World Cup 2018 – Group by Group Predictions

The wait is over; it’s finally here. After months of anticipation, the 2018 World Cup kicks off today. Hosts Russia play Saudi Arabia in the first match at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow in front of a massive crowd which will likely also feature Russian President Vladimir Putin. Robbie Williams will be on hand to “entertain” the crowd (and Mr Putin) in what will be one of the most eagerly anticipated yet controversial World Cups to date. Concerns about Russian hooliganism and the continue threat of terrorist activity plight the tournament before it begins. Questions are being asked about how Russia will cope as a host and what kind of World Cup this will be. On field questions are yet still to be answered too.  Can Germany lift back to back World Cups or will Brazil get their revenge for what happened four years ago. Can Iceland upset the odds again like they did at Euro 2016 and reach the quarter finals. Will Ronaldo add to his growing collection of trophies or will Lionel Messi finally put the ghost of Maradona to bed by lifting his own golden trophy? We try to answer all of these questions and more now.

Group A:

Russia enter this group with a heavy heart knowing that little is going in their favour. History suggests that Russia won’t get out of the group as has been the fate of several other host nations. Added into that an aging squad and a lack of creativity, Russia will likely struggle. However the thought of spending their years wasting away in a Siberian prison which is where Putin will likely send them all if they embarrass him, may be enough to spark some sort of Russian resurgence. Golovin will be crucial if they are to progress. What does work in their favour is the presence of Saudi Arabia in their group who have more chance of collectively being elected US president in 2020 than escaping the group. Uruguay should dominate with ease especially if Suarez and Cavani have anything to do with it but they will need to be on top form to beat a Salah inspired Egypt. The Egyptians sneaked in the back door in qualifying with a late surge by the Liverpool man to get them to Russia but their over reliance on him should be their downfall.

Qualifiers: Uruguay, Russia

Group B:

Without doubt the easiest group to predict in terms of top 1&2, the question is less about who but in what order. Spain and Portugal will be far too good for Iran and Morocco but don’t expect either to roll over without a fight. Spain, whose manager was sensationally sacked yesterday after agreeing to take charge at Real Madrid without informing the Spanish FA have so much strength throughout that they could afford to leave the Chelsea trio of Alonso, Fabregas and Morata behind. The 2010 World Champions are only taking two recognized strikers which sounds baffling until you look at their midfield. Regardless of who is in charge (Hierro looks to be in at present but that could change), Spain should have enough to get out of the group but maybe not much more given the turmoil. Portugal on the other hand will again turn to Ronaldo for inspiration and this time unlike at Euro 2016, the Real Madrid striker is rested and in peak condition. Not that necessarily they need him to be as was shown at the Euros where they shocked more than a few by triumphing. Morocco could challenge both of the Iberian sides especially if flair players like Younes Belhanda show up but the same can’t be said about Iran who will be literally bootless after Nike stuck the boot in just days before the tournament started by pulling out of its agreement to supply boots to the team following new US sanctions.

Qualifiers: Spain, Portugal

Questions over how Spain are coping following their managers sacking will be answered against Portugal (Image from tumblr)

Group C:

Australia arrive at the World Cup with 38-year-old Tim Cahill still very much part of their plans. But there is a freshness about this Aussie squad that arguably hasn’t been seen for a while. Celtics Tom Rogic is in fine form coming into the tournament and will be looked towards to provide forward momentum. However a lack of potent goal threat (Cahill aside) may be the difference between Australia progressing and exiting stage right. Peru on the other hand will be delighted just to be there. Issues surrounding captain Guerrero have been cleaned up with the 34-year-old cleared to play despite being found guilty of doping. It’s a huge relief for the country as without him, Peru offers very little. Three good performances with a chance of an upset in one of them is the best they can hope for. Denmark and France should be competing for the two qualifying spots and it may come down to that match to decide it. Denmark are youthful and pacey with Sisto and Dolberg two to watch. France led by Deschamps for now (Zidane hovers in the shadows) go into the World Cup with one of the most complete squads; such is their wealth that several key players have been left out (Lacazette, Martial and Coman). Much will be expected of Mbappe and Griezmann whilst Pogba will be hoping to leave his Manchester United troubles behind and play a starring role for his country. The issue with France is not about qualifying for the group or likely a round of 16 tie against Croatia but later in the quarters and semis where they will look to the bench for tactical influence and inspiration. Unfortunately Deschamps will be sitting there so the lack of a plan B could be their undoing. Zidane will ready if that happens.

Qualifiers: France, Denmark

Group D:

Much like Group C, this group will be decided by two teams although perhaps not as cut and dry as the other. Croatia have improved vastly in recent years and look more like a collective team rather than individuals running around aimlessly. Modric and Mandzukic will be key but look out for Kramaric to also shine. Defensively solid, Croatia might not score a lot but don’t let many in too so should progress. Argentina on the other hand are clearly coming in with the same mindset as the Real Madrid “Galaticio” era – it doesn’t matter how many we concede as long as we score one more. With a front line of Messi, Aguero, Higuian, and Dybala it’s not hard to understand why many are tipping Argentina to go one further than in 2014 and finally deliver the World Cup that Messi so desperately wants. The biggest disappointment of this front line is who was excluded including Mauro Icardi and the highly impressive Lautaro Martinez but it may be a tournament too soon for the youngster who is destined to shine at future World Cups.

