Women’s 2015 World Cup Semi Final Preview: England vs Japan

Tonight marks an historic night in the female English game. The Lionesses have made it past the last 16 stage of a World Cup for the first time, managing to go even further and into their maiden semi-final. Only the reigning champions, Japan, stand in their way of becoming only the second England team to reach a World Cup final. Can they make it all the way and join USA in Vancouver? Here’s a preview of the Lionesses semi final match.

England

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Nickname: The Lionesses

Manager: Mark Sampson

Captain: Steph Houghton

Stage Opponent Score
Group France 0-1
Group Mexico 2-1
Group Colombia 2-1
Last 16 Norway 2-1
Quarter Final Canada 2-1

England started off with a disappointing loss to France and caused the standard national deflation. A lack of commitment, desire to play for the shirt and tournament mentality meant another dismal campaign was looming. However, two stoic performances against Mexico and Colombia allowed the Lionesses to progress into the knockout stages. Norway and a piece of history awaited in the last 16 with a Lucy Bronze screamer sealing progression. The home nation provided a sterner test although England grabbed two early goals to combat the tribal crowd support. Although Canada enjoyed 63% possession and stole a goal, England were not too troubled and soaked up the pressure to secure their place in the final four.

Norway v England: Round of 16 - FIFA Women's World Cup 2015

Tactics have been a hot topic of discussion during the tournament. Sampson is the Claudio Ranieri of women’s football, tinkering with his team religiously. The starting line-up has changed for every game, either showing a tactical appreciation or level of uncertainty. Although Sampson has been praised for his decisions so far, I have been underwhelmed.

The defensive and negative style he has employed so far, can work for a certain amount of time but cannot win a tournament. They will be tested by Japan and cannot sit on the backfoot waiting for a chance. They must impose themselves on the game. Duggan and Aluko have been underused and wasted, their explosiveness off the bench could have really opened up the pitch more.

Karen Bardsley, Steph Houghton

Equally, Karen Bardsley’s position as number 1 must be questioned. Two blunders caused two goals against Norway and Canada. In Telford and Chamberlain there are two able deputies who may feel aggrieved with their lack of opportunities. The decision may be taken out of Sampson’s hands though after Bardsley suffered a mysterious allergic reaction against Canada. It is unclear whether she will start tonight, only time will tell.

Star Performer: Lucy Bronze

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Although only 23 years old, the Manchester City defender has scored two vital goals in the knockout stages to steer England through. She has defended superbly, showing composure and athleticism which will be needed against Japan. The World Champions use quick passing and wing play to sithe through defences. Bronze will have to be on top form to keep the likes of Sugasawa and Ogimi at bay.

Japan

Nickname: Nadeshiko (Large Pink Flower)

Manager: Norio Sasaki

Captain: Aya Miyama

Stage Opponent Score
Group Switzerland 1-0
Group Cameroon 2-1
Group Ecuador 1-0
Last 16 Holland 2-1
Quarter Final Australia 1-0

The defending champions are undefeated in the tournament so far. They topped Group C, only conceding one goal and performing consistently. Switzerland and Cameroon provided a weak test with early goals seeing Japan through. A goal in the 5th minute against Ecuador appeared to signal a thrashing was on the cards. The South Americans had been beaten 6-0 by Cameroon and 10-1 by Switzerland previously. However, the Japanese could not add to their tally which may provide encouragement for the Lionesses.

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Holland were dispatched with relative ease although it took 87 minutes for Japan to break down a weak Australia after dominating throughout. They will need to step up if they are going to progress any further. The England team have much more talent than their Southern hemisphere colleagues.

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Although they struggled to get the ball in the back of the net against Australia they played some magnificent football. As their nickname suggests (an elegant pink flower), the free-flowing tika-taka football has at times been mesmerising. Their finishing though, has left a lot to be desired. They will need to take any chance they get against the Lionesses, the England set up designed to concede few and soak up pressure. Japan do possess players with a creative edge that England lack. The Japanese team is full of playmakers such as Ohno and Sakaguchi who can tear defences to shreds. This will be a test of flair versus determination.

Star Performer: Aya Miyama

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The captain of the side is second on Japan’s all-time appearances list with a staggering 151 caps at the age of just 30. The Okayama Yungo Belle winger is also 5th on the all-time goalscorers list, exemplifying her attacking talent. She has scored one and assisted two so far in Canada and will look to add to that tally. Miyama has provided a serious threat in the tournament and will attempt to utilise her vast experience against the young Bronze. She is definitely one to watch out for.

Overall, this is going to be a fantastic encounter. Japan have to be the favourites, their talent and history demand that, but England have a great chance. Anything can happen in football and this match will be no different. My heart is telling me one thing, my brain another. So here’s my prediction:

England 1 : 2 Japan

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Is Kane Able?

Harry Kane: England saviour or irrelevant imposter?

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The Chingford-born striker has only been playing regular first-team football since November. Up to that point the 21 year old had scored a meagre 22 goals in 91 appearances for various clubs in the lower leagues. The footballing genius that is Tim Sherwood gave Kane his chance last season and, according to the pedagogue himself, launched the young striker’s career.

The Spurs striker has certainly torn up the Premier League since his introduction. He now stands shoulder to shoulder with Diego Costa as the league’s top scorer with an impressive 19 goals above the likes of Aguero, Giroud and…let me clear throat… Austin, Berahino and Ings. We shall return to such comparisons shortly. Let me first focus on the man himself.

Harry Kane has played for four different clubs on loan, from League One to the Premier League. He did not really stand out and it appeared yet another promising English starlet was slowly fading into the lower leagues to forever curse their wasted potential. But something changed. Kane came flying out the traps in a way few, if any, predicted. 29 goals and some neanderthal hollerings from pundits and fans alike later, Roy has called the young man up to the England squad. Is he the real deal though? That is the question many have been asking.

England v Iraq: Group E - FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013

Unlike the mundane ramblings of Shearer and Neville (Phil that is) I will actually analyse this question. There will be no fence-sitting here, no hemming and hawing, no umming and ahhing. Is Harry Kane an England striker?

