Group G preview
Italians blessed with a smooth pathPosted: Friday May 31, 2002 4:43 PM
By Mike Woitalla, Soccer America
ITALY may have the best selection of forwards. But can they take penalty kicks?
It's been three straight World Cups in which the Italians went home after a tiebreaker from the spot: quarterfinals against France in 1998; final against Brazil in 1994; and semifinal against Argentina in 1990.
Such a record should have Coach Giovanni Trapattoni pondering how to parlay his potent strike force into emphatic victories that don't require overtime. Unlikely. The defensive-minded coach will probably instruct his Azzurri to play their usual, patient game -- going forward intermittently.
He has, in order to get his scorers in the lineup, created a 3-4-1-2 formation that puts Francesco Totti behind the frontline, leaving Christian Vieri, Alessandro Del Piero, Filippo Inzaghi, Marco Delvecchio and Vincenzo Montella to compete for striker spots.
A defense of Alessandro Nesta flanked by Fabio Cannavaro and Paolo Maldini makes Italy, as usual, a favorite.
What really makes Italy an attractive wager: Advancing teams from Group G move into the bracket opposite of where France, Argentina, Brazil and England would end up.
Why is MEXICO's slogan -- "Yes, we can!" -- chanted by fans, printed on players' T-shirts and featured in sponsor's advertisements ad nauseam? Perhaps because they're so worried that they can't?
Coach Javier Aguirre calls his players' battle with confidence "fear of success." In their last three World Cups, the Mexicans beat Iraq, Belgium, Bulgaria, Ireland and tied Italy and the Netherlands. But they've fallen short once in the quarterfinals and twice in the round of 16 -- all games they should have won.
They'll need more than Aguirre's sideline histrionics to take the next step. They've got firepower in Cuauhtemoc Blanco but must survive two games without suspended Jesus Arrellano. The defense is run by solid Rafael Marquez, one of the few Mexicans to succeed abroad (Monaco). It's the middle where Mexico needs leadership. Alberto Garcia Aspe is 35, so Aguirre needs Spain-based Gerardo Torrado, 23, to shine.
ECUADOR has finally reached the World Cup. It's a shame that playmaker Alex Aguinaga had to wait so long, for the heart and soul of this team is almost 34. But he has a robust deputy in Kleber Chala, and the frontline boasts Agustin Delgado (nine goals in qualifying).
Having a coach, Hernan Dario Gomez, who has been to World Cups, as a Colombia assistant and head coach, should serve the inexperienced team well.
In 1998, six years after breaking away from Yugoslavia, CROATIA entered its first World Cup. Coach Miroslav Blazevic predicted a final between his team and France. He got it wrong: They met in the semifinals. Croatia lost and settled for third place.
The likelihood of Croatia achieving a similar feat under Mirko Jozic seems unlikely. Davor Suker, the top scorer four years ago, is not in the same form -- which is true for '98 veterans Robert Prosinecki and Robert Jarni.
Still, expect Jozic to field a barricading team that could be very difficult to beat.
Mike Woitalla is executive editor at Soccer America magazine.