Dybala, Higuian, Messi, Aguero – Argentina certainly aren’t short of firepower up front (image from Tumblr)

Nigeria will pose a threat especially with the pace of Ahmed Musa and Kelechi Iheanacho upfront. A majority of the squad is based on the UK or Turkey meaning that as a unit they are used to seeing and competing against each other regularly. The issue will be that some key players like the aforementioned pair have struggled for playing time at Leicester this season with Musa eventually engineering a loan move in January back to Moscow in order to protect his selection for the Super Eagles. Making up the group is Iceland, the smallest ever nation to qualify for the World Cup. Two years ago they lit up Euro 2016 with some remarkable performances none more so than against an arrogant England who thought they would breeze past Iceland into the quarter finals. Iceland’s journey in that tournament, which also introduced the world to the thunder-clap cemented their place in the hearts of all football fans and that love affair is likely to extend now to the World Cup where they will be the de facto side to support for all nations who didn’t qualify (USA, Holland, Italy – looking at you). However Iceland find themselves in the so-called group of death and this time they will rightly be treated with respect rather than contentment which should make the challenge of qualifying harder. What goes for them is that Iceland has team spirit in abundance and if they can channel that plus the form they showed in qualifying (where they knocked out Holland and Turkey) they could again have hearts fluttering as they race into the knock out rounds.

Qualifiers: Argentina, Croatia

The Thunder Clap will be out on display at the World Cup regardless of how Iceland perform (Image from Tumblr)

Group E:

With the humiliation of four years ago still fresh in the memory of most Brazilians, their team comes to Russia with a point to make. Winning the World Cup is the only definition of success for Neymar and his teammates and this might be the year that it happens. Manager Tite has created a well balance yet exciting Brazil that usually sets up in a fluid 4-3-3 formation with Neymar, Coutinho and Firmino as the front three. But it’s the midfield that drives the team. Casemiro, Paulinho, Fernandinho and Fred are fairly interchangeable but the setup is not – dropping back to offer cover for the defence when the opposition presses then turning over with slick passing and forward momentum. Brazil you can say have learned their lessons and look better for it. A run to the final should be on the cards unless a team can exploit a weakness (space behind the adventurous left back Marcelo perhaps) and send Brazil home again to rethink. Serbia come into the World Cup as a dark horse with few really knowing which side will show up. On their day, Serbia are a solid outfit who defend well and attack with flair and pace. But more often than not they are found wanting or sometimes not at the races at all. Their midfield is key to any success with Matic often sitting whilst the likes of Milinkovic-Savic and Zivkovic poke holes in opposition defences. Upfront they are a little light with Newcastle’s Mitrovic their main battering ram whilst Luka Jovic provides the flair. Qualifying is not out of the picture; that is if they turn up.

One of the shocks of Brazil 2014 besides the Brazil team were Costa Rica who knocked out Italy in the group stage before eventually falling to Holland on penalties (Tim Krul’s appearance as sub goalie was the killer). Four years on and having qualified again, Costa Rica are older and wiser than before; with the key word there being older. If it weren’t for the inclusion of relative youngsters Ian Smith and Ronald Matarrita, the squads average age would be north of thirty rather than just south of it. Bryan Ruiz captains the side yet again and is likely their key goal threat although Joel Campbell does offers a different option. Qualifying will be tough but wins against Serbia and/or Switzerland and the adventure could be on again. The Swiss are often known for being impartial, never ready to rock the boat. However at the World Cup they may have other plans. Having qualified through the playoffs dispatching Northern Ireland with the thanks of a dodgy penalty call, Switzerland will be hoping that they can show exactly what they have to offer. Stoke midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri may not have had the best season in the Premier League but the little midfielder is still dangerous to play against especially as he comes inside on his left foot. Watch out for Breel Embolo too who is likely to want to stamp his name on the tournament.

Qualifiers: Brazil, Serbia

Group F:

Current World Champions Germany kick off Group F with a match against Mexico on Fathers Day and it’s likely to be one of the most interesting of the tournament as it will be an early indication of how far Germany can go. Germany are on a quest to become the first team to win back to back World Cups since Brazil achieved that feat back in ’58 and then in ’62 (Italy also did it in the 30’s). With a squad riddled with talent it’s hard to look past them but this time the challenge will be much harder. Whilst there is no Miroslav Klose to fire in the goals and Mario Gotze to pop off the bench to snatch the winner, Germany do have a ready replacement in Timo Werner. Although not a carbon copy of either he has traits that suggest that Germany manufactured him in a lab using both players DNA. Quick on the ball, skillful with it at his feet and an eye for goal, Werner will be needed if Germany are to lift the trophy. Which puts a lot of pressure on such young shoulders. That however seems to be a running issue in a team of superstars; the lack of an old wise head who can burden the responsibility of German expectations for the entire team like Lahm did four years ago. Indeed despite having Kroos, Muller, Hummels and Ozil to call upon, Germany lack a Schweinsteiger or Per Mertesacker who can rally the troops when needed. It may instead take a moment of brilliance to get the team excited and that could come from Julian Brandt who’s blistering runs will be sure to have bums everywhere lifting from their seats. Qualification from the group should be a formality but progress to the final could be stopped if Germany falls silent on the pitch.

No Gotze or Klose but they have Werner (Image from Tumblr)

Their opponents on opening day are Mexico who too should be looking at escaping the group. There are a lot of familiar faces in the Mexico squad including the Dos Santos brothers, Javier Hernandez and for a record fifth time Rafael Marquez at the tender age of 39. But it’s some of the not so familiar faces that could excite the masses. Marco Fabian and Hirving Lozano are two such players that given the right tools could have an influence on Mexico’s progression. El Tri have never not managed to get past the round of 16 in their last six attempts so that has to be the goal this time around. If they can do that, then who knows what kind of party they will throw for their returning players. If their ill advised World Cup leaving party was anything to go by (30 prostitutes plus a lot of alcohol are not a good combo), then it could be one hell of a night. Standing in Mexico’s way are potential party poopers Sweden who have resisted the temptation of recalling Zlatan to the squad and are focusing on the task in hand. Unlike Swedish teams of old that had standout goal scorers like Ibrahomivic, Larsson and to a lesser extent Dahlin this current crop looks a little lightweight upfront which could be a problem. The pressure will then be placed on the midfield to create including Emil Forsberg who is coming off a tremendous season with RB Leipzig. Seb Larssen who has just returned to play in Sweden after a career stay in England with various clubs will also be needed if Sweden stands any chance of qualifying. That is of course unless Zlatan just turns up because despite FIFA rules around naming squads, Zlatan plays when Zlatan wants to play.

