I will be taking an in-depth look at all 32 teams participating in the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany. Group H consists of Spain, who many consider to be one of the most internationally underachieving European teams in football. Also Ukraine, who is a talented team looking for a little more international notoriety. Saudi Arabia and Tunisia is looking to crack into the elimination round with good group performances.
World Cup Appearances: 12th Appearance; 8th Consecutive
Best Finish: 4th Place (1950)
Key Players: Fernando Torres, F; Raul Gonzalez, F; David Albelda, MF
When you think of the high caliber of football that is played in the national league in Spain, you have to think that they are a top European force nationally. You would be correct in assuming so, however they are not quite as successful as you may think. Despire fielding world-class players for many years and being a fixture at the World Cup finals, Spain has never claimed football’s top prize. They have only captured 1 UEFA Championship in their history as well, and that was more than 40 years ago. This 2006 campaign is another promising one, but there are whispers that nothing short of a championship final is unacceptable for them.
Few thought they would have much difficulty in qualifying for their12th WC finals, however, after a successful preliminary round without much challenge and a convincing 5-1 victory over Slovakia to secure entry into the next round. Group in what some considered the weakest European qualifying group, Spain and most of the world was surprised to find that it was Serbia-Montenegro, not the Spanish, who would come out on top of the qualifying group.
But we are now at the finals and Spain will need performances that rival the top teams for them to have success where it is expected. Manager Luis Aragones has a team who has underachieved in their history and recently, and need to turn it on now more than ever if they look to win it all. They have the scoring talent up front to do so, with a pair of strikers that can rival any combination in the world, Raul and Fernando Torres. Although they carry plenty of young talent, Aragones has decided to stick with the veterans, and the two combined for 10 goals in the qualifying stages. Torres, or El Nino as he is known by his countrymen, is a 22 year-old star in the making who has impressed club sides worldwide with his impressive showing in the Spanish top division. He’s had a dynamic international career for the national side as well, tallying 11 times already in 21 games heading into the finals. He was the team’s top scorer in qualifying and they look to his striking ability and prowess up front to head the attack.
He pairs with Italy’s famed number 7, Raul. A fixture in Spanish football since 1994, when he made his debut for the club side Real Madrid’s lower division club, he has been scoring goals ever since. He made his World Cup debut back in France 1998 and scored a striking tally against Nigeria. Of course, his 2002 WC experience began great, tallying three goals in the first four games. But injury would strike for Raul, as it did in the 2000 UEFA Cup, and he was forced to watch as his side missed his striking ability on the field and fell to Korea. It pained the fierce competitor to sit and watch his side lose, but he has taken it upon himself to lead them into Germany. They will need to ride him to victory here, and he can definitely carry a team.
Other key players who must play well include MF David Albelda, who’s playmaking and possession are key in the midfield. They need to control play in that third against these three teams, over which they hold a decisive advantage in the midfield. Iker Casillas is the number one goalkeeper, and although still relatively young, has a high number of caps internationally and is quickly rising alongside the world’s elite in goal.
It may be said time and time again, but Spain has the talent to succeed against the world in this finals. Whether or not they do it is the question on everyone’s mind.
World Cup Appearances: 4th Appearance; 4th Consecutive
Best Finish: Last Sixteen (1994)
Key Players: Yasser Al Qahtani, F; Sami Al Jaber, F
A team who had an impressive first showing 12 years ago, the Saudis are looking to Germany as a prime opportunity to take a step up on the world ladder by having a good showing against some solid international sides. This team has some dynamic strikers, so you will have to defend them honestly. However, they must expend a lot more energy defensively, as they will be forced into a team defense scheme. They just are not strong individually and midfielders can be expected to drop back into the defending third.
They can attest their attacking ways to their current manager, Gabriel Calderon, a former Argentine national. He’s done a good job with blending youth and experience, however, and there is no better example of that than the striking duo up front in Al Qahtani and Al Jaber. The latter is a 34 year-old striker who has been a integral part of the Saudi team which has made four straight WC finals. He had retired from international competition, but was induced to return in 2005 and has been important to their national side’s qualifying efforts. One of the country’s best strikers historically, he’s a loose cannon in the attacking third, making him a tough mark for many a defender, even some of the more experienced.
He teams with a man who is a decade his junior, Al Qahtani. Just one of the quickest men on the football pitch in recent memory, his combination of blazing speed and incedible dribbling ability make him dangerous on the attacking third. He could do to improve his crossing and his play wide of hte box, as he could make himself more dangerous with imrpovement on his crossing game, but he is still dangerous to many on the pitch. He is another one of theose players who could break into international stardom with a breakout performance here, already having garnered attention from European club sides with his Saudi League performances.
