Matthew Monk

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 this event.

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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 ago).

    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 attacker.

    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 to penalties.



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