Matthew Monk is a school teacher
from the UK who has the World Cup as one of his greatest passions. He will share his views about the past, present and future of
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Europe stumbles towards Asia
OK then, just one more friendly to go before we find
out who will make up the final 23-man squads. Just
one more month of domestic and Champions League action
for everyone to make that important last minute
impression and force their way into the English,
French, Spanish or Italian squads. Then why do I get
the impression that most of it is already decided in
all but name?
Sure, the coaches are going to wait for the end of the
European season before naming final squads (and will
probably hold out right to the final minutes before
the FIFA deadline) but I am sure that people like Rudi
Völler, Sven Goran Eriksson and Giovanni Trapattoni
must have 20 names already in place. In fact only
Roger Lemerre has a real issue among the big European
coaches - just how is he going to replace Robert
Pires? Against Scotland he played Henry
further back, going with the combination of Wiltord
and Trezeguet up front but I don't really think that
we will see those two start against Senegal. If they
do, plenty of European (and Argentinean) defenders
will be quite thankful - but don't expect to see
anything other than Henry and Trezeguet together in
Japan. Unless of course another injury hits.
The French reached their imperious best form again
last week against Scotland, and although the
opposition was very limited the World Champions have
every right to feel confident. They have few weak
links. Wiltord is definitely one - he maybe fast and
have some skill, but as a finisher at the top level he
leaves a lot to be desired. A better bet for Lemerre
would be to take Nicolas Anelka to Asia. Admittedly,
Anelka has had a poor two years since leaving Arsenal
and his form had reached rock bottom at the start of
the season. But today he is very much back in the
groove at Liverpool, and his partnership with Michael
Owen has the potential to make Liverpool dominate the
Champions League for the next two or three seasons.
His physical speed is still a match for any major
attacker, but now that mental speed he once had is
back. His reading of the play for Liverpool recently
has been outstanding, and while he still isn't finding
the back of the net as much as he should the number of
goals and chances he is creating demands he play.
"We are not arrogant, but we are World and European
champions, and there must be a reason for that" was
how Marcel Desailly summed up the current French mood
and you would struggle to disagree with him on a night
when just about every other major European nation
played poorly. I do still have small, nagging doubts.
Wiltord I have already dealt with, and him aside the
attack is the best in the world (so unlike four years
It is in defence that this current French team may
struggle. Barthez is not as good a keeper as many
have claimed - he is too hit and miss, too prone to
error - and may cost the French a valuable goal at the
worst time. In front of him the defenders are not
getting any younger either. You cannot deny the
qualities of Thuram, Desailly and Lizarazu, but the
rest all seem very beatable. Lebeouf is simply too
old. He was always Laurent Blanc's understudy in the
first place, and now he is in semi-retirement at
Marseille he could be a liability against fast, agile
forwards. Around him, Christian Karembeu and Vincent
Candela are acceptable substitutes, but you cannot
imagine them terrifying the Argentineans or Italians.
Finally there are the squad players, Silvestre and
Christanval. Christanval has some ability and might
well win things with France in 2004 or 2006, but he is
not ready yet. Mikael Silvestre will never be ready
for this level of competition. He survives purely on
the reputation of his club side Manchester United
(where incidentally he is the least popular player
amongst the fans) and will be exposed by any decent
So is the outlook bleak? No, of course it is not. To
get at this defence (where Emmanuel Petit could always
be employed in emergency) the opposition will have to
get the ball off Zidane, Henry, Viera and Trezeguet.
It was this quartet that decimated Scotland last week
- imagine what they could have done with Pires in
there? The depth of the squad here is intimidating as
well. Youri Djorkaeff is still around (albeit at
struggling Bolton) and there is a whole new generation
of excellence coming through like Djibril Cisse.
