by Robert Ferringo - 06/05/2006
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Just four short sunsets lie between us and the beginning of the World Cup in Germany. Here's a quick look at the five must-see match-ups in group play:
United States versus Czech Republic, Monday, June 12
Group E has been labeled "The Group of Death" by punters and pundits across the globe. The moniker has less to do with genocide and imperialism and everything to do with being the most loaded group in the tourney. This is the opener for both clubs and pits the No. 2 and No. 5 ranked teams in the world against one another. It is critical because it gives the winner the inside track to a second-round berth.
If the United States is the fifth-best soccer team in the world then I guess that makes me the fifth-best dolphin trainer in the world. But whether the lofty stature is real or imagined, the Americans can play and this is their chance to prove it. The squad they've sent is perhaps its most talented, experienced and technically sound, and this game is another opportunity to prove themselves against a top-notch country.
That sounds all well and good, but the most likely scenario is that they will get hammered by a nation slightly smaller in size than South Carolina with a population slightly less than Pennsylvania. The Czechs scored the most goals in UEFA qualifying, and feature the incredible Petr Cech defending their goal. They have more talent and should be more comfortable in this situation.
Germany versus Poland, Wednesday, June 14.
The underlying social and historical significance of this meeting merits mention on the list. If you're not quite sure what I'm referring to just think of gas chambers and charred remains. Though all of those atrocities took place some sixty years ago, some wounds never fully heal.
The emotion of this game should be incredibly intense as the Poles invade Germany. The clubs have met three times prior, but haven't faced one another in more than a decade. The Germans are 2-0-1 against the Poles, and that's not counting their blitzkrieg in 1939.
Germany is currently ranked just 19th in the world and is firmly entrenched in Rebuilding Mode. However, the host nation was awarded the gift of weak Group A. I don't think they are a threat to win the tournament, but with the entire country behind them they should still make some noise.
Sweden versus England, Tuesday, June 20
Now we're getting to the juicy stuff. This match in Cologne should settle the top spot in Group B. The two nations play a fundamentally similar brand of soccer and are quite familiar with one another. Since 1923 the teams have met 20 times, with Sweden holding an 8-6-6 advantage.
England is essentially the Boston Red Sox of the World Cup - a hard-luck squad, with a tortured fan base, that hasn't won a title in more than 40 years and is at the center of bitter rivalries. They happen to be coached by a Swede, Sven Goran-Ericksson, who is the first non-British national coach in the nation's history. This will also be Goran-Ericksson's last Cup as the head of England's club.
Oh wait, it gets better. Wayne Rooney, the scintillating 20-year-old English striker, has a broken metatarsal that will keep him out of games against Paraguay and Trinidad and Tobago. If England suffers a setback in one of its first two matches and finds itself desperate for a point, it may be tempted to rush Rooney back into action. This could open a chest of chaos involving the national team and Manchester United, which doesn't want to risk one of its prized possessions. But if the Brits secure advancement before they meet the Swedes, they will likely give him extra time to heal.
Sweden reached the elimination phase in Korea and hasn't lost to the Brits in 37 years. Also, this is the swan song for the nation's all-time best player, Henrik Larsson. The 35-year-old striker will be playing in his final WC.
Mexico versus Portugal, Wednesday, June 21
Oddly enough, when they square off in Gelsenkirchen it will be the first-ever meeting between the two countries. It will also likely decide Group D. Mexico is somehow ranked fourth in the world, while Portugal is No. 7.
Mexico may not be the fourth-best team in this tournament, but they have played brilliantly over the course of the past 12 months. In last year's Confederations Cup the Mexicans shocked Brazil 1-0 and took Argentina to penalty kicks. They scored the most goals (67) of any nation through the qualifying cycle, and were paced by Jared Borgetti's 14 scores.
Portugal is a relative infant when it comes to World Cup finals. They've only reached this stage of the competition three other times, and that lack of experience could hinder them in a big game like this. They are emotionally shallow, but with top-flight footballers like Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo they shouldn't be overmatched by anyone.
Argentina versus Netherlands, Wednesday, June 21
This match in Frankfurt should be the best of the entire opening round. Both teams are ranked in the top ten by FIFA and each is considered a serious threat to take home the champion's trophy.
From wooden shoes to Golden Boots, who knew that the Netherlands was a soccer juggernaut? The Dutch have owned Argentina in the past, sporting a 3-1-1 record against them. However, the one loss was a 4-0 thrashing experienced in the 1974 title match. Edwin van der Sar, their cat-quick 6-foot-6 goalie, has been in the cage for the national team since before 1998. He and his defensive mates have surrendered just three goals in 12 World Cup qualifiers while dominating their European counterparts.
In some circles, the thought is that the only thing standing between Argentina and a World Cup title is decent goalie play. Roberto Abbondazieri has been the country's top keeper for nearly two years, but the 33-year is still shaky at times on the backline. Argentina plays a free-flowing, skillful brand of soccer and is used to competing against the world's elite teams. But you have to wonder if they posses the grit to dig in and grind out a victory when they need to.
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