With the exception of Brazil, it’s rare that the pre-tournament favorite(s) win(s) the world cup. Whether it be the weight of expectations, an unlucky bounce or deflection, poor refereeing or just a bad game, a lot of favorites don’t even progress to the big game. In the last world cup, one would be hard pressed to find someone who would have bet that the nations with the two oldest squads would have met in Berlin.
Italy were fresh from a domestic match fixing/referee scandal and the French were having managerial and motivational issues (again). Both started out slowly but gained momentum as the tournament went on. In 2002, both hosts South Korea and Turkey were the big surprises, but their Cinderella runs ended in the semi’s.
Once a team makes it to the semifinals all bets are off. Its just one game and anything can happen. Like most sporting events these are usually the best games as the teams have nothing too lose and go all out.
So who are this years dark horses? First lets rule out the favorites. Brazil, Spain, Argentina and the Dutch are in my opinion the best 4 teams in South Africa. I’m also ruling out England and the US as 1. I don’t think they will make it to the semis (though I think England has a slightly better chance than the US if luck goes their way) and 2. we’ve talked enough about both teams on this site.
For Chile to advance they will need to beat either Spain in the group stages or Brazil in the round of 16. This is an incredibly tall order but a task “La Roja” are more than capable of completing. Chile are an all out attacking team with a triumvirate of Mark Gonzalez, Alexis Sanchez and Humberto Suaza that will have defense’s quaking in their boots. Behind them, Mathias Fernandez, will be supplying the ball or just forging ahead and going at it on his own.
Chile show their opponents all sorts of formations, but they’re all off an attacking nature. Their constant shifting and pressing will unnerve the most disciplined of midfields and it will take a well organized team who can sit back, absorb the pressure and counter quickly to beat Chile.
As one might expect, Chile’s defense is nothing to write home about and they conceded 22 goals in qualifying. No matter as they, and manager Marcelo Bielsa believe that it’s okay to let in goals, as long as we score more than you. Once out of the round of 16 they will meet nations such as Italy or the Dutch who possess the discipline to not leave gaps open to be penetrated; but Chile will constantly attack and with that mentality anything can happen.
The Danes are the sort of team that everyone forgets about and or takes for granted (including myself in the Africa preview). Their most well known player, striker Nicklas Bendtner, is more famous for missing the target and being caught with his pants down then for finding the back of the net. Though inconsistent for Arsenal, Bendtner seems to save his best for the national team, scoring 11 goals in 32 games.
The Danish are very well organized, play great team football and are lead by Jon Dahl Tomasson, the elder statesmen of the team. His vast experience and goal scoring record from the midfield or right behind the striker will be key to Denmark’s success. Behind him he has Christian Poulsen, a combative defensive midfielder whose fire and passion can unsettle any attack but also get him in card trouble.
The defense is well anchored by young center-backs Daniel Agger and Simon Kjaer and Tomas Sorenson and his cat like reflexes will mind the Danish goal.
With Bendtner leading the line, the Danes are very very strong down the middle. They’re weaknesses lie out wide where they are susceptible to speed. This shouldn’t matter too much as their overall team ethic and defense will mask their weaknesses.
Their big group game will be against the Dutch. On paper, the Netherlands should wipe the floor with them, but on the field the Danes can use the same styfling D and midfield help that beat Portugal in qualifying. Against Cameroon, they will be able to be a little more adventurous and the result of this game will determine how far they will go. Assuming they finish second, they will meet Italy in the round of 16 and after that Spain, teams that can be easily frustrated by players like Poulsen.
Overall, the Danish are one of those teams that no wants to meet. Fundamentally strong, playing good team football and with a little luck, they will wear down opponents and then strike late through Tomasson or Bendtner – providing he can keep his pants on.
Serbia is everyone’s sexy pick to do well in South Africa and rightly so. They have no weaknesses and are solid 1 through 11.
In 2006, as Serbia and Montenegro they qualified for the World Cup in a group ahead of Spain; undefeated and only conceding 1 goal in their last 10 matches. They unfortunately were drawn in the group of death with Argentina, The Netherlands and Ivory Coast. Picked as a dark horse back then, they miserably choked by losing a close one to the Dutch, getting clobbered 6-0 to Argentina and then losing 3-2 to the Ivory Coast in a meaningless game.
