Friday, June 11, 2010

10 teams who can win the World Cup


Spain is the most talented team in the world. That's just the way it is. Cesc Fabregas comes off the bench, for crying out loud. There is not a single weakness in the squad. Iker Casillas in net is one of the world's three best 'keepers, maybe the best. Pique, Puyol and Sergio Ramos lead an incredibly stingy defense. Xavi, Iniesta, Alonso and Busquets are dynamic in the midfield. Torres and Villa are electric playing off each other up top. If the team with the most talent wins, Spain will be hoisting its first ever World Cup trophy next month.


Normally, Brazil has more playmakers than can take the field, but defense and 'keeper are question marks. Not this year. Julio Cesar (who, admittedly, has been battling a back injury) is the most in-form goalkeeper in the world, and Lucio and Maicon are the backbone of possibly the strongest defensive unit in the tournament (with a nod to Serbia as a fellow vote-getter). The midfield and attacking corps will have their usual flair and creativity, with a supposedly healthy Kaka running the show in the middle. Title No. 6 is a very real possibility.


From the back line on up, Holland is as dangerous as any team in the tournament. Arjen Robben, if the leg injury he picked up last week isn't serious, is one of the most explosive players in the world off the right wing. Wesley Sneijder is world class in the midfield, as is Rafael Van der Vaart. Van Bommel and Van Bronckhorst provide strength and leadership in their respective defensive roles, while Robin Van Persie has a nose for goal up top. There are two question marks. The first is in net, where the Dutch will rely on Maarten Stekelenburg, since Edwin Van der Sar has retired from international play. The other is the intangibles. The Dutch always bring a strong squad to the World Cup, but they usually disappoint. Runners-up is as well they've ever done, and they haven't reached the finals in 32 years.


England are strong, deep and experienced. If the country is going to win a World Cup in the next decade, this is the year. Many of the Three Lions' best players (Lampard, Gerrard, Terry, both Coles) are in their prime, and the young players coming up behind them are not as talented. Wayne Rooney is the game-changer up top, and he will be the key for England. If he shows his midseason form from this past club year, England can hang with anyone. If he's in a rut, they could struggle to score. The biggest questions will be in central defense, where Ledley King must try to replace injured captain Rio Ferdinad, and in net, where David James has the most experience, but he's also earned the nickname Calamity James. Rob Green could end up starting over James.


The goal-scoring potential of this Argentina squad borders on being unfair. Messi, Higuain, Milito, Tevez, Aguero, di Maria. It's crazy. All six of these guys would start on practically any other team, but coach Diego Maradona will have to do some serious juggling to find playing time for all of them. The biggest weakness for Los Albicelestes will be on the back line and in net. Inexperience on the international stage could lead to some sloppy goals allowed. That being said, a 4-3 win is still a win.


Perhaps because so many of their players are concentrated on just a few club teams, the Germans have an unparalleled ability to play together as a team. It's the classic case of the whole being greater than the sums of its parts. That's why the Germans are in a better position to handle key injuries than other nations. Despite captain Michael Ballack and No. 1 'keeper Rene Adler being ruled out, Germany is still the favorite to top a highly competitive Group D. And there is still plenty of talent on the roster -- Lahm, Boateng, Schweinsteiger, Kroos, Podolski, Klose, just to name a few. If Germany can win Group D, a possible Round of 16 matchup with the Americans awaits.


The defending World Cup champs have a real chance to repeat, but they'll have to hope experience counts as this version of the Azzurri is an aging bunch. Think about these players who are all over 30: Cannavaro, Zambrotta, Pirlo, Camoranesi, Gattuso and Iaquinta. That's not to say those players are no longer world class; many of them still are. But they may get worn down as the tournament goes on. If Italy is going to defend its title, they will need some of their younger stars to emerge on the international stage. We're talking about Chiellini, De Rossi, Gilardino and Pazzini. If that happens, we could be in for a repeat.


In terms of pure individual talent, there are few teams in the world that can match up with France. The squad has stars all over the pitch: Lloris in net, Evra on defense, Ribery and Gourcuff in the midfield, Anelka at striker. But this version of Les Bleus has problems. France barely qualified for the World Cup, needing the referee to turn a blind eye on Thierry Henry's handball to help them squeak past Ireland. On Friday, the French lost to China, 1-0, in a warmup match. If the team can pull together as they have in World Cups past, there's no reason they can't make a deep run. If the trend that they started in qualifying continues, they won't make it out of an unpredictable Group A.

Ivory Coast

The key here, of course, is Didier Drogba's health. With just a week to go until Cote d'Ivoire's first game, it remains unclear whether the great striker will be able to play, and if he can, how effective he will be. With a healthy Drogba, the Ivorians are a threat to not only get out of the Group of Death, but to advance deep into the tournament. Without him, they will be hard-pressed to finish ahead of Portugal in the brutal Group D. Rarely in the history of this event have the hopes of one nation rested so squarely on one man.


Portugal's strength is on the wings, where they have one of the world's best players in Cristiano Ronaldo. The return of a healthy Pepe helps plug a hole, and Carvalho provides key defensive leadership. This is not a team without flaws, by any stretch. And with Brazil and Ivory Coast in their group, there's no guarantee Portugal makes it out of group play. But the individual creativity in the midfield is undeniable for the Iberians, and no one will want to play them in the knockout round, knowing a few moments of brilliance from Ronaldo is all they need.

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