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Posted: Monday June 7, 2010 11:08AM ; Updated: Monday June 7, 2010 12:46PM
Grant Wahl
Grant Wahl>INSIDE THE WORLD CUP

Setting the scene for the World Cup (cont.)

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FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH

xavi.p1.jpg
Spain's midfield revolves around playmaker Xavi's precise passing.
Denis Doyle/Getty Images

1. Lionel Messi, Argentina. Messi's epic four-goal rampage against Arsenal in April had everyone (including me) hailing him as the best player in the world. But Messi's record with Argentina is decidedly more mixed, and the psychodrama involving him annd Maradona is the stuff of a two-man stage play. The best piece I've read about it is S.L. Price's story in Sports Illustrated.

2. Xavi, Spain. The midfield maestro of Barcelona and Spain probably doesn't get the credit he deserves, but his ability to string passes all over the field and to control the tempo of a game is unmatched. Having sidekick Andres Iniesta beside him prevents opposing defensive mids from focusing on closing down Xavi. Watch this guy for an entire game: It's mesmerizing.

3. Steven Gerrard, England. The Liverpool star will wear the captain's armband now that the injured Rio Ferdinand has been ruled out of the tournament. But where will Gerrard play on the field? If Gareth Barry's injury problems persist, Gerrard may have to play in the central midfield next to Frank Lampard, which has rarely been a dangerous combination. Gerrard is often more dangerous playing in the hole behind Rooney, where he's able to have a much bigger influence on the attack.

4. Michael Bradley, United States. I'm still convinced that if Bradley had been in the central midfield the U.S. would have held on to beat Brazil in last year's Confederations Cup final. The Americans need Bradley's vision and tackling to do well in South Africa, and he needs to stay on the field after being suspended for the decisive games in the 2007 Gold Cup, '08 Olympics and '09 Confed Cup.

5. Steven Pienaar, South Africa. If Bafana Bafana is going to pull off a big surprise and advance from the group stage, Pienaar will have to play out of his mind in games against Mexico, Uruguay and France. The Everton midfielder is capable of it, but his national team asks for more out of him than the Toffees ever do.

FIVE INJURED PLAYERS TO KEEP AN EYE ON

An injury epidemic has already ruled out several players, including Essien (Ghana), Michael Ballack (Germany), David Beckham (England), Ferdinand (England), John Obi Mikel (Nigeria), Salvador Cabanas (Paraguay), Carlo Costly (Honduras), Jose Bosingwa (Portugal), Charlie Davies (United States) and Rene Adler (Germany). Here are five other injury concerns:

1. Didier Drogba, Ivory Coast. The African player of the year and remarkable humanitarian broke his right arm against Japan and is still hopeful of playing in the World Cup after undergoing surgery over the weekend. If he can't play, Ivory Coast's scoring burden will fall on Gervinho.

2. Arjen Robben, Netherlands. The injury-prone right winger can be devastating when healthy, but Robben injured his left hamstring late in a friendly on Saturday against Hungary and did not travel with the rest of the Netherlands team to South Africa.

3. Humberto Suazo, Chile. La Roja's top striker is expected to miss at least the team's opening game against Honduras after suffering a left hamstring injury in a friendly against Israel.

4. Jozy Altidore, United States. The starting forward suffered a mild ankle sprain in practice last Wednesday and sat out the Americans' 3-1 win against Australia on Saturday. He's listed as day-to-day.

5. Andrea Pirlo, Italy. The playmaker injured a calf in a friendly against Mexico and is questionable for the World Cup.

2010 World Cup
For the host country South Africa, the 2010 World Cup is more than just a global soccer tournament. It represents vivid proof that a nation that once symbolized racial oppression has been transformed into a vibrant multicutural society. On the field, 32 teams will compete in an attempt to lift the coveted trophy. As usual, the tournament will provide us with unforgettable games, moments, heroes and even villains. On the ground in South Africa, Grant Wahl, Peter King, Mark Bechtel, Joe Posnanski, Steve Davis and Jonathan Wilson among others, will convey the flavor and fervor of the tournament with round-the-clock reporting, in-depth analysis and video discussion of all 65 matches.
 
 
 
 

Grant Wahl's New York Times Best Seller, The Beckham Experiment, is now out in paperback with a new Afterword. You can order it here.

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