Rounding out the group is South Korea who are another side that rely too heavily on one player. Spurs Son Heung-min has had his best season ever in England and will be looking to transfer that form into the World Cup. South Korea favour a counter attacking style of play which suits Heung-min perfectly but unlike Spurs who have a solid defence in order to do so, South Korea do not. Added into this, South Koreas manager still flutters between a back four and a back three repeatedly making their chances of progression limited at best.

Qualifiers: Germany, Mexico

Group G:

Arguably next to France and Germany, Belgium have the most complete squad at this years tournament boasting star names in almost every position. Solid at the back with Courtois, Vertoghen, Alderwerield and Kompany, Belgium have a strong foundation in which to build a World Cup winning campaign. Going forward they aren’t sloppy either with Romelu Lukaku and Michy Batshuayi feeding off opportunities created by Dries Mertens, De Bruyne, Carrasco and Hazard. All in all Belgium should be considered as dark horses to win. Except for the fact that their manager is Roberto Martinez who doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence. The former Wigan and Everton boss has had a mixed spell in charge of Belgium. Like his predecessor, Martinez lacks the tactical ability needed to switch a game when it’s not going well. In a league you can get away with it but in knock out international football, every minute counts. If Belgium are to win it will likely be in spite of Martinez rather than due to him.

To Listen or Ignore – the dilemma for Hazard and his teammates (Image from Tumblr)

England are their toughest group opponents and under Gareth Southgate pose a viable threat to their chances. Southgate’s squad contains a good mix of youth and experience centred along a solid spine with Harry Kane as its focal point. Options are a plenty which is a good thing but can also work against you especially as consistency usually helps to win this tournament. In almost every position with the exception of striker as previously stated, Southgate could go for one of several options – Pickford or Butland, Maguire or Stones, Rose or Young, Alli or Lingard etc. This does place unnecessary pressure on the team regardless of how prepared and relaxed you are. Pressure is not something England cope with well and a majority of it comes from an over excited media who still reflect back to 1966 and England’s only World Cup triumph. In a way, that win has been a curse for the teams that followed with the media elevating expectations repeatedly higher than they should be. The team Southgate has is certainly good enough to win the World Cup but removing the pressure and finding consistency may be too big of a headache for the England boss.

Panama make their World Cup debut after watching the US fail to qualify. Few of the names in the Panama squad will be familiar to the watching fans but what they will see is an extremely passionate team who play for each other like a brotherhood. What Panama lacks in technique they make up for in grit and determination which in itself can be an extremely powerful tool. Traditionally defensive in style, Panama won’t be the most exciting to watch although Gabriel Torres may just have something different to say on that. Three good performances are likely the best they can hope for. Finally Tunisia rounds out the group. They come into the World Cup looking to build upon and improve on their last three appearances where they have failed to get out of the group stages. Unfortunately this side doesn’t look up to the task. Short on pace and lacking a real star, Tunisia will hope like Panama to compete well and hopefully spring an upset. Whabi Kazhri leads the line but it’s midfielder Ellyes Shkiri that could make the difference and in doing so put himself in the shop window. A talented 22 midfielder, Shkiri has a strong passing range and reads the game well but the lack of a supporting cast might mean his efforts are in vain.

Qualifiers: Belgium, England

Group H:

Finally group H sees Poland face Colombia, Japan and Senegal. Possibly the hardest group to call for a variety of reasons with many tipping Colombia and Poland to advance but others naming Senegal in the mix too. Japan is the side that no one really fancies in terms of proceeding and for good reason. Japan’s run up to the World Cup has been dramatic to say the least; sacking head coach Vahid Halilhodzic ten weeks before the tournament started and replacing him with the guy that sacked him, Akira Nishino is hardly the best preparation. Nishino is well liked by the older players in the squad and has a lot of coaching experience however the move has created friction in the Japan ranks which may not have died down before they kick a ball in Russia. Squad wise Japan are not the strongest. Shinji Kagawa and Keishu Honda are remnants of the Japan of old yet still pull the strings in the team. At the back Southampton’s Yoshida organizes best he can around a shaky looking defense. Qualifying would be nice but unlikely.

Halilhodzic departs as Nishino watches on (Image from Tumblr)

Colombia on the other hand should progress and could go as far as the quarters or semis given the right draw. James Rodriguez is their creator and chief architect so expect everything to go through him whilst the return of Radamel Falcao to form has been a welcome boost. At the back Mina and Sanchez are youthful additions but sometimes lack the discipline needed to perform well at international level. Goals however have been an issue of late despite Falcao’s return. The introduction of Miguel Borja might be enough to solve this but it’s unlikely. Beating Poland and finishing top would set up a clash with England in a game very difficult to call. Senegal could alter that plan. Led by former midfield enforcer Aliou Cisse, Senegal have a strong squad with Napoli’s Kalibou Koulibaly at the heart of the defence and Liverpool’s Sadio Mane leading the line. Often criticized for being too conservative in his approach, Cisse focuses on soaking up the pressure with slow painful passing movements and then releasing Mane to run at defences at pace; a strategy that has proven to work in the past. That however was against African opponents so may not work against the likes of Poland or Colombia who press with vigour.

