World Cup Group E preview
The Dutch are prohibitive favorites in Group E but their back line is suspect
Outside of star forward Samuel Eto'o, Cameroon appears to be thin on talent
The well-organized Danes are likely to be the team that emerges in second place
Predicted order of finish:
1. Netherlands -- The real strength of the Dutch is in its front four. With Robin Van Persie leading the line, ahead of Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Dirk Kuyt, there is skill, pace and flexibility, with Rafael van der Vaart offering an additional option from the bench. Nigel De Jong and Mark van Bommel provide a solid platform in front of the back four. The big problem, and one that wasn't really tested in the qualifying group, is in the fullback areas. Fullbacks have become increasingly important in modern football as players who not merely defend but also offer an attacking option, offering the possibility of an overlap or a thrust from a deep position. The Netherlands have Gio van Bronckhorst, who is a converted midfielder and at 35 will anyway struggle to join the attack on a regular basis, and Gregory van der Wiel, a converted center back who lacks experience.
2. Denmark -- Given how tough its qualifying group was, with Portugal, Sweden and an improving Hungary, the mood in Denmark seems oddly downbeat heading in to the World Cup. Admittedly anybody expecting a reprise of the majestic side of the Eighties is likely to be disappointed, but under Morten Olsen, a star of the 1986 World Cup, this is a solid, well-organized team. Seven clean sheets in 10 qualifiers speaks of the solidity of a center-back pairing of Simon Kjaer (although Kjaer's knee injury in a recent friendly may be problematic) and Daniel Agger, augmented by Christian Poulsen's resolve at the back of the midfield. However, with the ageing Jesper Gronkjaer, Martin Jorgensen and Dennis Rommedahl still squabbling over attacking positions, Denmark is probably over-reliant on Nicklas Bendtner.
3. Cameroon -- There is Samuel Eto'o, and there is the rest. Cameroon looked as though it would not qualify for the World Cup, when the death of the Gabonese president Omar Bongo led to its qualifier in Libreville being postponed; by the time the game was played, Paul Le Guen had arrived and imposed some sort of order on a squad that had threatened to collapse into anarchy. Performances in Angola, though, when Cameroon was both short on creativity and defensively shambolic, suggested it may only have been a temporary respite.
4. Japan -- Japan has never won a World Cup match overseas, and recent performances -- goalless draws against Venezuela and China, two reverses against South Korea and a humiliating 3-0 defeat to second-string Serbia -- suggest it could be a while before they do so. Takeshi Okado, Japan's coach, continues to insist the semifinal is a realistic target, but even winning a game would be an achievement with a squad that continues to suffer from the familiar Japanese failing: a lack of imagination.
2010 World Cup
1. Wesley Sneijder, Netherlands -- For a long time Sneijder was a frustrating -- and frustrated - presence in European football, a player of immense gifts who never quite seemed able to make the most of them. He was imperious at Ajax, but struggled to make his presence felt after joining Real Madrid, mixing the occasional superb display with long spells of ordinariness. He blossomed under Jose Mourinho at Internazionale last year, though, and was probably the key factor in the Italian side's success in the Champions League. The issue now is replicating that form at international level.
2. Christian Poulsen, Denmark -- An aggressive holding midfielder, Poulsen has curbed the wildness that once marred his game to become one of Europe's best holding midfielders. Having joined Sevilla from Schalke 04, he effectively became the shield that allowed Dani Alves to surge forward on the right, earning a move to Juventus in 2008. Although he has a more progressive role for his country, Poulsen's diligence is one of the key reasons for Denmark's impressive defensive record in qualifying.
3. Samuel Eto'o, Cameroon -- Eto'o is key for Cameroon not just because he is the best player, but because his influence over the dressing-room is so great that he and Le Guen, the manager, must get on. His great ability is his movement -- of which he is a keen student -- but the problem with that is that to get the best out of him he need players capable of taking advantage, and feeding the ball to him when he finds space. With Cameroon he doesn't necessarily have that, and often drops too deep, receiving the ball in areas in which he is unable to hurt the opposition.
4. Keisuke Honda, Japan -- In a team that has a tendency to retain possession without necessarily doing much with it, the CSKA midfielder is a vital creative presence, a rare blast of imagination in what can be a predictable side. Given he is 23 and the right back Atsuto Uchida, who seems similarly willing to embrace the unusual, 22, it may be that Japan is at last harvesting a generation that, having assimilated football almost from birth, is able to reinvent it in its own way. If that is the case, the future for Japan could be much brighter than the present.
The fixtures could make this an intriguing group, in as much as the Netherlands faces what is likely to be its hardest game first. If it beats Denmark on June 14, it should be home and dry, but the Danes will be organized and awkward, and if the Dutch slip up, there will at least be pressure on their remaining fixtures against Japan and Cameroon. Similarly, a winning start later that afternoon for either Japan or Cameroon -- although you fear Cameroon will physically overpower Japan, much as Australia did four years ago -- could give them the momentum they need to raise themselves to a serious challenge for qualification.
Realistically, unless Cameroon loses that opening game, the key match in terms of who qualifies behind the Netherlands will be its second fixture against Denmark in Pretoria on June 19. Neither side is particularly gifted in wide areas, so its likely to become a grinding midfield battle, in which Denmark is probably favorite if only for Cameroon's capacity for occasional slapstick defending.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid, Behind the Curtain, Sunderland: A Club Transformed and The Anatomy of England.