Well, this is very difficult question with no singular answer, we must look at many different angles, taking into account multiple variables and not committing too quickly to a concrete response, this is a liquid, reactive and free-flowing process.

The facts are convincing: 29 goals in 43 appearances and leading scorer in the Premier League. Hodgson had to call up the 6ft 2in striker and the rangy poacher thoroughly deserves it. I have my doubts though.

Much has been made of the hattrick at the weekend against Leicester in lead up to the game against Lithuania. This exemplifies the incredible form Kane is in surely? It does, no doubt about it. Let’s dig a little deeper though. A tap-in, an horrendous deflection and a penalty. The old football cliche “a goal’s a goal” rings true but can this be translated into an international striker. I’ve been largely unimpressed by Kane’s finishing. He is currently riding a wave of good fortune demonstrated by his fluky finishes against Liverpool and West Ham.

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I mean to take nothing away from Kane, if he continues to score, then who I am to judge? I’m just not sure whether he will. His goals against Chelsea and Arsenal give a glimpse of a fantastic player but he has not done that enough. His four assists illustrate the type of player Kane is. He is a poacher, he will not take part in much of the build up, but put the ball in the six yard box and he’ll get on the end of it. He will therefore be judged upon his goals. This season he has passed with flying colours.

Is that enough for the international stage though?

The best international strikers appear to have more to their game. Benzema, Rooney, Ibrahimovic and Suarez are all involved with the build-up as much as the finish. However, there is also room for Costa, Higuaín and Falcao who prioritise their goals ahead of participating in general play. These players are becoming less and less common though and are exceptional finishers (when they are not crying).

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Kane can be this player for England. Unlike Sturridge or Welbeck he will not vacate his position as the target man and assumes that role much more naturally than either of those two. This could work well with the marauding Rooney behind, providing some much needed focus. However, Kane is a long way from proving he is of such class. One good season is a great foundation on which to build on but not the makings of a player. He has much to prove before he can be considered international class.

Austin, Berahino and Ings are all close behind him whilst playing in struggling teams. They do not have the likes of Eriksen, the best playmaker in the Premier League, or the rejuvenated Lamela supplying perfectly weighted balls for them to dispatch. They have Barton, Fletcher and Kighlty, good players in their own right but not of the same class. Kane can only play with what he is given I admit, but these three should not be overlooked. For me, Berahino is the only one with world-class potential but Kane is rightly ahead of him for the moment.

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The Verdict: irrelevant imposter (for now)

I’ll lay my cards on the table. I’m unconvinced. There have been too many false Messiahs in recent years: Rodwell, Jones, Barkley, Wilshere, Carroll the list goes on and on. I am not saying these players cannot return and make an impact on the international stage but we do not learn from our mistakes. We propel these young guys into stardom heaping praise and fortune upon them before they have even passed their driving test. It should be no surprise that so many fall by the wayside. Even those that do “make it” do not fulfil their true potential as shown by Wayne Rooney.

The drive to succeed is lost. Their dreams realised, the enthusiasm and fight vanishes. This may not be the case for Harry Kane, who admittedly appears to possess a steely edge to him, but, as a footballing nation, we must learn from our mistakes. Kane deserves to start against Lithuania but the warning of George Santayana must be heeded:

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

My Trip To Cobham

On Friday I managed to sneak my way into the Chelsea press conference at their plush training complex in Cobham. After claiming my seat in the second row, I took in my surroundings. A row of cameras guarded the back of the press room with journalists forming the congregation spread sporadically but tightly across the room. A huge game against Manchester City guaranteed a packed press conference and there was a buzz around the room.

The Special One might be accurate to a tee on the pitch but off it not so much, and he made us wait for a good five minutes. Then suddenly he glided in from the back of the room, brushing my shoulder as he went past. And so it began.

First the broadcasters and international media were given their time. Sky Sports legendary commentator, Martin Tyler, piped up as well as BBC Sport in a relatively dull session. Questions about last season’s triumphs and Mourinho’s possible record-equalling 164th win were batted away with light disgust. Statistics mean nothing to Jose.

After 10 minutes the cameras were turned off and broadcasters invited to leave. Now it was the turn of the written press, the only journalists that remained.

The next session was more incisive with three areas main areas of questioning.

Diego Costa’s fitness was the first port of call. After the Portuguese manager had claimed the in-form striker could not play three games a week due to a hamstring issue, everyone was eager to determine his exact injury problems. Mourinho was very elusive as to the extent of the injury or how it is being treated. He did claim however that Costa needed a couple of weeks off football to fully recover. The manager could not do this though as he is too important to the Blues, Jose claimed both him and player had to take that “risk”.

Frank Lampard’s return was also high on the agenda. Mourinho lavished praise on the midfielder, “nobody can touch him” in Chelsea history according to his former mentor. The Special One did admit he was surprised that Lampard ended up at City but declared there were no hard feelings. “Football is football”.

FInally talk turned to the title-deciding (tongue firmly in cheek) match on Sunday and Mourinho’s relationship with his opposite number. The strained relationship with Manuel Pellegrini goes back to their time in Spain together. The Special One went as far as admitting “I do not invite him to have dinner at my house” but maintained there was a huge amount of “respect” between the two. No glass of wine will be shared declared Mourinho, but rather down to a clash of characters, the incredible demand of post-match interviews and press conferences was blamed by the Chelsea man for a decline in post-match alcohol consumption.

And with that we were banished. Only the holy Sunday papers could remain and enjoy the presence of the Special One. Out the back into the lovely Cobham sunshine and a huddle ensued. Sharing ideas and confirming quotes.

After a few minutes and sightings of Eden Hazard and Thibaut Cortois we slunk off back home to write away for our respective platforms.

A fantastic insight into Chelsea’s inner-workings and a fascinating day.

Deadline Day Diamonds

Another busy window has finally come to a crashing end with a frantic final day. Over £800m was spent during the hazy summer months with some incredible deals being done. This the year the Premier League has reasserted itself as one of the heavyweight leagues in the world, drawing massive talent from Spain, Italy and France. Costa, Di Maria, Fabregas, Sanchez, Mangala and Balotelli are just some of the juicy names that have come to England in the past few weeks. Here are a few of the deals that occurred during that final scramble on 1st September.

