2014 FIFA World Cup – Brazil

FIFA-world-cup-2014Four years of waiting is over and it all begins today as Brazil host Croatia in the opening game of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The beautiful game returns to the heart of football, as São Paulo takes center stage today kicking off 30 days of football bliss. In a true world competition, it’s great to see 32 nations come together with the goal of winning the FIFA World Cup Trophy.

Much has been made of the draw and group selections, from the team who surprisingly made it and those who did not qualify. Looking over the 32 teams, it can quickly be reduced to a small, handful of teams who have a chance to win the competition this year.

Top of the bunch, EURO 2012 and World Cup 2010 winners, Spain top the list. Arguably, one of the best countries that have dominated the sport and major competitions the last few years. This country has one of the best starting XI and a very deep bench. Yet repeating as World Cup Champions is never an easy task, as host country Brazil has repeated 1958 and 1962 and Italy back in 1930 and 1934. Spain starts their quest on Friday against their 2010 World Cup final opponent, Holland. Talk about a game setting the tone for the rest of the cup, this is it.

My heart continues to scream “ITALIA!” but realistically I am not thrilled at their prospects past the group stage. Yet, they were a dark horse in the in the EURO 2012, when they made the finals after an amazing 2-1 victory over a stronger Germany team, but ended up burnt out dropping a 4-0 decision to Spain. Italy will go the way of Mario Balotelli. If Cesare Prandelli can keep the big man involved and happy, Italy could make it to the quarterfinals. A great mix of young and old in the midfield led my Andrea Pirlo and Danielle DeRossi with a stalwart, Gigi Buffon between the posts.

This year I am picking Argentina, La Albiceleste, to win the 2014 FIFA World Cup in neighboring Brazil. Argentina should cruise through the group stage with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria. Their ticket out of Group F should be punched to the semifinals, where they could end up playing defending champions, Spain. Not an easy task, but the offense that La Albiceleste brings is going to be tough to stop. Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuain lead the attack with Angel DeMaria, Maxi Rodriguez, Fernando Gago and Javier Mascherano anchoring a good midfield. Their weakness could be on defense, but if their offense can find the back of the net 3-4 times games, Argentina will be set.

Brazil will carry the weight of their countrymen on their shoulder as the host nation this year. You can never count these skilled footballers out, but could their inexperience be their downfall? Neymar is being put in the spotlight up front to do the damage for Brazil, with Jô, Fred and Hulk. The midfield stacks up nicely with Ramires and playmaker, Oscar. The defense is very potent on offense with Dani Alves, Marcelo and David Luiz. Good to see AS Roma defender Maicon part of the squad in could be his final World Cup at age 32.

I do think highly of Germany and Uruguay, but both teams have been struck with injury that could affect their run at the World Cup. The Germans lost their goal scoring threat in Marco Reus and will most likely be replaced by Chelsea star, André Schürrle. Four Germans have 100+ caps, Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lukas Poldolski and Miraslov Klose, they have the experience, which could play a major role in Brazil, as long as they can find some goals.

Uruguay looks to be competitive, but Luiz Suarez’s status is still in doubt for the first game. He put up some excellent numbers this year for Liverpool scoring 31 times. If he can’t go, then it will be the experience of Diego Forlan to take over the striker duties. Edison Cavani would need to step up his play to make up for the loss of Suarez. However I think La Celeste comes up just a bit short this World Cup.

While not really sleepers or dark horses, I do like Chile and Belgium both having great showings in Brazil. Belgium has been on everyone’s radar for some time with talent and experience and a game changer in Eden Hazard. Without doubht Thibaut Courtois is the best goalkeeper in the world as World Cup play starts. Pele has already tipped Chile as a favorite this year in Brazil. With a high tempo offense led by Alexi Sanchez and anchored by Autro Vidal, manager Jorge Sampaoli has his work cut out for him.