Poland make up the group and are as always ever reliant on their striker Robert Lewandowski. The Bayern hitman is the principle reason why they are at the World Cup but to be fair he had a lot of support in the process. Piotr Zielinski has proven to be an exciting prospect who can create opportunities for Lewandowski up front. Milik and Grosicki too have stepped up with goals and assists. However the concern for Poland is not going forward but it’s at the back. Defensively Poland have been poor, so much so that the manager has switched tactics more times in the last two years than he has had hot dinners. Finally he looks to be sticking with three at the back with Glik, Pazdan and one other occupying those spots. Poland expect qualification from the group but little else which is more realistic than most nations are being.

Qualifiers: Colombia, Poland

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The Best Uncapped Players Yet to Feature for El Tri

Back in 2016, FutMexNation’s Tom Harrison produced Mexico’s uncapped Xl, a team of the best players yet to feature for the national team. Then, in 2017, César Hernández produced his own version. Now, Tom’s back with a new squad of talented players yet to make it with El Tri.

GK – Gibrán Lajud – Tijuana

Lajud has cemented his place as a starter for Tijuana after Federico Vilar’s retirement, and earned a spot in the squad for the Bosnia friendly earlier this year. A first cap will likely be received after the year’s World Cup as El Tri begin the next four-year cycle.

Statistically, Gibrán sits fourth for most saves by a Liga MX keeper across 2017/18, and has been successful with all ten of his “runs out”. Improvements for Lajud need to come in possession, his pass accuracy is below 55% and he’s only completed a third of his long passes. This leaves him ranking near the bottom for Liga MX keeper pass accuracy.

LB – Gerardo Arteaga – Santos Laguna

Santos’ impressive improvements in youth development have brought the club benefits on the field and in the bank balance, and should soon start to positively impact the national team. Left-back Gerardo Arteaga could be one of the Santos products to impact El Tri, as a potential long-term replacement for Miguel Layún.

After making his Liga MX debut in October 2016, Arteaga has played over 1,000 minutes in Mexico’s top flight in both 2016-17 and 2017-18. Analysing Arteaga statistically is slightly problematic as Santos usually bypass their full-backs in build-up play, Gerardo’s average of 35 possessions per match is very low, but for players with over 500 minutes this season, he’s one of only four players to have won the ball as often as they’ve lost possession. Highly impressive, and suggests that Arteaga is both a capable ball-winner and solid ball-player.

CB – Eduardo Tercero – Lobos BUAP

The ambitious, attacking Lobos certainly haven’t performed well defensively this season, but 21-year-old centre-back Eduardo Tercero has made a large impression on many. Playing on the left-side of a back-three with “Maza” Rodríguez and long-term Lobos servant César Cercado, Tercero has put up impressive numbers both in and out of possession.

Eduardo averages 5.59 tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes, which puts him 15th in Liga MX this season, ahead of players like Alex Mejía, Carlos Izquierdoz, Santiago García and Igor Lichnovsky. Tercero has also won 67% of his ground duels, completed 18 of 19 dribble attempts and 86% of his passes. A 44% aerial duel win rate is concerning, but with his ability to regularly win possession, combined with class in possession, Tercero looks like a fantastic centre-back for the modern game. Plenty of Liga MX sides should look to pick him up from Lobos this summer.

 CB – Leiton Jiménez – Atlas

Colombian-Mexican Jiménez has been playing in Liga MX since 2012, so the assumption is that he’s fulfilled FIFA’s five-year requirement and that he could play for Mexico now. Injuries have often prevented Leiton from getting lengthy first-team spells, negatively impacting his performance and development, but at his best, Jiménez is one of the best centre-backs in Mexico. Physically, few are as imposing as Jiménez, with his pace and strength allowing the Atlas centre-back to excel in duels. His duel win rate of 62.1% is one of the best in Mexico’s top flight.

Leiton does make a few errors, and isn’t always great in possession, but Mexico currently don’t possess a centre-back with the physical power of Jiménez, Néstor Araújo is strong, but lacks pace. Perhaps something Juan Carlos Osorio is missing.

RB – José Maduena – Cruz Azul

Right-back is the most difficult choice in this team. Rodrigo “Stripper” Salinas has impressed for Toluca recently, Santos’ Jorge Sánchez is as exciting a prospect as teammate Gerardo Arteaga, and Chivas’ Jesús “Chapo” Sánchez excels defensively. However, Chapo isn’t fantastic going forward, and as a result he lost the right-back spot to José Maduena.

Maduena isn’t as good out of possession as Chapo, but going forward Maduena is fantastic at making overlapping runs, taking on opponents and delivering dangerous crosses. Dribbling is the most impressive facet of Maduena’s game, with the former Atlas man completing 60% of his attempts. The move to Cruz Azul hasn’t panned out well so far, but if Osorio wants to use to natural right-back who’s capable of contributing greatly to the attack, Maduena is the best option.

DM – David Cabrera – Pumas

Cabrera’s been a solid, dependable part of the Pumas midfield for many years. An accurate passer, capable of picking out through balls and switching play effectively, David can play as both a “number eight” and “number six”, as a deep-lying playmaker.

Unfortunately for Cabrera, Mexico have plenty of defensive-midfield options right now, including; “Gallito” Vázquez, “Burrito” Hernández, Diego Reyes and Jonathan González. As a result, a national team call-up is a long way off, but if given an opportunity Cabrera would be unlikely to disappoint.

CM – Víctor Guzmán – Pachuca

One of the defining factors of Diego Alonso’s spell at Pachuca has been his desire and ability to change young Mexicans from defensive players to attackers. He helped Rodolfo Pizarro switch from a right-back to an attacking-midfielder, he’s currently changing Erick Aguirre to a left-winger, and Víctor Guzmán was altered from a defensive-midfielder to a more advanced, goal-scoring midfielder.