Abel Hernandez (Palermo to Hull City)

Hernandez

Bruce has had a fantastic few windows and continued his impressive form this summer. Hernandez has scored 7 goals in just 14 appearances for Uruguay and was one of the hottest properties in European football. The loss of Long to Southampton was a tough one but acquiring the 24-year-old with a £2m surplus is a fantastic deal. He will provide some much-needed firepower and take the burden off a laboured Jelavic. Ben Arfa and Gaston Ramirez completed an exciting trio of deadline day signings. The Tigers should be over the moon by their summer activity. Superstar.

Sandro (Tottenham Hotspur to QPR)

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The wheeler-dealer ‘arry Redknapp had a relatively quiet 1st September but did bring in the Brazilian and, last year loanee, Kranjcar. At 25 the combative midfielder still has his best years ahead of him and has not had his fair share of action at White Hart Lane. Known for his fierce tackling, Sandro also possesses a fierce shot and will provide much-needed Premier League experience in the middle of the park. Redknapp was the man who took the 17 capped midfielder to Spurs and should be ‘over the moon’ he has signed him again. Dat Beard.

Toby Alderweireld (Atletico Madrid to Southampton, loan)

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Far from the ridiculous talk of relegation, the Saints have recovered from their mass exodus to make some assured deals in the market. Forster, Tadic and Pelle all caught the eye whilst Alderweireld provided the cherry on top of the cake. The versatile Belgian will be a capable partner for Fonte in centre defence and provide cover at right back. The 25-year-old performed admirably for the Red Devils at the World Cup and should excite fans down on the south coast. His year in Spain was not a successful one, hopefully he can get back on track in England. Prospect.

Zeki Fryers (Tottenham Hotspur to Crystal Palace)

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One that slipped under the radar after the signing of James McCarthur from Wigan. Fryers has shown great promise but found himself down the pecking order in North London. He possesses an explosive burst of pace and at the age of 21 still has time to mature as a defender. Once the subject of transfer controversy between Manchester United and Spurs, Fryers can add to a youthful line up at Palace. Able to play at left back and in the middle, the young defender is a solid signing. Promise.

Ricky Alvarez (Inter Milan to Sunderland, loan)

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Gus Poyet brought in two South Americans on deadline day. Coates from Liverpool, an encouraging young defender whose career has stalled on Merseyside, and Alvarez. The Argentine arrives from Italy having just sat on the bench in the World Cup final. The 26-year-old attacking midfielder is a real coup for the Black Cats and is a fantastic player. He started off his football life with Boca Juniors so will understand what it’s like to be at a high-pressure club. If Sunderland avoid relegation they can sign Alvarez on a permanent basis and secure a player of real quality. The Wearsiders will hope he can adjust to the Premier League and show his skills. Coup.

Daley Blind (Ajax to Manchester United)

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Yet another left back. Van Gaal seems to have an obsession with left-sided defenders having signed Shaw, Rojo and now Blind. Whilst I am far from convinced by Rojo, Blind showed his quality at the World Cup and has been a fixture for Ajax since 2011. Yet another graduate of the acclaimed Ajax youth side, Blind can also operate in midfield and that is where I anticipate the 24-year-old will be deployed. He will have to provide a steady platform for the staggering talent which will have to be squeezed in ahead of him. The Red Devils have signed a very handy player. Versatile.

Marco Van Ginkel (Chelsea to AC Milan, loan)

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The Dutchman under-21 captain has not had an ounce of luck in West London having suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury early in his first season. He will gain some valuable experience in Italy and come back a far stronger player. Describing himself as a ‘box-to-box’ midfielder, Van Ginkel is firmly in Mourinho’s plans and so he should be. From the age of 18 the twice capped international was in the starting line-up at ‘little Chelsea’, Vitesse Arnham, exemplifying his talent. Van Ginkel should hope to kick on from here. Potential.

Radamel Falcao (AS Monaco to Manchester United, loan)

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Interesting. The loss of Hernandez and Welbeck meant United had to sign another striker (although it does not help their defensive frailties). The Colombian forward was prolific in La Liga and merely the name will bring Chelsea fans into a cold sweat having destroyed them in the Super Cup Final in 2012. He faltered slightly last year despite scoring 9 goals in 17 games and suffered an horrific knee injury in January that would eventually rule him out of the World Cup. The 28-year-old is a natural goalscorer, capable with both feet and has a bullet shot from outside the box. How he will be incorporated into the team only Van Gaal will know but what a player the Red Devils have signed. Bold.

Adam Forshaw (Brentford to Wigan Athletic)

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The 22-year-old may not be a household name but he is a fantastic young player who could make the Premier League grade at some point. Forshaw was voted League One Player of the Year for 2013/14 whilst playing for Brentford. Although a deal was agreed way back on 25th August, it was finally completed on 1st September. He managed 8 goals for the Bees in League One last year and the Lattics will hope the midfielder can continue his goalscoring form. The young man started his career up in Everton but only found success down in London, he will hope his return to the North will go better this time around. Watch Out.

There they are. Some are rougher than others but all are great transfers that will add to their respective teams. Feel I’ve missed an amazing talent? Has one slipped under the radar? Feel free to comment, rate and like.

Time To Join Us In The 21st Century…

“A week is a long time in politics” decreed Harold Wilson. The same can be said for the beautiful game.

7 days ago the excitement of a fantastic new season was pulsating from every corner of the country. An incredible weekend of football ensued and all was right in the footballing world. However, the tide was soon to turn.

First it emerged that Cardiff had sent a dossier to the FA about alleged misconduct by Malky Mackay and Ian Moody during their time together in Wales. This was immediately dismissed in the media as a wild vendetta by the aggrieved and eccentric owner of the Bluebirds, Vincent Tan. Soon the true nature of the complaint became apparent.

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The two former employees had sent lurid, racist and homophobic text messages to each other during their tenure in Cardiff before both were sacked (Mackay in December and Moody in October). The extent of these messages is truly shocking. The Daily Mail, which I will very rarely talk of in a positive manner, broke the story and the exact wording of the aforementioned texts. Here are just two of the men’s discourses.