Beyond this group, I don’t see any other surprises in the tournament. You already know what little I think of US Soccer, Jurgen Klinsmann has similar thoughts. They MIGHT win one game in their group, but will be going home early. Portugal might be the only team some would see as a surprise not to progress. You can’t replace the FIFA Ballon d’Or winner, Christiano Ronaldo, if he can’t go Portugal will struggle. Even if he plays, I don’t see Portugal advancing past the second round. France is the other team, after quitting on Raymond Domenech in South Africa 4 years ago, Les Bleus was stuck with an injury to Franck Ribery, which is the heart of their offense. While they should advance out of Group E, their run will end in the second round.

Can’t wait for a month full of world class football from one of the greatest footballing countries in the world, Brazil. Hopefully the protests don’t interfere and the stadiums are ready and safe. Football is here, get ready to enjoy the 2014 FIFA World Cup!

Forza Italia!

UEFA EURO 2012 ends today in Kyiv as Italy takes on defending champions, Spain in the final. Whatever the outcome, the Italians put together a very good run in the tournament. My pre-tournament favorite to win EURO 2012 was the defending champions, Spain. I didn’t expect this sort of showing from Italy, but they have surprised fans and the world advancing to the finals.

I do believe is Italy played like their did their first match of the competition, when they went 1-0 on Spain in the 61st minute, only to give up the equalizing goal 3 minutes later. Yet the Italians only played for 61 minutes and could not finish off the Spaniards. I think we saw a much different, determined squad in the semi-finals versus Germany. They had the on pitch prowess and a determination to get the job done. The struck fast and controlled every facet of the game. For all the accolades Germany had up to this point, with their talent, skill and experience, as well as being a favorite to win, Italy quieted them all.

Hard to go against the Italians at this point, who have the momentum coming off a big win. Spain struggled against Portugal and never got into their game, yet still had enough, as you would expect the FIFA #1 ranked team to do. It should be a very competitive game, but expect a 1-0 victory for Italy in regular time.

Italia Destiny

As a big fan of Italian football my expectations were low as start of the 2012 UEFA European Championship approached. After the Azzurri crashed out in South Africa in 2010, I thought their approach this season didn’t provide enough experience to compete on the international level. Yet their convincing 2-1 victory over Germany in the semi-finals has reignited the excitement we experienced in 2008 when Italy defeated France to win the World Cup in Germany.

There are only a few holdovers from the 2008 World Cup team, including world class keeper, Gigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo, both of whom bring experience and leadership to the 2012 UEFA squad (DeRossi and Barzagli were also on the ’08 squad). The 2010 World Cup was a forgettable event for Italy. Injuries to both Buffon and Pirlo, as well as an aging Azzurri saw them crash out in the group stage, finishing last. It was truly a low point for Italian football.

Enter Cesare Prandelli, succeeding 2006 World Cup manager, Marcello Lippi, who was a favorite, but rather set in his way when it came to the “old guard” who has worn the kit of the Azzurri. Prandelli wasn’t afraid to make changes, which he did. Many of the well known, now aging footballers were not recalled for international duty, the up and coming younger names got their chance.

Expectations, in my mind were not high entering this tournament, but the team did seem to have a good mix of old and new. It comes as no surprise that Buffon (119 caps) and Pilro (88 caps) are leading the way for Italia at age 33 and 34 respectively. On the other end are the young guns, players like Mario Balotelli, 21 years old (13 caps) and Riccardo Montolivo, 27 (36 caps) and Claudio Marchisio, 26 years old (25 caps). These will be names representing Italy in Brazil in the 2014 World Cup.

While their success in Euro 2012 has been wonderful, I believe it could be short lived. It’s great to see Balotelli playing very well (4 goals) and better yet, keep his head together and playing like the up and coming superstar he could he. There’s also some good younger talent in the midfield, but no “maestro” like Pirlo to control the game. I like Daniele De Rossi, but he is more of a defensive midfielder and doesn’t manage the game like Pirlo. We might have to wait and see, Pirlo will be 35 when the World Cup rolls around, he might be available for Brazil.

