Group D preview
Fearsome threesome awaits U.S. at World CupPosted: Friday May 31, 2002 4:37 PM
By Ridge Mahoney, Soccer America
Standing between the UNITED STATES and the second round are three opponents, two of which are seeking to reclaim past glories and one desperate to save face.
PORTUGAL could be poised for its best World Cup showing in 36 years or set up for a great fall.
The talent is unquestioned. Midfielder Luis Figo is the reigning World Player of the Year, strikers Pauleta, Joao Pinto and Nuno Gomes wield sharp finishing strokes, and the tackles and tirades of captain Fernando Couto are feared throughout Europe.
The pressure is stultifying. No less than the great Eusebio, hero of the 1966 team that finished third, predicts a return to glory.
Yet Figo is banged up from a rough season with Real Madrid, and Rui Costa has labored at AC Milan.
Still, the Portuguese, a potent mix of Latin flair and European pragmatism, are just a shade shy of the elite. They played brilliant soccer at Euro 2000 and qualified for the World Cup by taking four of six points from the Netherlands.
The SOUTH KOREA that split two matches with the United States (1-0 in December and 1-2 in January) won't be the same team that faces the Americans June 10 in Daegu.
South Korean staples of frenzied work rate and furious pressure have been leavened with leadership.
Defender Hong Myung Bo, set to play in his fourth World Cup, brings experience and composure. Attacker Ahn Jung Hwan adds guile and incisiveness. Neither of them played in either game against the U.S.
Since then, Coach Gus Hiddink has tinkered with systems and personnel. Sure to be available are striker Hwang Sun Hong, the nation's all-time leading goalscorer, and midfielders Yoo Sang Chul and Song Chong Gug, who each scored in the U.S. games.
Not since 1986 has POLAND qualified for the World Cup, and recent developments haven't cooled talk of emulating the 1974 and 1982 teams, which finished third.
Fearsome striker Emmanuel Olisadebe (eight goals in qualifying) has been in and out of the starting lineup for Greek club Panathinaikos and has looked sluggish -- when not injured -- in Poland's warm-up games.
Playmaker Piotr Swierczewski struggled through a mediocre season with Marseille after a move from Bastia. Errors by defenders Tomasz Waldoch, Tomasz Klos and Jacek Zielinski gave away goals in warm-up losses to Japan (2-0) and Romania (2-1), misleading results for the Poles, who have cruised since becoming the first European team to clinch its group last September.
Olisadebe isn't the only threat. Defensive midfielder Radoslaw Kaluzny, distinctive not only for his shaved head but his adeptness with it, scored five times in the qualifiers. Swierczewski has a good touch, and Marek Kozminski is a danger on the left.
Klos, Waldoch and Tomasz Hajto are veterans of the German Bundesliga. The latter two form the central pairing in front of Liverpool keeper Jerzy Dudek.
If history counts for anything, the Poles can recall the 1986 World Cup in which they advanced to the second round by beating Portugal, 1-0.
Ridge Mahoney is senior editor at Soccer America magazine.