They talked of a club official as “a snake, a gay snake. Not to be trusted.” The two obviously versed to a far greater extent in herpetology than I. I must admit my ignorance to the fact that homosexual squamates are even more slippery that their heterosexual counterparts.

Kim Bo Kyung, the player insulted in vile texts

Kim Bo Kyung, the player insulted

And on the signing of a South Korean player, “Fkn chinkys. Fk it. There’s enough dogs in Cardiff for us all to go around.” Therefore implying that they also eat dogs, which I don’t quite think was their point. However, maybe they do love a good old Boshintang or Gaejangguk from their local South Korean. They do seem like intelligent, cultured and well-travelled people.

Whilst I jest, these revelations are vile and disturbing. I couldn’t quite believe people still thought like this in 2014. We are not in Russia or North Korea. We are in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The game that I love and that can bring so much enjoyment and pleasure to so many people around the country is stuck in the stone age.

In the past 30 years the English game has grown and grown. The wages have increased, the television figures accelerated and the stadiums enlarged. Premier League games are now broadcast around the world to millions of fans.

These fans tweet, like and share, bringing even more riches back to these shores. The English game has developed and improved at a speed unlike any other, embracing this new technological age.

However, the culture of the game was left behind, way back in the 50s.

Scandal after scandal in recent years has rocked my, and many others, faith in the sport.

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Andy Gray and Richard Keys spring to mind immediately for derogatory remarks to and about fellow presenters having also condemned a lineswoman before she could even adjudicate a match.

Only last season Richard Scudamore, the CEO of the Premier League, was found to have sent sexist emails about female staff. Mackay and Moody are the latest, and most horrific, case of prejudice within the English game. These opinions were cast out by mainstream society years ago yet football cannot seem to shake them off.

“Banter” appears to be the ‘get out of jail free’ card for those caught out making inappropriate remark. The LMA stated that Mackay’s comments were merely “friendly banter” between two colleagues.

That does not make an ounce of difference and highlights the shocking attitude of this old boys club. They close ranks and protect their own. The LMA have seen retracted this statement and apologised but this is too little too late.

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Even yesterday I saw Harry Redknapp admitting that the disgraced manager had “made a bad mistake” but that Mackay was “a family man, a football man”. I’m guessing that’s an all-white-the-women-in-the-kitchen-with-some-lovely-heterosexual-children family Harry?

These last few days have disappointed and saddened me greatly. The beautiful game is not racist, homophobic or sexist. However, some unbelievably outdated views are still whispered in boardrooms, shouted at grounds and messaged between colleagues.

Football must wake up. We are now in the 21st century and the beautiful game needs to join us.

The 2014/15 Premier League Season Preview: M – W

Yesterday saw my predictions and protestations for the first 10 teams. I have forecast Chelsea to win the league with Burnley to go down. Find out the other two doomed teams in this preview of the last ten sides. So here you go, Manchester United to West Ham United. Enjoy.

Manchester United

Key Signing – Ander Herrera (Athletic Bilbao)

Main Man – Wayne Rooney

Surprise Star – Jonny Evans

Van Gaal has completely lifted the club after a dour season under Moyes. However, his “world-class” status is extremely questionable. The unoriginal and novel act of bringing on a goalkeeper for a penalty shootout suddenly propelled him into the managerial stratosphere. The Dutchman has failed at Barcelona, been sacked by Munich and failed to qualify with Holland for the 2002 World Cup. He is still an impressive manager and has strengthened well but does not deserve all the praise heaped on him. I’d be surprised if there aren’t more acquisitions before September. I hope he sticks with his 3-5-2 formation in which Evans will be a key player for the Red Devils.

Prediction – 5th

Newcastle United

Key Signing – Emmanuel Rivière (AS Monaco)

Main Man – Fabricio Coloccini

Surprise Star – Rolando Aarons

One thing is certain, the Magpies will be rested. Having been on the beach since December, the Geordies should be fresh for the season ahead. The loss of Cabaye and Debuchy is huge but Pardew has brought in some excellent players to replace them. Rivière is a dangerous finisher whilst Cabella is a promising young player who will hope to fill Cabaye’s sizeable boots. Aarons is a player to look out for, if the 18 year old is given his chance he could make an explosive impact. Another season of averageness awaits.

Prediction – 8th

Queens Park Rangers

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Key Signing – Steven Caulker (Cardiff City)

Main Man – Charlie Austin

Surprise Star – Mauricio Isla

Back at the first time of asking, the R’s will be hoping to remain in the top flight. For the second season in a row there has been an exodus from Loftus Road with 12 senior players leaving the club. Hopefully the West London club have learnt their lesson and will keep the signings to a minimum. Caulker is an exciting talent whilst Ferdinand is an intriguing transfer who should bring experience. If Austin can reproduce his goalscoring form then QPR have a good chance.

Prediction – 16th

Southampton

Key Signing – Fraser Forster (Celtic)

Main Man – Jay Rodriguez

Surprise Star – James Ward-Prowse

An incredible season for the Saints has seen a mass departure, including captain Lallana and manager Pochettino. Whilst this is not ideal, it makes complete commercial sense with the Hampshire club receiving double or triple the true value of their players. Koeman has a tough task to revive this deflated club but can fall back on a prestigious youth academy. Ward-Prowse has the potential for a fantastic season and can provide the impetus required. Talk of relegation is dramatic in my opinion and the Saints should be well clear of danger.

Prediction – 10th

Stoke City

Key Signing – Bojan Krkić (Barcelona)

Main Man – Asmir Begović

Surprise Star – Marc Muniesa

From Barcelona to Stoke via Milan and Rome. Not the normal pathway to Staffordshire but an exotic one for the Spanish international. A coup for the club but whether he can actually kickstart a disappointing career only time will tell. Hughes did a fantastic job propelling the Potters to 9th last year and a similar performance should be praised. The Welshman has managed to begin the transformation in playing style and will look to take it further this time round.