Mario Ballotelli has been playing above expectations. The knock against him has been his “disciplinary problems” a few years back at Inter while Jose Mourinho was manager. “Balotelli continued to be the subject of racist chants throughout the season, becoming the focus of Juventus fans even during games not involving Inter, leading to Juventus being fined twice and the club ultimately punished with a partial stadium closure” (source). Now at Manchester City under Roberto Mancini, Ballotelli has been playing much better. During this tournament he is garnering consideration as player of the tournament.

More pressing issues are in goal. Behind Buffon is a total of 7 caps between  Salvatore Sigiru (age 25) and Morgan De Sanctis (age 35). At age 34, I could see Buffon returning for one more shot at glory in Brazil. Hopefully during that time we could see another keeper step up and represent the national team. The only other recent call up was Emiliano Viviano (6 caps). Buffon’s leadership and experience has made the best keeper in the world and has put Italy into the position they are in now, to possibly win Euro 2012 when they face Spain on Sunday.

Regardless of the outcome this weekend, Italy’s national team and fans should be proud at how the team has come together and played the last month. It does provide fans with a bright future with young talent being capped. Still there are some questions to answer. With any luck it will be the guidance of Prandelli and the combination of young talent and experience that wins the Henri Delaunay Trophy and allows Italy to qualify and be competitive for World Cup 2014.

Euro 2012 Update

I have been fortunate enough to catch just about every minute of the UEFA European Championship co-hosted by Poland/Ukraine. As of today all teams have played two of their three group stage games and only three teams are out of contention; Republic of Ireland, Sweden and surprisingly, the Netherlands. In my predictions I had the Dutch to make it to the finals. With all the talent and experience they brought to the European Championships, it just did not translate well on the pitch, scoring only 1 goal through two games.

Germany hasn’t been as impressive as many have reported. I do believe their defense is suspect, outside of Philip Lahm and Manuel Neuer in goal. I don’t even think it’s fair to compare on the same level as Spain, who have been much more impressive, especially in their 4-1 victory over Ireland. Yeah, it was just Ireland but I think Spain is only getting warmed up and should walk right into the finals.

Italy has pissed me off though. In 2 games they have played 90 minutes of good football, lost the leads both times in the second half and gone into a defensive shell to salvage a draw versus Spain and Croatia. They need to step up their performance and play 90 minutes against the Republic of Ireland to secure 3 points to have a chance to move into the quarterfinals.

France, my dark horse and England have both played well and sit on 4 points, which should see them both through to the quarterfinals. I was impressed with the changes Roy Hodgson made up front opting for Andy Carroll as his lone striker, a move that paid off. But more surprising was the fact England rebounded from 2-1, staged a nice comeback and defeated the Swedes, 3-2. I only see England stronger with Wayne Rooney returning in their final game versus Ukraine.

Finally, Russia. The have played very well through 2 games, including the 4-1 trashing of the Czech Republic, but could only muster a draw versus co-host, Poland. Not sure what sort of chance they stand once in the quarterfinals where they could face Portugal or Denmark. Offensive they have been strong with the attack mentality, yet the play of goalie, Vyacheslav Malafeev has been very good. Russia quietly making noise in these championships.

So far it’s been some enjoyable football, at times a bit sloppy from some teams. That might to be expected, even though these players are professional they aren’t playing with each other on a full time basis (unless of course you are Spain). Thankfully the play has been fairly fluid with not many games being decided by the officiating. I have liked the 5th official on the goal line, thankfully their decisions have not come into play at this point.

2010 World Cup: Final Thoughts

So I have just finished watching Espana defeat the Netherlands, 1-0 in the 2010 World Cup final. The game was not all that pretty, many yellow cards and a single red card marred the match, but a late goal in the 117 minute by Andrés Iniesta gave Spain their first Jules Rimet Trophy.