The Saudis play an open offense, and with that comes advantage and disadvantage. Against teams like Ukraine and Tunisia, their offense can be used to expliot their defenses. However, against a balenced Spanish side, the Saudis must press with intelligence instead of just openly. If they can play good football they’ll be a threat to advance.
World Cup Appearances: Initial Experience
Best Finish: n/a
Key Players: Andriy Shevchenko, F; Andrey Voronin, F; Andriy Vorobey, F
Having suppled the U.S.S.R. for many years with its best talent, the Ukraine is finally able to enter the WC finals with a team that represents them and not the Soviet Union. And with this team, they look to make an emphatic first impression to the world. They have started off well, being the second team in Europe after Germany to secure their spot in the WC finals. They did so in a good group, with Turkey, Greece, and Denmark all patrolling the pitches, and scored 25 points to win that group.
They ride their best player, their only world-class talent in the attacking third, Andriy Shevchenko. The 2004 European Footballer of the Year, Shevchenko was among the dubious list of world-class players to never have appeared in a WC finals with their national sides. But he was annointed with the task once again to deliver the Ukranians to their first finals in Germany, and deliver he did. Shevchenko scored a team-leading 6 goals during qualifying, and the striker who has led AC Milan since 1999 was able to finally say that he had brought a WC finals appearance to his nation. Having played 65 games for the international side, he has been the most important figure in their national side’s history. He can beat anyone on the pitch and does so with amazing skill. It takes more than just an ability to kick the ball, and he embodies that more than anyone on this side.
He’s got a little support on this team as well. They do have attacking talent, as not only Shevchenko, but teammates Voronin and Vorobey are also good scorers who have proven so in Europe at the club levels. Vorobey, who has been playing domestically his entire career, is a homegrown scorer who does not score as natually as Shevchenko, but works as hard and is rewarded with a good ability to put in into the netting. Voronin, meanwhile, plays a key role on the substitutes’ bench and is a great option for them to have.
I think that Ukraine will be able to surprise some people. Much like some stars in the past, Shevchenko has the ability to carry this team to new heights by themselves. They could look good with an advancement into the elimination round.
World Cup Appearances: 4th Appearance; 3rd Appearance
Best Finish: Group Stages
Key Players: Zied Jaziri, F; Hatem Trabelsi, D; Santos, F
They will forever be remembered as the first African nation to score a victory in the World Cup finals back in 1978, but this Tunisian team is looking for its first trip into the elimination rounds of the finals. They have some work to do, as they have not tallieda nother victory since that opening victory against Mexico in 1978, but they have a team on the field now who can turn some heads with its physical play and counterattacking ways. They’ll look to make some waves here as well, and like I’ve said for many teams, having something to prove is sometimes a buoying factor in success in these finals.
They recently won the 2004 African Nations Cup and were given a bye through the preliminary rounds because of their appearance in the 2002 World Cup finals, and they didn’t disappoint in the group stages of qualifying in Africa. They recorded a final record of 6-1-3 in the group stages. They are an African team with WC experience, and also fielding quite the impressive international resume outside of the WC finals as well.
They field some truly world-class performers. That starts with a front-back tandem. Up front in Zied Jaziri, who plays up front with a huge electricity and motor that never ends. His exciting play and spectacular tallies have made him somewhat of a national hero and superstar. He’s incredibly unpredictable on the field, sometimes making plays that are highly irregular but having an inordinate amount of success with them around the pitch. He’s an incredibly tough mark because of this and drive opposing sides mad. He can put the ball anywhere in the goal, up high in a corner or tuck it low by the goalie. It’s incredibly dangerous for these opponents when he’s got position as well cause he’s amazing with the ball.
Hatem Trabelsi is a true star in the backfield, and that’s usually a hard thing to justify to the supporters who traditionally love their strikers, their dazzling midfielders, or their wall-like goaltenders. But Trabelsi is a legitimate star. A converted midfielder, you still see flashes of his ability with the ball when he pushes forward into the midfield and the attacking third, but it’s his defense that makes him equally dangerous. He can be counted on as the man who shuts down the left side of an opposing team’s attack. He’s so strong on the right side that sometimes weaker teams will completely diregard that side of hte field and not attack from there. He has that kind of effect.
Tunisia can be able to score and defend well. Not extremely dynamic on either side, they play balanced football and can play well enough to crack into those elimination rounds. Key will be their ability to space the field. They possess a speedy team and with open space they can do a massive amount of damage.