Prediction – 9th

Sunderland

Key Signing – Jack Rodwell (Manchester City)

Main Man – Adam Johnson

Surprise Star – Liam Bridcutt

It is testament to the upheaval on Wearside that no player managed more than 30 appearances for the club in the Premier League. Poyet managed a miracle in keeping the Black Cats up with a resurgent run in the final weeks of the season. Sunderland fans will hope for a smoother journey this year and one not fraught with the threat of relegation. They will be around that area though, this could be the year they slip back down. Rodwell is a fantastic signing and should get his career back on track.

Prediction – 17th

Swansea City

Key Signing – Bafétimbi Gomis (Olympique Lyonnais)

Main Man – Wilfried Bony

Surprise Star – Jordi Amat

After the heroics of Laudrap’s first season it all went a bit wrong in 2013/14. Monk took over and after flirting with the bottom three and impressive run meant the Swans finished in 12th place. Gomis and Bony is a frighteningly physical strike duo and the return of Gylfi Sigurðsson is an exciting one. The relationship with Spurs is obviously a close one with Davies and Vorm going the opposite way to the Icelandic international. Worried that they could struggle this year.

Prediction – 14th

Tottenham Hotspur

Key Signing – Eric Dier (Sporting CP)

Main Man – Jan Vertonghen

Surprise Star – Erik Lamela

Sherwood and AVB out. Pochettino in. It has been another turbulent season in North London. Last year, Erikson was the only signing that truly impressed although Paulinho and Chiriches did look promising at times. The Lilywhites have not made the same mistake this year though, but the lack of transfers should worry Spurs’ fans. Lamela has shown his class in pre-season and could bounce back this term. Another season in the Europa League is in store.

Prediction – 7th

West Bromwich Albion

Key Signing – Joleon Lescott (Manchester City)

Main Man – Chris Brunt

Surprise Star – Andre Wisdom

Well that didn’t go too well. After finishing 8th in 2013 the Baggies dropped to 17th, only escaping relegation by a meagre three points. Alan Irvine was a surprise managerial appointment but had been doing great work with the Everton youth team. There have been some tasty signings so far this summer, Lescott, Gardner and Wisdom will perform well the Midlands club. This is going to be a struggle for them though and I think their five consecutive top flight seasons may come to an end.

Prediction – 20th

West Ham United

Key Signing – Enner Valencia (Pachuca)

Main Man – Kevin Nolan

Surprise Star – Dan Potts

Big Sam has seen the calls for his sacking grow and grow over the past year. He managed to secure safety and avoid the elbow last year but another onerous year is on the horizon. Despite the impressive procurements of Valencia and Zarate, West Ham have struggled intergrate their big signings effectively in recent years. There will be a reliance on the old guard of Nolan, Noble and Downing to see them through. Diame remains one of the most under-rated players in the league. I can see the Hammers going down.

Prediction – 18th

So there it is. The 20 teams have been analysed, criticised and, using my crystal football, predicted. With all the exciting talent, new and old, we can expect an even better season to unfold. Thanks for reading and enjoy the season ahead!

Feel free to comment, rate and like.

The 2014/15 Premier League Season Preview: A – M

It has been a dreadfully dull 30 days, 18 hours, 12 minutes and 52 seconds since Mario Götze fired Germany to World Cup glory, but finally the 2014/15 Premier League season is about to commence. Having managed (barely) to survive on the scraps that are pre-season friendlies, football is finally returning to these shores. After the feast of football in Brazil, the lack of spherical activity has allowed my enthusiasm to recharge and vivacity to be topped up. The opening weekend of the Football League only furthered this process and finally we are a matter of hours away from the Premier League’s return. So here is my preview of the season ahead, starting with the teams from A-M.

Arsenal

Key Signing – Alexi Sanchez (Barcelona)

Main Man – Aaron Ramsey

Surprise Star – Yaya Sanogo

An exciting season lies ahead for the Gunners having invested wisely over the summer. Sanchez, Debuchy and Ospina are fantastic signings that will make an immediate impact. The Chilean in particular catches the eye but much of the salivating over here derives from his demolition of England back in November. He is talented but can squander easy scoring opportunities. The victory in the Community Shield is a very encouraging one (despite it coming against a weak City side) and this could be the season that Wenger returns to the top.

Prediction – 2nd

Aston Villa

Key Signing – Philppe Senderos (Valencia)

Main Man – Brad Guzan

Surprise Star – Callum Robinson

Another solid season for the Villains saw them finish an adequate 15th. Lambert’s men have found themselves lingering dangerously close to the relegation zone in recent season’s and the Scotsman will hope there to be a case of third time lucky. Villa must kick on in Lambert’s third year in charge and make a charge for the top 10. Joe Cole is in the last chance saloon having failed at Liverpool and West Ham, Villa fans will hope he can finally make an impact in England. A season of mediocrity awaits I fear.

Prediction – 15th

Burnley

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Key Signing – Marvin Sordell (Bolton Wanderers)

Main Man – Danny Ings

Surprise Star – Ashley Barnes

The runners-up in the Championship will hope this season goes far better than their previous foray into the top flight. Five years ago Burnley managed 30 points, five away from safety despite memorable victories against Manchester United, Everton and Spurs. Danny Ings and Sam Vokes provided a deadly partnership last year, scoring 47 goals in 89 matches. Sean Dyche will hope they can transfer this into the top flight although the step up is significant. This is going to be a struggle.

Prediction – 19th

Chelsea

Key Signing – Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid)

Main Man – Eden Hazard

Surprise Star – Kurt Zouma

Mourinho returned with less gusto but more horse-related puns after six years away from West London. However, his side threw away the title and finished without any trophies, a sackable offence in Abramovich’s book. But the Special One has a special way and has been afforded more time to mould his team. Costa is exactly what they needed and should provide the firepower they severely lacked last year. Fabregas is world-class whilst Courtois will push out Cech for the number one spot. Drogba will make a regrettably underwhelming return. They are in the driving seat for the title.