I won’t say I lost interest in the finals this year as opposed to 2006. I was frustrated at the display the Azzurri put on as defending World Cup Champions, but when you play like shit, you usually end up going home after the group stage, which they and the other 2006 finalist, France, did. Then again France got what they deserved after how they secured the final spot in the field of 32 for South Africa.

I was more upset with EPSN and their terrible coverage, once again. Sorry, but their in studio talent was terrible. Alexi Lalas was just as bad as his counterpart 4 years ago, Eric Wynalda. While not as negative he was unwatchable. Props to Jurgen Klinsmann, Steve McManaman, Roberto Martinez and Ruud Gullit, all provided good studio insight to upcoming matches. But the likes of Mike Trico, Chris Fowler, Bob Ley are terrible. Why? Because they don’t follow the beautiful game. I will give them their due credit for American sports (MLB,NFL, NBA, NHL), but football they don’t have the knowledge or the understanding of the game to bring out best of the in studio talent.

I had no problems with their actual coverage, but the commentary was bad all around, much like 2006. Why? Because Americans don’t follow soccer…football for the rest of the world. Derek Rae, Adrian Healey, Martin Tyler (outstanding!) and Ian Darke brought their talents, as well as accents to bring the matches alive. All are very talented, as well as knowledgeable when it comes to the game. Ally McCoist and Robby Mustoe were the others worth mentioning.

John Harkes. GO AWAY! Sure you played the game, but you don’t have a very good studio presence when it comes to calling a game and lending your insight. Not to mention we always had to hear about the US team when they were not even playing. I DON’T CARE ABOUT THE USA WHEN THEY ARE NOT PLAYING, so stop! I doubt we will see him in 4 years. Hopefully we don’t get the likes of Landon Donovan.

Sadly, I would have to catch the first half of many games driving in listening to ESPN Radio, which was worse than watching it on television. The only voice worth a mention, Tommy Smyth for obvious reasons. If you don’t know the voice or the experience, then it’s your loss. The rest of the bunch were awful!

As I said in 2006 about 2010, I don’t think the commentary will get any better. Chances are it won’t get better in 2014 down in Brazil. I guess I make the effort to learn Spanish and watch the games elsewhere, because ESPN fails again in bringing the World Cup to America.

Italy Doesn’t Advance

The 4-time World Cup Champions, Italy are going home. Their performance has been deplorable! From their initial group stage match until the introduction of Andrea Pirlo, during the 56th minute of their match with Slovakia, the drive, creativity and play making of the Azzurri was missing.

Questions will be raised as to the decisions of Marcelo Lippi, his squad, his tactics and his desire to guide the nation through the 2010 World Cup. Unfortunately, one thing he cannot do is step on the pitch, unlike his selection of the starting XI.

Italy was beset with injuries to Gigi Buffon during the first match with Paraguay. A reoccurring back injury has caused him to miss the remaining two games. This was probably the biggest loss to the team, since he was one of the leaders of the team. Federico Marchetti was his replacement during the match with only 7 caps on his resume. There are no ways around this, Buffon’s loss was crucial. Maybe in 4 years Marchetti will be ready on the international level.

The other injury was to Andrea Pirlo, who was the master of the midfield for Italy. His decision and play making in the midfield helped Italy win the cup 4 years ago, but with his current injury there was no one to step up and fill his boots. Riccardo Montolivo was his replacement, but Montolivo is highly inexperienced on the national level and not the same type of player as Pirlo.

The strikers were probably the worst of the group. I am not sure why Lippi decided to stick with Iaquinta. His play was terrible in 2006 and no better in 2010. While he does have a nose for goal inside the 6 yard box, he brought very little to the offensive attack for Italy. Alberto Gilardino was missing in action. Younger players like Pazzini, Quagliarelli and Di Natale (the future) all saw limited action. Not calling up the likes of Rossi, Cassano, Boriello and even Balotelli will be questioned.

I know this has been mentioned before, but there was no on pitch leadership the likes of Francesco Totti. Maybe I am still living in the past, but Totti brought so much to the squad when on the pitch. His leadership was invaluable and there were no current players who stepped up to fill that role.