This time around, they’re eager to do better. They still possess a stingy defense but are now much more prolific in attack, scoring 22 goals in qualifying (giving up 8). They once again are drawn in a fairly equal group but one that is far more manageable then ’06.
Their first game against Ghana will set the pace and if they can win that, they will be well poised to win the group. Germany will also be tough opponents but with injuries to Essien and Ballack, Serbia has the man power and skill to overcome these now weakened nations.
Their defense is well marshaled and made up of powerful center backs Vidic and Subotic who control any ball coming into the box (unless your named Torres) with style as well as force and are both lethal in the air off set pieces. Chelsea’s Ivanovic is also very strong defensively but is just as dangerous going forward raking in three goals to his name in qualification.
In midfield, captain Stankovic and Jovanovic are goal scoring threats from midfield and up front, EPL player Zigic can bang them in with the best of them.
They are very hard to breakdown and with their new firepower are a tough team to beat. They can easily win this group in which case they will more than likely meet the US in the round of 16. In four years I see the US being the type of team Serbia is today but for now the Serbians will be too strong.
This will setup a rematch with Argentina and they will need no motivation to avenge the embarrassing loss of 2006. Serbia are also more than capable of dealing with the potent Argentine attack as well as the Spanish attack they might meet in the semis.
If they finish second in the group they might have an easier route to the finals with their toughest opponent being Brazil in the semi-finals.
In the world cup warm ups, Serbia have done nothing to prove they’re capable of beating the worlds best by losing to New Zealand, drawing to Poland and letting in 3 goals in a win against Cameroon. That said, they cannot be taken granted and should have all the kinks sorted out by June 13th.
France are a mess. Everyone in the country (and his own team) hates their coach Raymond Domenech. They had a poor qualifying campaign which was capped off by a controversial goal by Thierry Henry (enjoy the festive music) as they barely squeaked by Ireland.
Influential midfielder Lassana Diarra has been ruled out of the tournament with intestinal problems and Benzema and Nasri, two of their most promising players were not selected. To cap it of, their last two matches have been a draw to Tunisia and a loss to China.
So why do I consider them a dark horse? Because they’re France. You cannot count them out. That phrase used to be reserved only for the Germans, but now I feel its appropriate to describe Les Bleus. In 1998 and 2000 they won the World Cup and Euro Championships, yet they were embroiled in pre-tournament criticism about their manner of play and coaching.
In 2006, not being fancied to do anything much, they convinced aging stars Zidane, Makalele and Thuram to come out of international retirement. They started the group stages by drawing against South Korea and Switzerland before beating Togo. From there though, they somehow came together and en-route to the finals they beat Spain, Brazil and Portugal. They were dominating the latter half and extra time of the final against Italy, but a moment of madness from Zidane reduced them to 10 men and they lost in penalties.
Now in 2010 they are in shambles BUT…BUT they still have a core of world class players and with the likes of Henry, Lloris, Ribery, Malouda, Abidal, Gourcoff etc… you cannot take them for granted.
They’re in a decent group with hosts South Africa, Mexico and Uruguay. Their first match is against an attack minded Uruguay but their veteran defense lead by Gallas, Abidal, Sagna and Evra is more than up for it. Most importantly they’ve played together for a long time. Lloris is used to playing against the best due to years in the Champions League. The same defense will be used to snuff out the quick speedy passing of Mexico.
Meanwhile Ribery, Toulalon, Gourcoff and Malouda are a formidable and creative midfield and though a few years older and a pace or two slower, Thierry Henry is still a phenomenal football player not too mention an up and coming point guard.
If they can maintain possession there is no reason why they should not win this group. Buoyed by winning the group, France will come together and this makes for a dangerous team in the knockout stages. They have played many many games as a national team and they know how to win. It’s this sort of self belief coupled with crafty veterans and a dash of solidarity that is needed to progress and potentially win a World Cup.
I don’t believe that all four will do exactly what I’ve predicted, as in order to do so, all 4 teams will meet and they will knock each other out. But there is always a surprise team or two that progresses further then they should. Sometimes they go all the way as did Italy in ’06 and Greece in the ’04 Euros or surprisingly far as did South Korea and Turkey in ’02 but one thing is certain – you never know until the game is played!