Prediction – 1st

Crystal Palace

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Key Signing – Brede Hangeland (Fulham)

Main Man – Jason Puncheon

Surprise Star – Jonathan Williams

After a rocky start under the charming Holloway, Pulis performed magnificently to steer the Eagles to safety. The 11th place finish was far more than could’ve been expected back in August. An incredible 18 players arrived at Selhurst Park last season, a comparably modest three have been bought this time round. Campbell is still unconvincing but Hangeland will provide some experienced steel at the back. Puncheon, Bolasie and Ledley hold the key for Palace. A repeat season would be fantastic for the South London club.

Prediction – 12th

Everton

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Key Signing – Romelu Lukaku (Chelsea)

Main Man – Leon Osman

Surprise Star – John Stones

Kenwright could not have dreamt how well Martinez adapted to life at Goodison. An incredible season culminated in a 5th place finish only seven points away from the Champions League. It will be even tougher this year with Spurs and United looking very strong having recruited two better managers. Lukaku has made the trip up the M47 permanent having enjoyed a prolific season for the Toffees. This will be the year that Stones becomes an Everton regular and breaks into the England first team squad. I will be surprised if Martinez can repeat his incredible debut season.

Prediction – 6th

Hull City

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Key Signing – Tom Ince (Blackpool)

Main Man – Curtis Davies

Surprise Star – Harry Maguire

Another team that over-performed last year, Manchester City denied a fairytale FA Cup victory for the Yorkshire club. Bruce should be given credit for making some key acquisitions, especially in January, that secured top flight football for the Tigers. Long and Jelavic should kick on from their first six months in the North East and form the basis for another fantastic season. Keep a close eye on Ince, previously coveted by Inter Milan, as a player who has a bright future ahead. Another season of survival is all that should be expected.

Prediction – 11th

Leicester City

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Key Signing – Marc Albrighton (Aston Villa)

Main Man – Kasper Schmeichel

Surprise Star – Riyad Mahrez

The Foxes are another promoted side that will want to forget the last time they graced the Premier League. In 03/04 they finished joint bottom on 33 points and fell straight back down the pyramid. After a few years in the wilderness, including a season in League One, Leicester have returned triumphantly as Championship champions. They are well-equipped for the Premier League and boast excellent training facilities. Albrighton is a smart signing and joins a squad brimming with familiar names including Upson, Konchesky and Nugent. Tough season ahead fighting to stay in the top division.

Prediction – 13th

Liverpool

Key Signing – Adam Lallana (Southampton)

Main Man – Daniel Sturridge

Surprise Star – Jordon Ibe

So close yet so far. The Reds came mighty close to storming from nowhere to the title. Rodgers has assembled an impressive squad despite the loss of the erratic Suarez, a correct decision from the club. Liverpool will challenge for the title again but are in danger of “doing a Spurs” and attempting to replace one player with five or six. They have paid extremely-inflated prices for the Southampton players whilst Emre Can is a poor signing. The main skeleton remains but has the element of surprise been lost? The Reds may struggle to replicate their previous heroics.

Prediction – 4th

Manchester City

Key Signing – Fernando (Porto)

Main Man – Yaya Toure

Surprise Star – Scott Sinclair

The Champions didn’t do it the easy way but were almost handed the title by Liverpool and Chelsea. This takes nothing away from the Sky Blues who were unstoppable at times. Out of the top six teams they have been conspicuous by their absence in the transfer market. The same happened after their first Premier League win in 2012 and their city rivals stormed to the title. I can see the same happening this year with City slipping down the table. The loss to Arsenal on Sunday makes for a worrying start. On a more positive side, Sinclair has looked sharp in pre-season and this could be the year he mounts a comeback.

Prediction – 3rd

So, the first half is predicted. Disagree? Feel free to comment, rate and like.

Tune in tomorrow for the final 10 teams.

2014 World Cup Final Preview

32 teams. 12 venues. 63 matches. 170 goals. 183 yellow cards. 10 red cards. 5 own goals. And one bitten Italian. The 2014 World Cup has been a fantastic spectacle and possibly the best of all time. There have been twists and turns along the way but finally two teams will battle it out for the greatest trophy in sport.

Germany

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Stage Opponent Score
Group Portugal 4-0
Group Ghana 2-2
Group USA 1-0
Round of 16 Algeria 2-1 (aet)
Quarter-Final France 1-0
Semi-Final Brazil 7-1

The Route

Germany's Klose scores a goal during their 2014 World Cup Group G soccer match against Ghana at the Castelao arena in Fortaleza

This has not been an easy road for Die Mannschaft. After a convincing victory against Ronaldo they stumbled against Ghana who caused them some serious problems. This was followed by a narrow win versus USA and a suspect extra time victory against a courageous Algeria.

France were dealt with efficiently and a more potent force was exhibited. This was in no small part to the return of Schweinsteiger and Khedira. They dominated Pogba, Cabaye and Matuidi whilst allowing Lahm to return to right back. This formed the lethal penetration that destroyed Brazil in the next round. The Germans are hitting form at exactly the right time.

The Key Man – Thomas Müller

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After bursting onto the scene in South Africa, the Bayern Munich man has gone from strength to strength. A hat-trick against Portugal and two further goals sees him sitting behind only Colombia’s Rodriguez in the race for the Golden Boot. His three assists mean if he scores a single goal (allowing for Messi) he should be the top scorer at consecutive World Cups. A feat yet to be achieved.

What makes Müller so impressive is his lack of star dust. He does not strike fear into opposition. He is not a dribbler, a long-range sniper or a technical genius. He just, and I use “just” loosely, finds himself in the right place at the right time. His position on paper is wide right but he is everywhere. The reason it is so hard to stop the Bavarian is because it’s hard to work out what he actually does. He could decide this final.

The Team

After experimenting with Lahm in centre midfield, partly due to injuries to Khedira and Schweinsteiger, the dependable captain will start at right full back. These two returning giants form a deadly and consistent partnership with Toni Kroos who has been magnificent in Brazil. He has been the engine of the team and kept them ticking.

At the other end, Hummels has been superb and contributed more than his fair share of goals (two). Meanwhile, the bench looks fantastic. Schurrle has been especially impressive, exemplifying his impact with three goals off the bench.

As individuals there are no real superstars. No Ballon d’Or winners or Nike campaign leaders. But the team is greater than the sum of its parts. They rightly enter the game as favourites and are expected to overcome their South American opponents.

