by Neil Morris
Group E: Netherlands v. Denmark, 7:30 a.m. ESPN
On paper, Holland holds a decided talent advantage over the Danes. Indeed, the Oranje are unbeaten in their last seven matches against Denmark, which has not defeated the Dutch in regulation-time play since 1967. Moreover, the Netherlands went 8-0 in Cup qualifying, enter this match on a 19-game unbeaten streak, and have lost only one of their last 12 World Cup group stage matches. Still, the countries have never met in the World Cup, and the Dutch’s penchant for internal combustion is an ever-present concern. Denmark boasts a well-organized defense that will need to be at its best to combat the Netherlands’ array of scoring threats.
Players to watch:
Wesley Sneijder, Netherlands: With world class winger Arjen Robben out with an injury, the scoring and leadership load will obviously be shouldered by Robin van Persie, the quicksilver Arsenal striker. However, Sneijder is an attacking midfielder who wore the number 10 jersey for this year’s treble-winning Inter Milan squad, after having begun his career with stints at Ajax and Real Madrid. Sneijder also displayed passing and scoring prowess for the Netherlands during Euro 2008.
Daniel Agger and Simon Kjaer, Denmark: The Danes’ central defender duo is top-shelf; Agger stars for Liverpool, and the 21-year-old Kjaer is already a first-team regular for Palermo. They will need to hold fast to withstand the formidable Netherlands attack.
Prediction: The Dutch win 1-0 win
Group E: Japan v. Cameroon, 10:00 a.m. ESPN
The fluid attacking style of Cameroon meets a capable counterattacking Japanese side...which in turn will meet a somewhat slow Cameroon defense. Both teams struggled in their preparatory friendlies, and with Denmark and the Netherlands lurking on the other half of the group, this is a must-win match for both teams. The Indomitable Lions can take heart that they have never lost their World Cup opener in five previous appearances, and from the fact that Japan has never won any World Cup match beyond its own borders. But, Cameroon is a notoriously slow starter, and the Samurai have the earmarks of a classic spoiler.
Players to watch:
Samuel Eto’o, Cameroon: The team captain and world class Internazionale striker is the biggest star of not just Cameroon, but all the participant African nations. He also threatened to quit the team over a row with the country’s striking legend, Roger Milla. On the pitch, Eto’o is unmatched; the danger is that his teammates will stand around waiting for him to work his magic.
Marcus Tulio Tanaka, Japan: The Brazilian-born defender is key to any hope of stunting Eto’o and the Lions’ attack. Remember, Tanaka is the one who broke Didier Drogba’s arm last week, so the local fans are just going to love him...
Prediction: 1-1 draw
Group F: Italy v. Paraguay, 2:30 p.m. ESPN
“The best broths are cooked in the oldest pans,” said Italian coach Marcello Lippi in response to criticism over his team’s age. Witticisms aside, this will largely be a battle between Italy’s proficient, experienced midfield and La Albirroja’s dangerous, well-drilled attacking threat. A loss to Mexico and draw with Switzerland comprised Squadra Azzurra’s lackluster run-up to the Cup, while Paraguay impressed with wins over North Korea and Greece. But, unlike their French, Brazilian, and English brethren, La Nazionale’s motto may as well be “Just win, baby.” In the end, both teams might gravitate towards a draw and then hope for victories against the other half of the group, Slovakia and just-glad-to-be-here New Zealand.
Players to watch:
Claudio Marchisio, Italy: At age 24, the playmaking Juventus midfielder is one of the youngest Italian starters. His role becomes even more important given the absence of the injured Andrea Pirlo.
Lucas Barrios, Paraguay: The Argentine-born forward just finished his first season in the Bundesliga, finishing third in scoring with 19 goals for Borussia Dortmund. Barrios also netted three goals in as many friendlies leading up to the World Cup, and he fills the void left by the tragic shooting of star talisman Salvador Cabanas.
Prediction: An excruciating 0-0 draw
Neil Morris covers the Carolina RailHawks and the North American Soccer League for the Independent. He would also like to know whether there is a technical medical diagnosis for the chronic drone he's already developing from from an overexposure to vuvuzelas.