Don′t Believe the Hype: Pre-Cup Favorites Struggle Through | Features | DW | 24.06.2006
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Don't Believe the Hype: Pre-Cup Favorites Struggle Through

They arrived brimming with confidence, laden with stars and shouldering expectation. The big guns flew in ready to blow everyone else away. So far, only a few have delivered while others have been shooting blanks.

Thierry Henry can't believe it took France eight years to win a World Cup match either

Thierry Henry can't believe it took France eight years to win a World Cup match either

The teams that will face each other in the first knock-out round of the World Cup are now known. There are a couple of surprises amongst them, namely Australia and Ghana, but mostly those teams who were expected to advance have done so.

A number of those who have booked their ticket to the last 16 have done so with credible group standings which belie their mediocre performances in the opening stage.

So why have the teams which flew into Germany with such high hopes and such burgeoning reputations failed to set the world stage alight?

From those who have qualified for the next round, England must be the biggest enigma of them all. For a team of superstars playing for some of the most high profile European clubs, the performances as a whole border on the incredulous.

Fielding a midfield which would be the envy of any team in the world and with one of the game's most exciting young prospects in striker Wayne Rooney, England should have swept into the last 16 against such opponents as Paraguay, Trinidad and Tobago and Sweden. The truth is the toothless Three Lions limped into the knock-out stages.

While coach Sven Goran Eriksson could not have foreseen the tournament-ending injury to Michael Owen, he is responsible for England being without adequate striking cover. He is also responsible for employing tactics which his team find hard to understand and implement.

England suffer stage fright

WM 2006 - England - Schweden

Panic in England's defense: Not an unknown occurance

England are a team that takes to the field with supreme confidence. When they're winning, it can flow unrestrained. But shown their own frailties -- most painfully obvious in the final Group B game against Sweden -- they are gripped by panic. As is the coach who is left floundering by a changing game. England's hopes at this World Cup rest on whether Eriksson can keep his head when everyone around him is losing theirs.

If England can progress as far as the semi-final, they may meet reigning world champions Brazil. Until Japan were annihilated 4-1 in the last Group F match, Brazil were a pale imitation of what a Brazilian team should be. A 1-0 win against Croatia, followed by a nervy 2-0 win over Australia may have showed that in terms of goals scored, Brazil were slowly improving.

Old guard holding back Brazil's progress?

WM 2006 - Spieler - Brasilien - Ronaldo wird ausgewechselt

Ronaldo is one of Brazil's under-performing stars

But questions remain. Why does coach Carlos Alberto Parreira insist on playing an attacking full back -- Roberto Carlos -- who can't run anymore? Why does the coach keep faith in an obviously overweight and underperforming Ronaldo? And why does the "Magic Quartet" only seem to have one magician this time out, namely Kaka?

Then came the Japan game. Ronaldo scores two and suddenly he's the legend of old. Ronaldinho remembers his passing boots and Kaka is no longer the lone sorcerer. Four goals and Brazil are back on their pedestal. But this was against Japan; a team with so many holes in it, it should be sponsored by a sieve manufacturer.

Physical teams with desire like Croatia and Australia rattled Brazil and literally knocked them out of their rhythm. A team which plays under intense external pressure, with everyone believing they only have to turn up to win the cup, Brazil need to be allowed to play their way to feel good and to perform to that high standard. In the coming rounds, they will face teams that will restrict their performances. It will be a measure of this Brazil team how they react to that.

Italy arrived in Germany almost unnoticed. The clamor for the samba stars of Brazil, the media glare which follows Beckham and Co. and the noisy debate over the host nation's chances were the perfect cover for the Azzurri to swoop in with their new attacking mentality to upset the World Cup apple cart.

And they did, to start with, but more because no-one had noticed that the old defensive tactics of grinding down opponents had been replaced by a new flair bordering on the cavalier. The surprise that Italy had come to the World Cup to play immediately had everyone heralding them as potential champions.

Combustible Italy still the practitioners of the dark arts

WM 2006 - Italien - USA Spielszene

Italy battled to an inglorious 1-1 draw against the USA

But after the "Battle of Kaiserslautern" where Italy and the United States kicked chunks out of each other and ended up with a 1-1 draw, the cynical side of the Italians reminded everyone of their potential to lose control, if not the game. Facing nine-men with 40 minutes left to play, ten-man Italy preferred to exact revenge whenever they could rather than go for the win.

Against the Czech Republic, they were again handed the advantage of playing a depleted side but still failed to impress despite keeping all their players on the pitch and winning 2-0. Lack of confidence is not one of the problems the Italians have to face; keeping concentration and maintaining their cool are.

And then there is France. Anyone who remembers the summer of 1998 cannot fail to have watched old soldiers like Zinedine Zidane, Lillian Thuram and Fabien Barthez laboring through the group stages without shedding inner tears. France's World Cup triumph on home soil eight years ago was a neutral's joy. France's World Cup performance in 2006 is a betrayal of that soccer legacy.

French legends hobbled by sated ambition?

Les Bleus had a team made up of youthful exuberance and a couple of old heads back in '98; this year, they are an aging team dragged to the finals by fading legends brought out of retirement.

WM 2006 - Spiel - Frankreich - Schweiz

Zidane the master consoles Ribery the pupil

The French youth system and academy which produced World Cup and European Championship winners in successive tournaments surely cannot have stopped baring such rich fruit. And yet, Raymond Domenech fields a team with bulging trophy cabinets and sated ambition with only 23 year-old winger Frank Ribery the only obvious glance to the future in his squad selection.

The French don't look to have the stomach for battle this year; they lack the desire that is obvious in the teams who have progressed with performances that suggest they could be real contenders. Despite a 2-0 win against Togo which took them through, the French again looked disinterested at times.

The World Cup underachievers maintain that it's important not to peak too early. This may be true but there is a need to peak at some time if the World Cup is to be won. That's why Germany, Spain and Argentina -- teams which have found the connection between their potential and their performance -- look a better proposition than a lot of the teams with big reputations which have now scraped through.

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