Unlike a traditional attacking midfielder, Guzmán’s game is all about scoring goals, rather than creating. His numbers for dribbles, crosses and key passes are very poor, as he usually just plays simple passes, but with nine goals from 38 shots this season, Víctor’s shot conversion rate is one of the best in the division. The secret to Guzmán’s goal scoring, as well as his finishing ability, is the timing of his runs. The former Chivas man has scored all nine of his goals from inside the box, and has, extraordinarily, only been caught offside twice across 2017/18. Without injury, Guzmán would have likely been given his Mexico debut in recent friendlies.

CM – Dieter Villalpando – Necaxa

Forget the attitude problems of old, forget the disappointing spells at Tigres, Atlas and Morelia where he was played out of position, if at all, Dieter Villalpando has, alongside Erick Gutiérrez, been the best Mexican playmaker in Liga MX for the past two seasons. Sergio Bueno is the man to thank for Villalpando’s revival, trusting the attacking-midfielder to play in a deeper, “number eight” role, in a central midfield pair last season at Chiapas. Overlooked at first by Nacho Ambríz at Necaxa, Dieter is now back playing a similar role, and has become a key part of an improving Necaxa side.

Villalpando has all the technical attributes that make up an excellent playmaker; superb dribbling, brilliant vision, good pass and cross accuracy, plus an ability to strike from range. Dieter’s very intelligent too, capable of finding space in tight spots, often dictating where teammates should pass, and he displays outstanding knowledge of la pausa, a tactical concept that refers to delaying a pass or dribble in order to wait for a more advantageous game situation for your side. Villalpando is Mexico’s most underrated player, and has been for a while. He should be considered for Russia.

LW – Rodolfo Vilchis – Morelia

Rodolfo Vilchis may be a right-footed left-winger, but in Roberto Hernández’s more structured attacking system, he spends the majority of his time close to the left touchline, rather than drifting inside. Vilchis is a big risk taker, with just over 40% of his plays non-key passes (under 50% is rather rare). This makes him both an exciting player to watch, and a useful attacking force, even if his efficiency at completing crosses and dribbles needs improvement.

The Morelia winger unfortunately lost a huge amount of his career to short, unsuccessful loan spells with Ascenso MX sides, but Rodolfo has finally been given opportunities with La Monarquía in the last year or so, and has shown his talents.

CF – Eduardo “Chofis” López – Chivas

Chofis is extremely unfortunate to have not yet received a look-in from Juan Carlos Osorio. There is plenty of competition for attacking midfield spots in Osorio’s squads, but López has developed his consistency this season to become Chivas’ stand-out player. Statistically Chofis is extraordinary, displaying both high attacking output and sensational efficiency (comparing successful attempts with unsuccessful ones). With a 60% dribble completion rate, 81% pass competition rate and above 35% cross success, Chofis far exceeds the Liga MX averages for attacking midfielders and wingers. The only concern is that not enough of López’s creations aren’t leading to goals or the creation of “big chances” for teammates, which could suggest that Chivas aren’t patient enough in front of goal.

In this side, due to a lack of striking options for Mexico right now, Chofis is being used as a false-nine, and considering his intelligent movement and creativity, he could generate plenty of opportunities for the forward-running Víctor Guzmán. It’s a combination that we could have seen at Chivas, but will hopefully enjoy in the colours of Mexico in the future.

RW – Roberto Alvarado – Necaxa

When the youngest player to ever appear in an Ascenso MX game moved to Pachuca, his future seemed mapped out. The winger had the perfect opportunity to replace the soon departing Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, develop at Los Tuzos as so many others have done recently, before moving onto Europe or a Liga MX giant. However, Diego Alonso evidently wasn’t much of a fan, and Alvarado was surprisingly sold to Necaxa in the 2017 summer transfer window.

Los Rayos have greatly benefited from Pachuca’s decision to let Alvarado go. Roberto has started 20 times in Liga MX this season, usually as a right-winger, and been excellent, particularly during the Clausura. Alvarado doesn’t threaten the goal often, usually staying wide, but has proven to be a good creator this season, and statistically “El Piojo” is an excellent dribbler, completing 4.07 dribbles per 100 possessions for just 2.47 failed dribbles per 100 possessions. The average Liga MX winger fails more dribbles than they complete, and numbers as strong as Alvarado’s aren’t seen often.

Honourable mentions

CB – Carlos Vargas – América

19-year-old Vargas followed Miguel Herrera from Tijuana to América, and often gets game time either at left-back or centre-back. One to watch.

RB – Jesús “Chapo” Sánchez – Chivas

Chapo is Mexico’s best natural right-back from a defensive point of view. If he were taller, Sánchez may have been starting for Mexico in Russia.

DM – Michael Pérez – Chivas

With over 5 tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes, Pérez is one of the best ball-winning midfielders in Liga MX.

CM – Rafael Baca – Cruz Azul

The definition of an all-round midfielder. Baca can play as a “number six” or “number eight”, provides good energy and is dependable in his distribution, if unspectacular.

CM – Erbín Trejo – Querétaro

The majority of Trejo’s career has unfortunately been wasted on the Toluca bench, but he’s displayed good quality in possession since being given a run in Liga MX.

W – Jordi Cortizo – Querétaro

Cortizo has put together some remarkable stats since receiving opportunities in the Querétaro first team. Excellent at completing dribbles and winning fouls, but Cortizo’s low number of missed passes really catch the eye.

CF – Alexis Vega – Toluca

A well-rounded young attacker who’s destined for national team minutes if he can continue to develop and stay clear of injuries at Toluca.

