World Cup Group B preview
Argentina has so much talent it could win despite coach Diego Maradona
South Korea's "Fab Four" midfield led by Park Ji-Sung is full of attacking verve
Nigeria's current squad has nowhere near the talent of its predecessors
Projected order of finish in Group B:
1. Argentina -- Its qualification for the World Cup was stuttering, its selection policy has been bewildering, and its manager came back from a ban from abusing the media by driving over a photographer's foot in his car and then accusing him of being "an a--hole" for putting his foot in such a dangerous position.
On the one hand, entrusting the world's greatest selection of attacking players -- Leo Messi, Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain, Diego Milito, Javier Pastore, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Juan Roman Riquelme -- to somebody who would rather pick the 36-year-old Martin Palermo seems almost sacrilegious. On the other, the thought lingers that when that somebody is Diego Maradona, there is always the chance that he is operating on a level of genius inaccessible to the rest of us. Besides, Argentina was in a worse mess in 1986, when Maradona the player led it to victory under Carlos Bilardo, who is now part of his coaching staff.
2. South Korea -- All the stamina, pace and determination of old seems to be in place, but this time it has a goal-scoring edge, with Park Chu-Young providing a useful link between midfield and the striker Lee Dong-Gook. The retirement of the "Eternal Libero," Hong Myong-Bo, in 2002, though, left a hole that is yet to be filled, and coach Huh Jung-Moo's side look uncharacteristically vulnerable. South Korea was the only unbeaten team in Asian qualifying, but since then it has been inconsistent, losing 3-0 to China but beating Ivory Coast.
3. Greece -- This team averaged over two goals a game in qualifying, and had in Theofanis Gekas the top scorer in the European qualifying zone, but don't be fooled into thinking Otto Rehhagel's side has turned over a new leaf: it helps when your group opponents include Luxembourg, Latvia and Moldova. As its playoff victory over Ukraine showed, Greece remains the dogged, industrious and frankly tedious side that won Euro 2004 -- only probably not quite as effective. The continued cussedness of Rehhagel is impressive, and he will be flexible in terms of formation, but don't expect much in the way of thrills.
4. Nigeria -- One in six Africans is Nigerian. It has produced more great players than any other African country and has a passion for the game as deep as any nation in the world. And yet Nigeria has won only two Cups of Nations, and persistently underperforms. In the past, it has always been let down by infighting, politicking and a press corps that fuels an unrealistic sense of expectation. This time, though, the problem is simply that the players aren't very good. The likes of Joseph Yobo and Mikel John Obi should ensure Nigeria is solid enough at the back and through midfield, but the creativity drought is stretching into its second decade, leaving coach Lars Lagerback with an almost impossible job.
2010 World Cup
1. Leo Messi -- The forward has been the best player in the world so far this year, playing with such verve -- and team-based generosity -- that comparisons with his national manager in his pomp have seemed perfectly reasonable. He is yet to do it, though, for his country, something perhaps down to the lack of an attacking right back -- such as he has at Barcelona with Dani Alves -- to facilitate his characteristic turn inside onto his favored left foot. Maradona seems not entirely sure where to play him -- as a deep-lying center forward in a 4-4-2 or on the right of a 4-3-3; either way, he is the one player since Maradona with the capacity to win a tournament almost single-handed.
2. Park Ji-Sung -- Those who remember Lee Dong-Gook's underwhelming displays at Middlesbrough will wonder how South Korea have become such a potent attacking side with him at center forward. The answer lies in the "Fab Four" -- the quartet of exciting forwards and attacking midfielders: Park Chu-Young of Monaco, Ki Sung-Yong of Celtic, Lee Chung-Yong of Bolton Wanderers and Park Ji-Sung of Manchester United. Given the youth of the other three, it is the last of those who is probably key, offering experience, a calm head and an industrious example.
3. Giourkas Seitaridis -- The right wing-back was arguably Greece's player of the tournament when it won Euro 2004, earning him a move to Porto. To say he has faltered since then would probably be unfair, but equally as he has drifted through Dinamo Moscow and Atletico Madrid before returning to Panathinaikos, there has been a sense of a player never quite reaching heights many predicted for him. His thrusts from full back are key to providing Greece with width.
4. Peter Odemwingie -- In a dismal Cup of Nations campaign in Angola, Odemwingie, who was born in Uzbekistan to a Russian mother and a Nigerian father, was the one spark of hope for Nigeria, at least from an attacking point of view. Where Nigeria was otherwise sluggish and predictable, the Lokomotiv Moscow winger at least offered some dash, although in the great history of Nigerian creators he is little more than a footnote.
The good news for Argentina is that the group is probably easy enough that it can afford an indifferent start. Unless one of the other three sides suddenly hits form, it's hard to envisage a circumstance in which Argentina doesn't scramble through. Nigeria will be physical in the first game (June 12), but is probably the weakest side in the group, and with a win by Argentina, it's easy to imagine it settling. If it can find rhythm and fluidity, a repeat of 1986 is not impossible. Nigeria's morale is always fragile, particularly so after a poor Cup of Nations and the subsequent dismissal of Shaibu Amodu. Defeat to Argentina, particularly if it is heavy, could see Nigeria's tournament collapse almost before it has begun.
Probably more important in terms of qualification is the game earlier that day between South Korea and Greece: Korea is probably the better -- certainly the more aesthetically-pleasing -- side, but Greece could dominate at set-piece plays. It seems likely that the winner of that game will progress with Argentina, but the order of fixtures probably favors Greece. Its organization and willingness to scrap should be enough to see off Nigeria (although it could be a fearfully scrappy 0-0) in the second match, leaving it to play an Argentina, who may already have qualified. If South Korea can win that first game, though, it knows it has the theoretically easiest last game, against a Nigeria who may already be out.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid, Behind the Curtain, Sunderland: A Club Transformed and The Anatomy of England.