It only feels like the World Cup is truly approaching once the groups and fixtures are announced. And as the World Cup draw drew to a close last night, World Cup fever well and truly begun.
For England fans, the prospect of a Group of Death was a possibility, especially as the USA was the first team drawn alongside the Three Lions. But as Algeria and Slovenia followed respectively, nerves calmed a bit and on the face of it, Fabio Capello’s side have an altogether straightforward draw, although the former Milan boss was quick to play down the apparent ease of his side’s group: “People will think it’s easy, but I think you have to respect all the teams.” The Italian tactician is obviously guarding against complacency within the camp, but he will know as well as anyone, the draw could have been so much harsher.
As stated above, USA were probably the best team in Pot 2, and with England opening against Bob Bradley’s side on June 12, that sticks out as the most important and most difficult clash of the three. USA – not renowned for their football dominance – have been improving year on year and now sit 14th in the World Rankings and are a handy side. They beat Spain in the Confederations Cup earlier in the year and pushed Brazil all the way in the final only to lose out late on. Now, the Confederations Cup is far from being anything like as big a stage as the World Cup itself, but the USA proved their worth against arguably the world’s top two teams in competitive fixtures, so are not to be underestimated. Boasting the likes of Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Eddie Johnson – who all ply their trade in the Premier League – means they will be far from an unknown quantity too. Dempsey is a hugely influential player in Bradley’s side and along with Landon Donavon, they make up a threatening attack.
Meanwhile, in Slovenia, England face a side that they beat just a few months ago. That day at Wembley, the Three Lions triumphed 2-1 in a tepid friendly match, but Slovenia did impress on the day. They are a technically gifted side who move the ball extremely well, but they lack in any real quality, especially going forward. However, the fact they beat Russia over two legs to qualify should not go unnoticed, and in beating Guus Hiddink’s much-fancied Russians they need to be treated with respect. Whether the Slovenians have enough to really threaten England remains to be seen, and with the likes of Portugal and France alongside them in Pot 4, Capello and England will feel they got off lightly.
They will have had a similar feeling when Algeria were drawn into Group C as well, as the prospect of the Ivory Coast or Ghana was much more worrying. So Algeria was another kind draw but they too have a few familiar faces, with the likes of Nadir Belhadj and Hassan Yebda both at Premier League strugglers Portsmouth, while Wolfsburg midfielder Karim Ziani possesses plenty of quality.
While Capello tries to convince the mass media England have to respect what is still a tricky group, one can’t help but think the Italian might just be cracking a wry smile in the privacy of his hotel room tonight. He is correct not to write off any of England’s opponents, but their draw was kind. Just look at Brazil who drew both Portugal and the Ivory Coast in their group, leaving them pondering a tricky escape route. Ivory Coast were arguably the best side in Pot 3, while Portugal were certainly the best of the Pot 4 sides, so Dunga will be cursing his luck as we speak. Elsewhere, Germany too face a tricky start as they play Ghana, Australia and Serbia in another tough looking group. And while both top seeds will still expect to navigate a way through their dangerous groups, the fact that they will have to work a lot harder than Capello’s England can only serve as a blessing for the Three Lions.
Looking further ahead into the latter stages of the competition, we can predict a few possible paths for England – if we dare. Indeed, Germany are a potential second round opponent, although Ghana, Serbia or Australia are more likely. A quarter-final date with France would be well on the horizon, or even Argentina for that matter. The semi-final could throw up any number of teams but a meeting with tournament favourites Brazil and Spain would be a possibility.
But while England fans across the country plot their path to World Cup glory, Capello will be focusing on the only three dates confirmed. This England side is much fancied under the astute tutelage of the wily Italian but there have been numerous false dawns before. The Three Lions have always come up short at the business end of the competition, despite hopes always being so high amongst the country. But make no mistake, this is a good side Capello has nurtured and when the World Cup comes around, England will be a team to be feared. Whether that’s all they’ll be, we can only wait.
But for now, our appetite has been whet – roll on South Africa.
Group A: South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay, France
Group B: Argentina, Nigeria, South Korea, Greece
Group C: ENGLAND, United States, Algeria, Slovenia
Group D: Germany, Australia, Serbia, Ghana
Group E: Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, Cameroon
Group F: Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovakia
Group G: Brazil, North Korea, Ivory Coast, Portugal
Group H: Spain, Switzerland, Honduras, Chile
June 12, 2010 – England vs. USA, Rustenberg
June 18, 2010 – England vs. Algeria, Cape Town
June 23, 2010 – England vs. Slovenia, Nelson Mandela Bay, Port Elizabeth