by Neil Morris
Group F: New Zealand v. Slovakia, 7:30 a.m. ESPN
Each is a team of relative unknowns. Appearing in their first World Cup since 1982, New Zealand’s only familiar face is Blackburn Rovers’ center-back Ryan Nelsen. Meanwhile, Slovakia’s lone household name is Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel, who is doubtful for this match due to an injury. This Slovakia’s first World Cup, but they should have enough skill to overcome the lowly ranked All Whites. Indeed, in a brief interview with Triangle Offense after his May 14 match with the Carolina RailHawks, Kiwi reservist Jeremy Christie was less than effusive about his team’s chances to advance out of the group stage.
Players to watch:
Shane Smeltz, New Zealand: A two-time Oceania Player of the Year, this striker scored 19 goals this season in the Australian A-League. The 28-year-old has also netted 16 goals in 30 caps for New Zealand since 2003.
Marek Hamsik, Slovakia: The 22-year-old attacking midfielder is the Slovak player of the year and scored 12 goals in 37 matches for Serie A’s Napoli last season.
Prediction: 2-0 Slovakia gets the win
Group G: Ivory Coast v. Portugal, 10:00 a.m. ESPN
The opening match in the so-called “Group of Death” features a presumptive battle for second place (behind Brazil), and thus conceivably who will and will not advance to the knockout stage. Sven-Goran Eriksson just assumed the coaching reigns for the Elephants in March, and while the English press snickers about the old man wandering around to fleece a quick payday and his recent inauspicious stint with Mexico, Eriksson did turn around England’s 2002 Cup qualifying before leading them to the quarterfinals in 2002 and 2006. And, player reaction suggests he has sparked a positive response from the talented Côte d’Ivoire squad. The Lusitanians are typically inconsistent, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Europe’s leading club scorer the past four seasons, failing to net a goal during Cup qualifying. Both teams are missing key pieces: striker extraordinaire Didier Drogba is doubtful for Côte d’Ivoire, while Portugal’s Manchester United winger Nani is out with a bruised collarbone. Ultimately, the difference may come down to, of all things, defense. Côte d’Ivoire allowed soft goals during this year’s African Nations Cup (which they did not win), and goalkeeper Boubacar Barry only plays in the Belgian League for Lokeren. Meanwhile, Portugal had nine clean sheets in qualifying, the most in UEFA, and keeper Eduardo has conceded only three goals in his past 15 matches.
Players to watch:
Kolo Touré, Ivory Coast: The Manchester City center-back was promoted to captain after Drogba’s injury, and he will be called upon to renew his rivalry with former Man U foe Ronaldo from Touré’s days with Arsenal.
Liédson, Portugal: This Brazilian-born striker was recently naturalized and called up for Cup qualifying last August. He has a long career with Sporting CP, scoring 111 goals since 2003. Moreover, his presence at center-forward allows Ronaldo to return to his preferred position on the flank.
Prediction: My learned brother predicts a 2-1 Côte d’Ivoire win. With all due deference, I will part ways and say 2-1 Portugal.
Group G: Brazil v. North Korea, 2:30 p.m. ESPN
This is a contest between the five-time World Cup champions and top-ranked team in the world versus the lowest-ranked (105th) qualifier making their first return to Cup competition since 1966. Under Dunga, Brazil comes in with five consecutive friendly wins, and they won eight out of ten matches during their successful defense of the FIFA Confederation World Cup in South Africa last year. Meanwhile, Korea DPR recorded only two victories in 11 Cup tune-up matches. Anything less than a Selecao rout would be a monumental upset, but the North Koreans at least have some history on their side: During their last Cup appearance 44 years ago, they stunned Italy 1-0.
Players to watch:
Luis Fabiano, Brazil: On a team full of stars, the Sevilla striker could have a field day against North Korea. He netted nine goals in 11 qualifying matches, as well as 15 in 23 appearances in club play last season.
Jong Tae-Se, North Korea: One of the top scorers in the J. League, Jong was born in Japan to 2nd generation South Korean parents. Despite having citizenship in both countries, Jong chose instead to obtain a North Korean passport in order to play for them. Notwithstanding the caliber of his team’s opponents, he has scored 15 goals in 22 caps for North Korea since 2006.
Prediction: 5-0 Brazil, seriously
Neil Morris covers the Carolina RailHawks and the North American Soccer League for the Independent. His secret analytical weapon, however, is his brother Brian, a Euro soccer-snob who still sticks by West Ham United and thinks MLS is just something you use to research real estate listings.