The creativity, decision making and play making of the Italians was missing. They were not playing with any heart through out the tournament. Only for a brief moment did we see them switch gears, which led to their goal versus Slovakia. Outside of that moment, the performance of Italy was terrible. We kept saying, “next game,” well during the last match we look back and contempt why we did not advance out of the group.

I guess we look forward to the Prandelli era for the Azzuri, as Lippi steps down now and start working for Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. None of the old guard will remain, names like Pirlo, Gattuso, Buffon, Iaquinta and Cannavaro will all be gone.

Pathetic Performance

It is getting more and more difficult to watch the Azzurri in the group stage. That would be Italy, for Americans who don’t follow the sport. This has been a very interesting World Cup in South Africa. We have seen perennial powerhouse teams struggle. Earlier in the week, Spain defeated by Switzerland, 1-0. Brazil put to the test in a 2-1 victory over North Korea. France with all their in fighting not performing well on the pitch. That is called karma. Germany looked good in a 4-0 drilling of Australia, but turn around and lose 1-0 to Serbia.

So why is Italy struggling to get out of the group stage? Commentators will claim it’s their age, as Lippi has held on to many of the old guard and did not give talented, younger players a chance on the squad. I have been frustrated with the play because of the lack of play making and creativity by the midfielders. On big problem was the loss of Andrea Pirlo to injury, which has caused him to miss the two group stage games to date. Riccardo Montolivo has played well in Pirlo’s absence, but the creativity from that position is not to the level of Pirlo.

What continues to be lacking through out the team is a lack of leadership on the pitch. Francesco Totti combined leadership and creativity to be one of the best Italian players in recent history. This current squad has no one who has those attributes while on the pitch. I thought Lippi would have been able to lure him out of retirement just one more time. Unfortunately Totti stuck to his guns and I respect him for that.

The game Italy has played in the past included long, lofty passes from 30-40 yards out into the top of the box and let Toni run onto them. I can’t say it really worked then and it’s not working now. I won’t blame the ball for one minute since many crosses are being over hit. It all goes back to team work and working the ball up the pitch in order to create opportunities on goal. The few opportunities they did have were saved by Mark Paston to his credit.

They have one game remaining versus Slovakia, who lost to New Zealand and Paraguay, so Italy will have to sack up and play much better in order to have a good chance to advancing. Lippi should have a few changes in mind. Hopefully Pirlo will be ready to command the midfield. We will know in just a few days if the Italians will be defending their 2006 World Cup.

America Plays Soccer, the World, Football

I believe there are many fans who are supporting their nation during the 2010 World Cup are not fans of the game, especially in the US. I am sure the same can be said of other countries too, but I chose the US because football…er…soccer as most Americans call it is not one of the top sports played in the states especially at the youth levels cannot compare to that of baseball, football, basketball and even hockey or auto racing.

Now that I have said that, I have received e-mails and comments saying I have “un-American” and “not patriotic” amongst other colorful adjectives when it comes to my lack of support for the US Men’s National Soccer Team. While not Italian, I have support the Azzurri since I started watching football from the Serie A, being a supporter of AS Roma, it stands to reason I fly my colors for Italy when the World Cup comes around.

Many “fans” seem to have a problem because I lend no support to my home nation. Why should I? First, the sport is not popular in America. Their professional league is mediocre at best, usually used as a playground for older European players. Any homegrown talent makes the move to Europe in order to advance their football careers.

Through out this World Cup I have found myself cheering for the likes of North Korea, Switzerland, Japan and New Zealand. Not necessarily strong teams when it comes to international competition, but because they have pushed some of the perennial favorites and in some cases victory. It’s more than just about your home nation. This is “the beautiful game” and watching players of this caliber on the international stage provides for some great football.

I will give credit where it is due, the US did create two nice goals versus Slovenia as they came from behind to draw. Funny, but when the US drew 1-1 with England many in the media and fans called it “a win.” Not sure how they come up with that logic, but whatever makes them feel successful.