Post by Tom Harrison: @tomh_36  , Founder of @Performance_100

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Analyzing Mexico’s Attacking Midfield Options Ahead of the World Cup

As the World Cup approaches, thoughts turn to Mexico’s preparations and the squad that will be taken to Russia. The attacking midfield positions are some of the most hotly contested, with Juan Carlos Osorio having plenty of varied creative options. Assuming that Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, Jesús “Tecatito” Corona and Carlos Vela will all make the 23-man squad, and that Víctor Guzmán won’t be fully fit and ready, let’s take a look of some of the other players available, using Performance 100 data to assist analysis.

The experienced

Experience

With over 100 appearances for Mexico, few have the experience of Giovani dos Santos. At 28, in theory this should be Gio’s World Cup, the one where the precocious talent reaches the peak of his powers. This appears highly unlikely though, with recent performances for El Tri and LA Galaxy extremely underwhelming. There are question marks over the desire of the ex-Barcelona youngster, and even more questions regarding whether or not he’s deserving of a place in Russia. Statistically, dos Santos’ numbers from the 2017 MLS season are clearly distinctive to the attacking midfielders he’s being compared to in this article. Gio’s Performance 100 map arguably looks more like one of a central midfielder, rather than an attacking midfielder.

Attacking output (crosses, shots, dribbles, etc) is low, with 68.9 of Gio’s 100 possessions resulting in a non-key, or regular, pass. Efficiency is good, with low numbers for missed passes and failed dribbles and crosses (cross efficiency is quite extraordinary), but the data suggests that recently dos Santos has simply not provided enough creativity to significantly impact matches. An improvement at the start of this MLS season is critical for Gio to nail down his place.

The main concern about Marco Fabián is fitness, with the ex-Chivas creator having played just 23 minutes of Bundesliga football this season. As a result, the graphic looks at Fabián’s stats from 2016-17 in the Bundesliga. Marco impressed last season with his cross efficiency, and although he failed more dribbles than he completed, Fabián was fouled extremely regularly for Eintracht Frankfurt. Perhaps the most impressive stat is the one in the top left corner though, 1.1 goals + assists per 100 possessions, one of the best figures for the players compared in this article, and that’s come whilst playing in the Bundesliga. Marco’s also displayed flexibility during his spell in Germany, often playing on the right-side of the midfield, after spending the vast majority of his career so far through the middle or coming inside from the left. However, Fabián’s low key pass figure is concerning, and surprising.

Javier Aquino displays the numbers of a winger who’s more involved in the early build-up of an attack, rather than latter stages. Aquino rarely attempts shots on goal, and his goals and assists per 100 possessions figure is just 0.44. This makes sense considering the role he plays at Tigres, with the likes of Eduardo Vargas, André-Pierre Gignac and Enner Valencia more advanced. In terms of efficiency, essentially the comparison of successful actions with unsuccessful ones, Aquino sits above the average Liga MX winger in terms of; dribbles, crosses, key passes vs. failed passes and fouls received v dispossessions.

However, the Tigres man doesn’t stand-out as excelling in any part of the game, and whilst consistent good performances can be expected from Aquino, perhaps his lack of a major strength will stand against him as Osorio puts together his World Cup squad. Javier’s defensive capabilities and work rate may salvage his hopes of making it to Russia though. Aquino is known for being able to contribute more defensively than the average attacking midfielder, and his rate of 1.38 clearances per 100 possessions backs up this claim.

The wingers

wingers

It’s rare to see out-and-out wingers completing more dribbles than they fail, but his superb dribble stat isn’t enough to make up for the lack of efficiency in the rest of Jesús Gallardo‘s game. 6.39 failed crosses per 100 possessions for 1.33 completed is a very poor rate, and the low figures for key passes and shots on goal, plus the huge numbers of missed passes, don’t impress. Gallardo may not lose the ball too often when taking on opponents, but there’s been a remarkable lack of end product to his game this season. Considering Gallardo’s height and flexibility, as he can also fill in at left-back (the high clearance figure suggests he’s played in defence at times this season), JCO will likely consider the Pumas man as an option for Russia. But judging by his Performance 100 numbers, which are clearly below the average Liga MX winger, he shouldn’t be given a second glance.

Part of a direct León side, Eliás Hernández evidently creates enormous attacking output, with his non key pass circle smaller than any other player featured in this article. Elías has long been regarded as a superb creator, via crosses and through balls, and his Performance 100 data backs up this belief. Key pass and completed cross numbers are huge, and whilst Hernández does fail a cross 12.7 times out of every 100 occasions that he receives possession, his cross efficiency is still well above average. The average cross efficiency for a Liga MX winger would result in 16.9 failed crosses for 5.47 completions, Elías is performing considerably better than that. These crosses, key passes, and shots, are having impact when it matters most as well, with 1.9 goals and assists per 100 possessions.

Elías appears an excellent option for Mexico if Osorio wants a player that can regularly create opportunities, however, there’s concern over his quality with the ball at his feet. Dribble efficiency is low, dispossessions are high and the León winger barely wins fouls. If Hernández is struggling when taking on defenders in Liga MX, the World Cup is perhaps a step too far.

For those that have long criticised Jurgen Damm of failing to back up his blistering pace with consistent attacking output, these stats provide some vindication. Dispossessions are, somewhat surprisingly, very low, but all other figures don’t make for pleasant reading. Particularly concerning is Damm’s 15% cross success rate, and it’s difficult to see what else Jurgen can offer El Tri. Considering a lack of game time this campaign, it may be felt that purely looking at Damm’s 2017-18 data would be harsh on the right-winger. Fortunately, the tweet from Soccer Nurds, below, compares Damm’s three previous seasons.