Argentina

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Stage Opponent Score
Group Bosnia 2-1
Group Iran 1-0
Group Nigeria 3-2
Round of 16 Switzerland 1-0 (aet)
Quarter-Final Belgium 1-0
Semi-Final Holland 0-0 (4-2, pens)

The Route

Nigeria v Argentina: Group F - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

Argentina have sleep walked their way into the final. Despite a perfect record at the group stage, some Messi magic was required in each game. Against Nigeria, the creaking defence was put to the sword by Musa confirming what we already knew. Despite some fantastic attacking talent, the defence is shaky.

La Albiceleste continued to struggle in the knockout rounds, Switzerland causing little bother but proving hard to breakdown. A piece of individual brilliance from the otherwise abysmal Higuain dismissed Belgium and penalties were required to overcome Holland. Somehow Argentina have made it and only Germany stand in their way.

The Key Man – Javier Mascherano

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Nope, not Messi. I know, I know. But his Barcelona colleague has dragged his nation into the World Cup final. Messi was the star in the group stage but it has been Mascherano’s timely interventions and interceptions since, that has pushed Argentina through. His commitment to the cause exemplified by the ‘unfortunate’ injury he sustained against Holland.

His performances have also shown how his talents are wasted in Catalonia. Busquets occupies the holding position and has pushed his Argentinian teammate to centre back. Anyway, if Javier can sweep up in front of the back four then the trophy could be staying in South America.

The Team

Coming into the tournament, much was made of the array of attacking talent playing in blue and white stripes. However, it has been the defence in recent matches that has saved their skin. Romero is yet to concede a goal in the knockout stages and they have looked solid throughout. Demichelis and improvement have rarely been used in the same sentence but he has provided a better balance than the young Fernandez.

Messi’s father has admitted his son is fatigued and burnt out, this has been plain to see in the last three matches and does not bode well for Argentina. None of his fellow strikers have shown any glimpses of attacking threat and Sabella is going to have to play for penalties.

The Final Prediction

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Overall, if you take out the anomaly that is the 7-1 drubbing of Brazil, the finalists have scored a total of two goals and conceded none during 90 minutes of the knockout rounds. This should be a low scoring match with a goal separating the sides if any. Germany have struggled to break down well-organised teams and that is how I expect Sabella to set up the Argentinians. This could go all the way to penalties. My Prediction:

Germany 0  0 Argentina (Germany in extra time)

How to solve a problem like Lionel?

In the same way that Robert Wise managed to transfer the musical work of Rodgers and Hammerstein from stage to screen for the The Sound of Music in 1965; Alejandro Sabella must allow Messi to play for La Albiceleste at the same level he does for his club. The former Estudiantes manager claimed to have solved the problem during qualification with the four-time Ballon d’Or winner scoring 10 goals, one behind leading hitman Suarez.

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However, so far Argentina have looked tired and lethargic despite winning all their group games and Messi scoring a handy 4 goals. If Sabella’s main man is going to make it into the semi-finals and have a real impact on this tournament, something has got to give. Here’s my three point plan to enable just that.

1. Personnel

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One of the strengths of Argentina in recent years has also been its downfall. Argentina have the most exciting array of attacking talent in Brazil, one that every other nation could only dream of: Lavezzi, Di Maria, Higuain, Aguero, Palacio and of course Messi.

The problem with possessing this plethora of ability is that it blinds the coach. It is hard to see clearly which players should start on that pitch. Two players are certain starters out of those 6. Messi and, despite his shocker against Switzerland, Di Maria. The last two positions are up for grabs.

Higuain has been a disappointment. His International record is impressive, 20 goals in 40 matches, and he has enjoyed a fantastic first season in Italy but for me he has never performed at the highest level. He has spurned chance after chance in Brazil and does not warrant a starting place. Lavezzi is another that has flattered to deceive. Since moving to PSG he has lost the spark that brought such success at Napoli.

FBL-WC-2014-ARG-TRAININGPalacio has looked positive during his brief substitute appearances and may deserve a starting place. Finally there is City-man, Aguero. If he had been fully fit he would join Messi and Di Maria as a certain starter but his consistent thigh injury has struck once again and looks to have ruled him out of the quarter-final if not tournament. Depending on Sabella’s choice of formation, Lavezzi and Palacio are the two front-runners.

2. Formation

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Transition. That is what has been missing for La Albiceleste so far. In the previous games the front three/four have been completely isolated from the rest of the team. Sabella has ended up playing two holding midfielders and just leaving the front four to it. There has been a clear gap between attack and defence without a formation to encourage and facilitate transition from one to the other.

If Argentina are going to progress to the semi final, Sabella has to free up the mercurial Messi. If the creative 27-year-old is causing trouble then the rest of the team can slip under the radar and cause some serious damage. In the first game, Sabella employed a bold 5-3-2, which failed to impress before reverting to a more orthodox 4-3-3.

The common theme in both is a congested middle, lack of wingers and reliance on fullbacks which has limited the space for Messi to play in. This combined with no transition between defence and attack has seen Messi dropping deep into his own half to pick up the ball. Even the best player on the planet will struggle to dribble through 10 well-organised players.

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To solve the midfield problem I would play one of two formations. The first is the 5-3-2 employed in the Bosnia game but with Di Maria behind Messi and Palacio. This would shore up the defensive frailties shown against Switzerland and Nigeria whilst hopefully allowing Messi and Di Maria to roam.

However, my leading formation would be an unorthodox 4-3-3 with Messi playing the infamous false 9 role. Mascherano and Gago would keep their holding places but I would give Alavarez a chance in an attacking midfield position in front of them. The Inter man would help link the two halves of the team.

Di Maria on the right and Lavezzi on the left would complete a devastating but balanced strike force. For Messi to shine, Sabella must make the pitch as wide as possible and prevent the opposition from crowding the Barcelona man out.

3. Share the Burden

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For all his talents, Messi cannot win the World Cup on his own. People may point to Maradona in 1986 but times have changed. Teams are more organised and better prepared whilst the average standard of player has risen significantly. Messi did show flickers off his immense talent against Switzerland.