Much like England, the US is underachieving in this World Cup, England more so. Another point versus Algeria and they will be on the long flight home possibly ending another three and out campaign at the World Cup. We have already heard the cries of “foul” for the disallowed goal that would have given the US a victory yesterday. Wouldn’t be the first time and I am sure it won’t be the last. Take your lumps and move on. Just ask France, who shouldn’t even be in South Africa if it were not for Thierry Henry’s “Hand of God” moment.

2010 World Cup: Let’s Play

As I sit here at work composing this piece we are a mere 15 hours away from the first kickoff from Johannesburg featuring host nation, South Africa taking on Mexico. It has been 4 years in the making and now the waiting is over. The media can stop with hit pieces and predictions as all bets are off when the whistle blows.

I am still going over my bracket and will have it finalized today (courtesy of FoxSoccer.com and Facebook.com). I still have Brazil winning the cup for the 6th time, but I do believe there are a few (very few) contenders who can playing the kind of football necessary to stop Brazil.

Those other teams are Spain and Argentina, even with that madman, Maradona. Spain is a complete team, the starting XI are all world-class players. Memo to the USA, wanna know when you have a good team, look at Spain. Hell look at Spain’s bench! Sorry, got sidetracked, did not want to turn this into another anti-USA piece. Argentina, while a bit suspect on defense, maybe because of the formation have the best firepower up front. But as the saying goes, “defense wins championships” but if the big guns get going it might not be possible to stop guys like Messi, Tevez, Higuaín, Agüero and Milito.

As much as I follow Serie A and the Azzurri, I have serious doubts they can defend the World Cup. The last team to repeat, Brazil in 1958 and 1962. If history plays a role, then Brazil comes out on top as they have won every 8 years going back to 1994, nearly as impressive as their run from 1958-1970. Brazil is a complete team on the pitch. They control the midfield and dictate the match. They are quick on the counterattack and and can build even quicker from the back. They are coached by a legend, Dunga who participated from 1982-1998.

I tend to believe that all the hype, speculation and “fluke” victories in previous cups and matches leading up to the World Cup Final don’t mean a thing. For example, France’s version of the “Hand of God” as performed by Thierry Henry or the US upsetting Spain, 2-0 last June in the Confederations Cup. Or the controversy surrounding Uruguay and Costa Rica and Algeria and Egypt. These 32 teams did whatever it took to make the trip, unfortunately the reality is 26 of those teams have no chance at raising the Jules Rimet Trophy.

Of the other teams I did not add, I feel Germany, Holland and the 2006 champions, Italy. Germany will play a sound game, as they usually do, having success in their ground, drawing an easy second round match, but possibly running into the freight train, if they get into the quarterfinals. Holland much like Germany have an injury in Arjen Robben to deal with, but a healthy Van Persie who could pick up the slack. In my bracket, Holland wins the group, and makes it to the quarterfinals only to be KO’ed by Brazil.

Finally the reigning world champions, the Azzurri. This is not the same team that won 4 years ago, while some of the names are the same, it is still a team looking for some leadership and direction. Put nothing in to their (lack of) performance up to this point. As defending champions, you feel a certain aura surrounding them or any other champion. Hopefully that aura is not broken early on. In a very favorable group they could draw the powerhouse that is Spain in the quarterfinals. Still I feel Lippi has one more shot at glory and that would be holding on to the trophy for four more years.

Since I seem to catch a fair bit of flak as being “un-American” or “hater” when it comes to comments about the US National Team, here is my reasoning. First the “professional” league in the US, the MLS does not field the same caliber of player as many of the European leagues. Many of the national team players play abroad, or shall I say apply their trade, as many don’t see regular playing time or attempting to help their club from being relegated to lower division football.