DUVwXJtVwAArOAS (2)

A clear regression in performances can be seen when comparing Jurgen Damm’s previous three Liga MX campaigns with Tigres. Back in 2015-16, Damm certainly looked good enough to be considered for a Mexico call-up, but banking on him re-discovering that form would be a risky decision.

The outsiders

outsiders

If Osorio is looking for an attacking midfielder that can play in multiple roles, Rodolfo Pizarro must be considered. Pizarro, who began his career as a right-back, can play as a traditional ‘number ten’, a direct inside-forward, regularly attempting to get in-behind opposition defences, and even a box-to-box midfielder. Wherever he plays, the Chivas man offers excellent dribbling ability (the highest number of completions per 100 possessions in this comparison), creativity and good shooting proficiency, as his stats show. Pizarro also has impressive stamina, speed and work ethic.

Statistically, the main concern is the large dispossessions number. Dispossessions are occasions when possession is lost whilst a player isn’t attempting a dribble, pass, cross or shot. Exactly why Rodolfo’s dispossession figure is so high is unclear, but it’s certainly a worry that he’s losing the ball at such regularity. Furthermore, whilst the tactically flexible Osorio will probably like Pizarro’s ability to play in multiple roles, it could be seen as a weakness of his game. Pizarro may benefit in the future by specialising in a certain role and maximising his talents that are specific to this role.

View image on Twitter 

Arturo “Ponchito” González was a forgotten name. A prospect of yesteryear failing to receive regular football in an outstanding Monterrey team. But all has changed in recent weeks. Ponchito has worked his way into Antonio “Turco” Mohamed’s starting line-up, and has even prompted Turco to alter his formation in some recent matches, using Ponchito as a ‘number ten’ in a 4-2-3-1, rather than the 4-3-3 we usually saw in the Apertura. Arturo has impressed, and statistically dribble and shot efficiency is excellent, as is Ponchito’s 4.91 key passes per 100 possessions. On the other hand, figures for missed passes, failed crosses and dispossessions are rather high. Certainly an outside option, but whilst these stats wouldn’t instantly attract attention from Osorio, if Marco Fabián isn’t fully fit and Giovani dos Santos is deemed to be too out of form, then Ponchito might become a possible ‘number ten’ option.

Javier “Chofis” López has phenomenal numbers this season. Just compare him to teammate Rodolfo Pizarro. More shots on goal per 100 possessions, with fewer missed shots, slightly fewer dribbles completed for significantly less fails, not far off twice as many key passes, more crosses at a much better completion rate, around half the number of dispossessions andmore fouls received. Chofis greatly outperforms Pizarro, and stands out amongst the attacking midfield competition in this piece. One stat raises alarm bells though. Despite this fantastic attacking output, at incredible efficiency, Chofis gets a goal or an assist just 0.55 times out of every 100 possessions. Nearly half Rodolfo Pizarro’s figure, with the pair averaging almost identical possessions per 90 minutes. There’s an element of misfortune about this figure, Chofis has picked up two assists from seven big chances created, with Pizarro getting six assists from the creation of eight big chances.

Evidently Lopez’s Chivas teammates are failing to regularly put home the opportunities that he makes. However, it’s curious that Pizarro has created eight big chances from 41 key passes, whilst Chofis has seven big chances created from 68 key passes. The data suggests that Chofis is creating more, at greater efficiency, but Pizarro’s creations are more likely to result in goals. Analysis of expected assists would be required to dig deeper. Chofis is yet to become the complete package as a creative player, but his Performance 100 numbers prove that López is a fantastic attacking midfield option, who deserves lengthy consideration for the 2018 World Cup squad. As an unknown quantity to the rest of the world, he has the potential to provide a surprise spark to the Mexico attack.

Piece by contributor Tom Harrison – follow him on twitter at @tomh_36

The Performance 100 idea was developed by Tom Harrison, with raw data provided by Sofascore and graphics produced by Soccer Nurds

Canada – The Safe Option For The FIFA 2026 World Cup?

 

With questions being asked about the selection of Russia and Qatar for the next two World Cups in 2018 and 2022 respectively, few are thinking about the 2026 event with any real purpose. That is with one exception – Canada who is actively looking into making a formal bid to become the host nation. Ranked 110th in the world, Canada has failed to qualify for any World Cups since its one and only appearance in 1986. Despite this, the popularity of the sport in the region is at an all time high and is growing in terms of participation by kids under 16 at a faster rate than the more traditional sports in Canada like Ice Hockey and Baseball. The continued development of the Major League Soccer (MLS) which now includes three Canadian participants – Toronto FC, Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact has helped to sustain this growth as has the increased exposure of foreign leagues like the EPL and La Liga on Canadian broadcaster’s schedules. Added into this, the diversification of the Canadian population over the past twenty years that has seen an immigration explosion from Europe, the middle East and Asia, football is more relevant to Canadians that ever before.

Canada's only World Cup appearance was in Mexico 1986 (Image from Getty)

Canada’s only World Cup appearance was in Mexico 1986 (Image from Getty)

Many will question whether Canada could host a tournament of this scale and whether the infrastructure exists but in truth the country has more experience with major FIFA tournaments than some of the other rumoured interested regions. Over the past twenty years, Canada has played host to almost every FIFA organized tournament with the exception of the world futsal, beach and club championships, Confederations Cup, and the Men’s and Women’s World Cups. However next summer sees Canada checking off one of those boxes as they play host to the 2015 Women’s World Cup. FIFA will be watching with interest to see how that tournament unfolds and if successful it could be the springboard needed for Canada to bid for the men’s tournament in 2026.