However, in these knockout stages where the opposition do not need to win, the temptation to nullify the talisman and sacrifice one’s attacking ability is irresistible. This should open up the field for Di Maria and co to run riot but so far the rest have not been pulling their weight. They have been slow, lackadaisical and without any kind of movement.

Higuain has not caused the opposition defences any kind of trouble in the four games he has played. Di Maria lost possession over 50 times in the last game and Lavezzi has offered nothing. They have to pull their finger out and give the opposition something else to think about.

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It should not be the case, “stop Messi, stop Argentina”, but so far that has totally been the case. He won all the group games with solo efforts and then a burst of brilliance beyond tired Swiss legs to assist Di Maria in the Round of 16. More energy from his teammates and Messi can take his performances to another level.

Conclusion

If Argentina are going to win this World Cup, Sabella must be bold and forget names. Higuain has been dreadful and cannot start against Belgium. The key though is the link between defence and attack that has been obviously missing so far. If he can solve this, then Argentina can be a real force in these later stages.

2014 World Cup Preview: Groups G and H

The 2014 World Cup is well underway and the goals have been flying in. So far there have been some unpredictable results, this isn’t going to be easy. Here are the previews for Groups G and H. Enjoy!

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Group G – The Group of Familiar Foes

Germany

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Star Man – Phillip Lahm (Bayern Munich)

Surprise Star – Erik Durm (Borussia Dortmund)

Germany enter this tournament with surprising pessimism. Normally the most confident if not arrogant of teams, a wave of English depression has swept the country. The so-called golden generation has started to falter and lose its way. An unconvincing win against Chile and two draws against Cameroon and Poland leaves Löw’s team in a state of limbo. The bizarre decision not to bring Volland to Brazil leaving them with 35 year old Klose as the only recognised striker should also cause worry. Ozil looks like the favourite to take up the false 9 position favoured by Löw but his Arsenal form is a troubling. They still possess an array of midfield talent and should easily reach the round of 16.

Prediction – 1st

Portugal

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Star Man – Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)

Surprise Star – William Carvalho (Sporting)

Ronaldo, Ronaldo, Ronaldo. This is the epitome of a one man team, Portugal are uber-reliant on their Ballon d’Or winner. The team has not evolved since the last major tournament and will struggle to go far in Brazil. Carvalho is definitely a young player to watch out for. Supposedly a target for new United manager Van Gaal, the young Sporting Lisbon defensive midfielder should be given a chance ahead of his more experienced colleagues. Despite their talent I am not confident for the Portuguese.

Prediction – 3rd

Ghana

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Star Man – André Ayew (Marseille)

Surprise Star – Christian Atsu (Chelsea)

The Black Stars were so close to becoming the first African side to reach the semi-final of a World Cup. Their snazzy kit should add to an exciting albeit ageing squad. Whilst the household names like Essien and Muntari are over the hill there are young, exciting players coming through the system. Atsu is another young player that could light up the tournament. Yet to be given his chance by Chelsea he enjoyed an impressive loan spell at Vitesse in Holland and could drive Ghana through to the round of 16.

Prediction – 4th

USA

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Star Man – Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders)

Surprise Star – Julian Green (Bayern Munich)

There was widespread panic in the US when Landon Donavan was left out of the squad. However, the 32 year old has not had a great season for LA Galaxy and Klinsmann is right to bring in some fresh faces. One problem is their reliance on Altidore who is a very average player. The Stars and Stripes have some familiar faces in Dempsey, Howard, Beasley and Bradley who form a solid foundation. Green is an interesting case who could have chosen to represent Germany but strangely chose America despite the fervent interest of the former. Expectations are low but they could easily exceed them.

Prediction – 2nd

Group G – The Dark Horses

Belgium

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Star Man – Eden Hazard (Chelsea)

Surprise Star –  Kevin De Bruyne (Wolfsburg)

Everyone’s “dark horses” for the tournament which by definition makes them just plain horses. They do provide a very decent proposition but this may be a tournament too early. Their transition from no-hopers to World Cup contenders is an astonishing one. However, so many golden generations have failed to fulfil their potential. Whilst this is one hell of a generation, it is not preordained that they will transfer their obvious talent into trophies. The loss of Benteke may be a greater one than anticipated.

Prediction – 1st

Algeria

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Star Man – Hassan Yebda (Udinese)

Surprise Star – El Arbi Hillel Soudani (Dinamo Zagreb)

Last time round a solitary draw against England was their only success. They do not exactly jump out off the page as a team to follow. They aren’t going to be a great watch. Yebda should be known to Pompey fans after he spent a year there on loan. Bentaleb, Sherwood’s favourite player, is also in the squad and could see some game time. Soudani may not be well-known but he has a great international record. Cannot see them anywhere but bottom.

Prediction – 4th

Russia

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Star Man – Yuri Zhirkov (Dynamo Moscow)

Surprise Star – Georgi Schennikov (CSKA Moscow)

Amazingly the entire squad plays in Russia with only 9 playing outside of Moscow. They started well at Euro 2012 but faded away in tragic fashion, going down to a Karagounis goal against Greece. Dzagoev burst onto the scene then and could cause more damage in Brazil. Could easily scrape through to the next round with much hinging on their match against South Korea.

Prediction – 2nd

South Korea

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Star Man – Ji Dong-Won (Borussia Dortmund)

Surprise Star – Park Chu-Young (Arsenal)

Sadly haven’t been able to build on their magnificent 4th place in their homeland at the 2002 World Cup. They have some very handy players especially in Dong-Won who has managed to shake off a poor period at Sunderland and will be playing for Borussia Dortmund next season. Bolton Wanderers fans will testify to the ability of Lee Chung-Yong who can cause some serious damage. Arsenal fans may protest my choice of Chu-Young but I reckon he may just have a stellar campaign.

Prediction – 3rd

So that’s all the groups and all the teams previewed. My Round of 16 is as follows:

Brazil vs Chile

Spain vs Croatia

 Colombia vs England

Uruguay vs Japan

Switzerland vs Bosnia & Herzegovina

Argentina vs France

Germany vs Russia

Belgium vs USA

Keep posted for more World Cup blogs.