As much as I don’t like to admit it, there are a handful of players who could play and possibly star on some of the big name clubs though out Europe. Tim Howard, while not a top 10 goalkeeper in my book is proven and a solid shot stopper. Clint Dempsey plays for Fulham, who is a middle of the table EPL club and his skills could see him coming off the bench for larger clubs. Finally, the man with the chip on his shoulder, Landon Donovan. Why he continues to play in the MLS is beyond me. You cannot dispute his skills and he proved he could play in the EPL while on loan to Everton. But why the hell go back to the Galaxy and the MLS? You want to be taken as a serious footballer, leave the MLS. At 28 years old, he still has a few good years remaining, but the MLS is were aged stars come to play, so I guess it fits him.

All in all it will be a a great 30 days of football to watch. Looking forward to catching every game as I did in 2006.

World Cup 2010 is Coming!

As I write this we are 8 days away from the start of the 2010 World Cup in south Africa, the first time that continent has hosted this spectacle! Much like the 2006 World Cup in Germany, I will pledge my allegiance to the Azzurri (Italy) in hopes of retaining the World Cup for another 4 years. Repeats are rare, the last nation to do it was Brazil in 1962, winning 4 years prior. I give the USA no hope in making past the group stage. I have gone as far to say the USA won’t score a goal in South Africa. Personally, I like my odds since the USA only scored one goal in the 2006 World Cup, their second goal came courtesy of an O.G. by Italy. But I won’t get sidetracked on a very below average national team.

There is much excitement in South Africa as the last of the international friendlies are being staged. Africa, prior to Michael Essien being ruled out with a knee injury for Ghana have some good teams that could compete including Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Cameroon and the aforementioned Ghana. I don’t believe any of these teams will win, but could cause some excitement into the later stages of the completion. If the team infighting is kept to a minimum, Côte d’Ivoire could be the surprise African nation to advance the furthest.

As for Europe, Germany much ALWAYS be considered a favorite appearing 7 times in the final match, winning in 1954, 1974 and 1990. “Die DFB-Elf” are lead by Michael Ballack. Much like ’06 I seem going deep into the knock-outs round and making another appearance in the semi-finals. They are very inexperienced in goal, a combined 8 games of experience on the international stage, could be difficult, but the German defense is strong anchored by Lahm and Friedrich.

England should make it out of the group stage, but I am not sold on “The Three Lions” advance past the round of 16 because of their goalkeeping situation. David James is good, but at times rather a risky play between the pipes, but he does have the most international experience of the bunch. The downside on James, he is 39 years old. Robert Green and Joe Hart are good, but will they see the pitch? Green might be the best of the bunch, but his inexperience on the international level could come into play.

Italy I am biased towards Italy, starting with Buffon in goal, arguably the world’s best keeper. Their defense is getting old with Zambrotta and Cannavaro. Unfortunately it doesn’t get much better in the midfield either, where age is a factor. If you ask me, Gattuso should not be on the national team. Pirlo is the play maker, but DeRossi is the star. Upon front we are without our talisman, Francesco Totti, which was a mistake if you ask me. Sure he is on on the other side of 30, but he is a leader and a playmaker up front, something the Azzurri don’t have right now. I would like to see the repeat, but realistically, they will fall in the quarterfinals.

Spain was considered the favorites after their Euro 2008 campaign. They have the strongest starting XI of any team, maybe with the exception of Brazil. From top to bottom they are pure experience. They have three of the world’s best goalkeepers in Casillas, Valdes and Reina. Puyol, Ramos and Marchena anchor a strong defense, while their midfield is very experienced. Iniesta, Alonso, Hernandez and Fabergas are all world class. Up front a duo of Torres and Villa make Spain a strong team and a strong contender. Hopefully Torres recovers in time for the start.

From South America it’s Argentina and Brazil. Both teams are loaded with talent, especially Argentina up front. Agüero, Tevez, Higuaín and Messi. Wow! But some of the decisions beg the question, what the hell is Maradona thinking? He left off Zanetti and Cambiasso. Why? Not to mention Juan Ramón Riquelme, who retired from the international scene after a dispute with Maradona. Still with what Argentina has, they have a good chance to make the final four.

