Group F preview
Only the strongest will survive 'Group of Death'Posted: Friday May 31, 2002 4:42 PM
By Ridge Mahoney, Soccer America
Those teams thrown into this pit must navigate treacherous territory, then face a probable meeting with defending champion France in either the round of 16 or the semifinals.
ARGENTINA is stocked deeply and richly at every position and has adapted so well to Coach Marcelo Bielsa's basic 3-3-1-3 formation that it is the strongest challenger to France's title.
His roster teems with skilled flank players but is also strong down the middle and firm at the back.
It has enough attackers to relegate Gabriel Batistuta to the bench in favor of Hernan Crespo, Claudio Lopez and Ariel Ortega. Crespo led the team with nine goals in 18 qualifiers, yet three other players scored five apiece.
Juan Veron is the orchestrator and Matias Almeyda is the enforcer of an explosive, tough midfield flanked by Javier Zanetti and Juan Pablo Sorin.
Crushing expectations of a third world title may be just as formidable as dealing with a dangerous third-world foe in the first game.
Unpredictable, yet not unknown, valiant but volatile, NIGERIA has yet to shake the stereotype of brilliant talent unbridled on the field and chaos personified off it.
Jay-Jay Okocha has been a force for nearly a decade yet was booed off the pitch when substituted in a semifinal loss to Senegal at the African Nations Cup.
In Nwankwo Kanu, Julius Aghahowa and Benedict Akwuegbu, Nigeria boasts tricky, powerful forwards capable of unlocking any defense.
Whether Coach Shaibu Amodu -- installed for the fifth time after the Nations Cup "disaster" -- can harness myriad talents and influences and temperaments is still the question.
A likely scenario is Nigeria playing one irresistible match and imploding in one -- or both -- of the others.
ENGLAND and SWEDEN approach their opener June 2 in Saitama with equal measures of anticipation and trepidation. With upcoming games against Argentina and Nigeria, a loss could ruin the chance to advance.
The Swedes, many of whom play in England, are rubbing their hands at the prospect of derailing the team coached by countryman Sven-Goran Eriksson.
Their prospects are brightened by the Curse of the Metatarsal. A broken bone in the left foot has impaired David Beckham and eliminated Gary Neville, who was error-prone but far more experienced than replacement candidates Danny Mills (attack! attack!) and Wes Brown (capable but lightly capped).
Eriksson must supply enough support so the scintillating Michael Owen isn't chopped to pieces. Midfielders Paul Scholes (inconsistent form) and Steven Gerrard (nagging injuries) haven't enjoyed the best of club campaigns.
Sweden's primary weapons are well-known in Britain. Henrik Larsson's slashing runs and lethal shooting have been tearing up Scottish soccer -- 157 goals! -- since 1997. He netted eight in qualifying play. Midfielder Freddie Ljungberg's raiding runs steered Arsenal to the English Premier League and FA Cup double.
But defensive stalwart Patrik Andersson may not be at his peak in June. He has suffered torn knee ligaments and a concussion in the past six months.
The 1-1 draw in a friendly last November could be repeated.
Ridge Mahoney is senior editor at Soccer America magazine.