Group A preview
Battle is for second place behind FrancePosted: Thursday May 30, 2002 7:43 PM
Updated: Friday May 31, 2002 4:38 PM
By Paul Kennedy, Soccer America
As World Cup openers go, FRANCE-SENEGAL May 31 in Seoul shapes up to be a cracker.
It's the 1998 World Cup, 2000 European and 2001 Confederations Cup champions vs. the 2002 African runners-ups. Les Bleus vs. the Lions of Teranga. The French foreign legion vs. the Senefs.
The teams know each other very well. Twenty of the 23 Senegalese players are based in France. Many players on both teams grew up together in the French youth system.
The opener should be decided in midfield, where it will be the battle of the monsters. Senegalese-born Pat Vieira, the pride of Arsenal, will lead France against Salif Diao, who earned the nickname "Ninja" for his fearless tackling when he arrived at Monaco from its Ecole Aldo Gentina in Dakar.
The French are the class of Group A. An early key for the Bleus will be the play of Thierry Henry, back in his old role of winger to make room for David Trezeguet in the starting lineup. But Coach Roger Lemerre has a joker up his sleeve: 20-year-old speed merchant Djibril Cisse, a surprise pick over Nicolas Anelka.
The test for France will come when they cross the East Sea. They'll have to run the gauntlet in Japan, where they could have to face England, Brazil and Argentina en route to the final.
The battle for second place in Group A will be intense. Senegal is making its first trip to the World Cup but has been the second best team in Africa (after Cameroon) the past two years. Its major asset is its athleticism. El Hadj Diouf, the 2001 African Player of the Year, earned the nickname "Serial Killer" for his superb finishing with Lens. Winger Khalilou Fadiga and striker Henri Camara also are threats.
URUGUAY, winner of the 1930 and 1950 World Cups, and DENMARK, quarterfinalist at the 1998 World Cup, have an edge on Senegal in terms of experience.
Uruguay has been warned to be on its best behavior. Despite its reputation for rough play, the Celeste displays considerable talent in midfield with Roma's Gianni Guigou, Venezia's Pablo Garcia and Valencia's Gonzalo de los Santos supporting playmaker extraordinaire Alvaro Recoba. "El Chino" has an excellent left foot and will be one of the tournament's most dangerous players on free kicks.
The Danes don't exactly exude confidence. Concerned that they won't be able to keep up with their more athletic opponents, they lodged an unsuccessful protest about having to open with two afternoon games in the heat.
The Laudrup brothers, Michael and Brian, have retired, but Coach Morten Olsen has two formidable strikers: Jon Dahl Tomasson, hero of Feyenoord's UEFA Cup title, and Ebbe Sand, who scored 33 goals the last two seasons for Bundesliga club Schalke 04. The key for the Danes will be to keep up with their Group A opponents in midfield. The play of Italian-based midfielders Thomas Helveg (AC Milan) and Martin Jorgensen (Udinese) will be critical.
Paul Kennedy is managing editor at Soccer America magazine.