Brazil, perennial favorites (again) should make the finals. This year they are “complete” team, leaving off some of the popular names, including Ronaldinho, Adriano, Ronaldo and up and coming star, Pato. Still the team has it all from leadership to talent to the skill to win the World Cup. They are 5 time champions and look to have a great chance to hoist the trophy.

Things are heating up as we draw closer to the opening kick off. The favorites can already be narrowed down to about 7 teams, which after the group stage can be trimmed to 3 or 4. While my heart says Italy, my experience watching football says it won’t be for the Azzurri. This squad lacks something on the field. I liked Germany making it to the finals, but Ballack could be out due to injury. So I feel Brazil and Spain cruise to the finals with Brazil, lead by legend, Dunga to hoist the Cup in J-burg when the tournament is over.

Good News Azzurri Faithful

I will go on record now to say that Roma Captain and Serie A superstar, Francesco Totti will be the starting striker for Italia when World Cup 2010 opens in South Africa. Speculation on Totti was ended today when he signed a new 5 year extension with AS Roma. Sure, he was on again, off again the past year as Roma got off to a terrible start and while they recovered their early season setbacks cost them a chance for a top three finish.

Asked about a possible international return if he was contacted by Italy’s 2006 World Cup winning coach Marcello Lippi, he said: “We’d evaluate that together. Let’s see how I am during the year. The physical problems have passed, my knee is OK and the aim is to play as much as possible.” *

With AS Roma not in the UEFA Champions League this year, it will free up Totti from another league commitment. It will also give him some more time to rehab the knee into top playing shape. This is a good thing, as Bayern star, Luca Toni, will find himself playing behind Totti. It is a very different Italia when Totti is up front than when Toni is. Totti is 32 years old and has many years behind him. His legs are not what they used to be and he does fit that aging Azzurri profile.

Regardless of when the call up happens, it will come and Totti will be blessed with the Captain’s armband. Another Azzurri World Cup victory? Not sure I will go on record with that yet. I think they have a lot of work ahead of them and many good nations out there (Spain, France, England, Brasil) looking to take home some fancy hardware.

Fluke: Coming and Going

Consider me like Italy, during their recent lack of performance in the Confederation Cup they really did not want to be in South Africa playing some pre-qualifying games with the likes of Egypt, Brazil and the USA. With that said, I think their 3-0 loss at the feet of Brazil drilled home the fact Lippi will need to make some adjustments as we are less than a year away from the start of World Cup 2010.

Take USA’s shocking victory over Spain as a fluke. Sorry Bob Bradley, I disagree with your contention that the victory was in part of the success to his players’ development in Major League Soccer. That laughable to say the least. Of the 54 players in the team pool, 26 make their living in the MLS. Out of those 26 individuals, only 4 players were involved in the upset victory over Spain, two of which were late (84+ minute) substitutions.

So I guess we will give credit to Bob’s band of merry men in the Confederation Cup. I still think the USA will go out in the group stage, regardless of what other nations they are seeded with. Sorry USA, you are not as good as this win over Spain. But enjoy the moment in the spotlight.

As for Italy I do concede they are one of the aging teams and their play was rather sloppy and down right ugly at times. Luca Toni (32) up front just scares me. He just is not the play maker a Francesco Totti is, nor does he have the charisma. Vincenzo Iaquinta (29) is not a outside player, he needs to be upfront, in the middle. Yet I would love to see more of Giuseppe Rossi, Fabio Quagliarella or journeyman, Alberto Gilardino. The striker position is a HUGE question mark at this time for the Azzurri.

Let us wait and see what the coming months bring us in terms of qualification. Italy, while aging are the defending World Champions (2006) and will be a force to be reckoned with in South Africa. I don’t believe they will win again, but will advance out of the group stage. As for the USA, well let them ride high on the hype secured in the qualification matches, but South Africa will be another eye opening experience.