Interestingly Lemerre chose to play Steve Marlet of
Fulham last night for the final thirty minutes instead
of Wiltord. He duly scored and has to be in with a
chance of going to Japan. Something that bewilders me
though is that if he has impressed Lemerre this season
playing for Fulham, why has Steed Malbranque not done
so? Now here is a replacement for Pires. In his
first season in England Malbranque has been
outstanding, and in a team with more cutting edge up
front (as opposed to Marlet and Louis Saha) he would
be picking up the type of plaudits that Pires has. If
my team Liverpool could buy one player for next
season, I would like it to be Malbranque over any
other player in England. A French squad with
Malbranque in it would be a totally different
prospect, and would be one that would be even closer
to retaining the trophy.
The French had an easy night then, but how about the
rest of the major European teams? Well almost without
question it was a night of failure and setback all
across the continent. The major shock must be
Portugal losing 4:1 at home to Finland - and Portugal
were lucky to get away that lightly! While Finland
have some excellent players who are at the top of
their form at the minute (like Sami Hyypia, Juha
Kolkka and Jari Litmanen) Portugal should be winning
these games. In the end I think their easy route
through the finals will help Portugal go very far, but
they cannot hope to perform like this in Korea and
succeed. Similarly, their group rivals Poland lost at
home to Japan 0:2 - and without Jerzy Dudek in goal
for the Poles it would have been a lot more. This
coming only a week after Japan beat The Ukraine, and
on the same night that both Belgium and Russia lost to
weak opposition leads me to think we could yet see
that Brazil-Japan match in the Second Round that FIFA
want so much.
The two big matches were England versus Italy and
Spain-Holland. Once again never ending substitutions
spoiled these games as a spectacle but we did learn
quite a lot nonetheless. England and Italy were very,
very closely matched, which is a credit to the young
and inexperienced English team. Italy did not look
like world-beaters, and given their clubs' constant
failure in the Champions League you have to think that
they will not get much better between now and June.
Totti is an undoubted star, and Montella just can't
stop scoring goals, but the semi-finals might be as
far as they can hope. And they probably will get that
far, again helped by the weak Korean half of the draw.
This cannot be understated - France, Argentina,
England and Brazil are all in the Japanese half with
tough matches against Turkey, Nigeria, Sweden, Uruguay
and Denmark to get through, as well as having to play
each other in the Second Round or quarter-finals. In
the Korean half it is much less crowded. Spain, Italy
and Portugal have comfortable groups and a good chance
of avoiding each other all the way to the semi-final.
Most European eyes were also on Spain against Holland
in Rotterdam. This was another close game, and
although the Dutch won, the Spanish came away with
plenty of positives. Probably more tellingly it just
reminded us that the Dutch are not going to be in
Asia, and their fans and players must be kicking
themselves. This could have been their World Cup. If
it was not for the Irish of course.
Ireland are one of the two Europeans teams moving into
top gear at the minute. In the last twelve months
they have beaten Holland, the Czech Republic and
Russia, and almost beat Portugal. Last night they
demolished Denmark 3:0 without Roy Keane. The Irish
are playing like a good club side - totally
comfortable with each other and full of confidence.
They do not have any superstars (the two Keanes, Roy
and Robbie, being their biggest stars) but have so
much teamwork and self-belief that you have to believe
they will get out of Group E quite easily.
And the second team getting into top gear? Welcome
back Europe's most successful sporting nation:
Germany. After years of stumbling from one tournament
to the next with the same old tired team, Rudi Völler
has made a few key changes and reinvigorated his side.
In the seven months since England ravaged them in
qualification the Germans have quietly beaten several
European and American teams comfortably. Almost
un-noticed they have started scoring goals again - 15
against Finland, Israel and the USA - and while they
still concede at the back, they are winning again.
One rule that English fans have had for years is never
back against the Germans in a big sporting event. And
now two months before the World Cup starts they are
back in with a chance. Again they are in the easy
side of the draw, and could meet Slovenia or Paraguay
in the Second Round, followed by a possible
quarter-final against Italy. That is just the type of
test the Germans would relish, and even if they
eventually go home empty-handed they will do so in a
much healthier position.
Six months ago I would not have given the Germans a
chance of winning the World Cup. Now I just might put
an each way bet on them. Especially if it comes down
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