems for any opposing defenses. Other notables are Joris Mathijsen, Andre Ooijer, and captain Giovanni van Bronckhorst who leads the current side with 97 international caps. The Dutch were flawless in qualifying, picking up eight wins from eight games, to top a very easy qualifying group in order to get into the tournament.
After missing out on both the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany and UEFA EURO 2008 in Austria and Switzerland, Denmark has returned to the World Cup after a six-year hiatus and is once again poised to bring home some silverware. Than Danes have done well in three prior appearances reaching the round of 16 twice and the quarterfinals once. Danish born boss Morten Olsen, who took the helm in 2000, has piloted the Danes to the 2002 FIFA World Cup and UEFA EURO 2004, but has yet to get the side past the round of 16. The 60-year old plied a solid career that spanned 19 years, retiring at 40 to begin his coaching career. The Danes, who are known for their stingy defense, and are led by Liverpool defender Daniel Agger and Simon Kjaar. The two formed a brilliant relationship during qualification and worked together well. Thomas Sorenson, the goalie for Denmark in the 2002 World Cup when the side reached the quarterfinals, will once again be between the pipes. The Dane’s attack will be led by a trio of international midfielders, Daniel Jensen (Bremen), Christan Poulsen (Juventus) and Dennis Rommedahl (Ajax), along with national captain, striker Jon Dahl Tomasson.
Denmark was a shocker to qualify for the World Cup beating Portugal, who was ranked 5th in the world, and Sweden to advance out of their group with just one defeat in ten matches. The Danes finished their Cinderella campaign with an overall record of 6-3-1, making them a serious threat to advance.
Probably the least likely to be ignored, but deserves to be closely looked at is Cameroon. The Indomitable Lions have appeared in more World Cups than any other African nation, but failed to make the trip to Germany back in 2006. They will look to replicate their incredible run to the quarterfinals in 1990 after not managing to advance past the group stage in three finals appearances since then. The Cameroonians are hoping new coaching will forge a strong side when they hit the world stage in South Africa this June. New boss Paul Le Guen of Lyon fame, who took over for the fired German veteran Otto Pfister after a poor start early in qualifying, immediately began making radical changes that paid dividends–like stripping long-time captain Rigobert Song of the armband and giving it to three-time African player of the year Samuel Eto’o. The 45-year-old coach is best known for his staunch attitude, and leading French club Olympique Lion to the Ligue I title three times in succession. He will have the tools to get the job done starting with Inter Milan world-class striker Samuel Eto’o. The dynamic forward scored a total of nine goals in 11 qualifiers alone. He will have help at the opposite end by goalkeeper Idriss Carlos Kameni, who surrendered just two goals in six final round contests. Cameroon looked like they were about to miss their second straight World Cup after beginning their qualifying campaign with just a draw from their first two matches, but then completed an impressive turnaround recording four straight victories to ensure safe passage to South Africa.
Lastly, the groups most unknown factor Japan, will make their fourth consecutive World Cup appearance and will hunting for an elusive semifinals appearance after their failure to get out of the second round in Germany 2006. The Samurai Blue has one of the strongest squads in Asian Football and are winners of three of the last five editions of the AFC Asian Cup. Japan’s supremo, Takeshi Okada, is considered to be one of the finest Japanese coaches in Asia. This is his second stint as international boss after stepping away in 2006. The 53-year-old led the Samurai Blue to their first FIFA World Cup appearance at France in 1998. Japan will play their first World Cup finals without former Italian Serie A and English Premier League midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata, who led Japan in each of the national side’s games at France 1998, Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006 before hanging up his boots at the ripe age of just 29. His replacement will be former Celtic playmaker and free kick maestro Shunsuke Nakamura. The squad is rounded out with another European-based performer, 23-year old midfielder Keisuke Honda. The backline is anchored by 31-year-old defensive veteran and captain Yuji Nakazawa, who with over 90 senior caps to his name is Japan’s third-most capped player of all time.
Japan comes to South Africa after a dominating display in Asian Zone qualifying, but we all know that solid results in Asia won’t necessarily translate to World Cup success. The Samurai Blue won four, drew three and lost just one of their eight matches in Group 1.
The Oranje look on paper to have all the necessary ingredients necessary to go far. The will need to work out of the group stage if they are going to make any noise, something they should do quite handily with wins over Japan and Denmark. Should head coach Morten Olsen be spared the injury woes that nearly derailed his side’s qualification campaign, a trip to the second round is possible from the Danes if they can beat Japan and at least draw with the Netherlands. Cameroon are not a side to underestimate and will go as far as striker Samuel Eto’o can take them. But in a group that includes veterans Netherlands, defensive minded Denmark and Asian powerhouse Japan, it will take more than talent and experience to emerge into the second round. For the Samurai Blue to have any chance to equal their 2006 mark, they will need dead-ball specialist Nakamura to make some magic, but it wont be easy filling the boots of the iconic Hidetoshi Nakata. Another early departure is more likely.
Advancing: Netherlands, Denmark