Canada plays host to the 2015 Women's World Cup (Image from FIFA)

Canada plays host to the 2015 Women’s World Cup
(Image from FIFA)

Formal bids for the 2026 World Cup do not need to be submitted until 2018 but preparation and discussions are already underway at the Canadian Soccer Association. CSA president Victor Montagliani knows that before they can submit their bid, there is a lot of ground work that needs to be done both in the region and at FIFA, lobbying those in power to show Canada’s true potential. FIFA are keen to continue the development of the game in regions not typically focused on football/soccer and Canada fits the bill perfectly. With a 35 million population, an established national transport network and a growing appetite for the game, Canada would present an interesting proposition. The only plausible concerns that FIFA may have would be around stadiums with a minimum of 12 all seater venues required, all of which needing a capacity of 40,000 or more. Currently Canada falls short but so did Qatar who was rewarded the 2022 games anyway by FIFA on the promise that they would be built for the event so that should offer some hope to Canada’s bid team.

Qatar won their bid despite still needing to build all of its stadiums like the one above (Image from Qatar 2022 bid)

Qatar won their bid despite still needing to build all of its stadiums like the one above
(Image from Qatar 2022 bid)

Given that the 2018 World Cup is in Europe and the 2022 event currently in the Middle East, bids from those regions would be not considered. That leaves countries from Asia, Australasia, North and South America and Africa to fight it out for the rights. Australia, who missed out on the 2022 games, will likely submit a bid as will the USA who is also seeing a growing interest in the beautiful game. No African country besides South Africa has the infrastructure needed to host a World Cup so FIFA is unlikely to see a bid from that region. In South America, Argentina and Colombia may formulate bids but at this time neither has suggested this as an option. Canada is the only G8 country not to have hosted the Men’s World Cup so Montagliani believes it’s now time for Canada to step up to the plate and do so. Having watched neighbours the USA host in 1994, Montagliani believes that Canada has a strong case to follow them given the similarities between the two countries. Canada has  history in preparing a bid; after FIFA stripped Colombia of the 1986 World Cup due to economic concerns, Canada, the US and Mexico all stepped up with bids of their own. Eventually the tournament was given to Mexico, much to Canada’s disappointment. However Canada has come a long way since then and any bid now would be far more robust than the one submitted all those years ago. In the end it will be FIFA who decides if Canada is the next country to host the World Cup. Given the issues that the organization is currently experiencing with Russia and particularly Qatar, a safe bid may be the preferred option. Given their past experiences hosting FIFA tournaments, surely there is no safer bid than a Canadian one?

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Jamaica Stuns US To Seal Gold Cup Final Spot

It wasn’t meant to end this way. Inspired by the heroic performance of the women’s team at the Women’s World Cup, the US men’s national team were supposed to bring home a trophy of their own – the Gold Cup. The defending champions had it all in their favour – home field advantage, a better squad than most of the others in the tournament and good form after a series of impressive friendly victories over Germany and Holland in the run up. Despite a less than convincing start in the group stage, the US finally found its second gear in the quarter finals hitting lowly Cuba for six. Klinsmann’s men looked ready and were already preparing for their six consecutive appearance in the final when they came up against Jamaica in yesterday’s semi final. But the Reggie Boyz clearly hadn’t read the script that the US had written. Instead of rolling over, they took the game to their opponents and in the end walked away with a much deserved victory leaving the US players shell-shocked. Jamaica now proceed to Sunday’s final against Mexico whilst the US are left wondering what just happened.

Down and Out - The US players leave the pitch shell shocked (Image from Getty)

Down and Out – The US players leave the pitch shell shocked (Image from Getty)

Goals from Giles Barnes and Darren Mattocks were enough to seal the shock win and knock the holders out. Toronto midfielder Michael Bradley did manage to pull one back for the US but it counted for nothing as they crashed out of the Gold Cup. Despite having a majority of the possession and more than enough chances to win the game, the US simply couldn’t find a way past Ryan Thompson in the Jamaica goal. The 30-year-old, who plays for Pittsburgh Riverhounds in the USL (the US third division) was in stunning form making save after save as the US bombarded the Jamaica goal. Indeed the only real mistake that Thompson made during the entire game was the failure to hold onto Johannsson’s long range shot which bobbled from his arms straight into the path of Bradley. By the time the newly elected US captain struck, the US were already trailing by 2-0. Despite having limited shots on goal, Jamaica made each one that they did have count with Mattock’s first on the score sheet. The Vancouver Whitecaps frontman rose well inside the box to connect onto a throw in from Kemar Lawrence and loop his header over Brad Guzman and in off of the far post. US national boss Jurgen Klinsmann will be disappointed with his centre back John Brooks  who was out jumped by Mattocks despite having a sizable height difference (6’3 versus 6’0). Still shaken from that goal, it wasn’t long before the US had conceded again. This time the goal came from an exquisite free kick by former Derby prodigy Giles Barnes from the edge of the box. Barnes curled the ball round the outside of the wall and into the near post with Guzman failing to get across in time to stop it.

Giles Barnes curls his free kick round the wall to give Jamaica a 2-0 lead  (Image from PA)

Giles Barnes curls his free kick round the wall to give Jamaica a 2-0 lead
(Image from PA)

Bradley’s goal just after the restart gave the US the lift it needed and rallied the crowd behind the home team with Jamaica now looking rather nervous. But Winfred Schafer’s side would not give in and held on for the remaining 42 minutes to book their first ever appearance in a Gold Cup final. Remarkably its only their 2nd win over the US in 23 attempts but one that they will saviour for a long time to come. Their focus will now turn to Sunday’s match against Mexico, a side who are beatable based on their performances so far in the tournament. They finished second in group C behind Trinidad after an enthralling match between the two in the final game. Mexico surged into an early lead but seven goals in the last forty minutes of the game saw the game finish as a 4-4 draw and left Trinidad on top of the group with Mexico behind them. The knock out rounds were less than convincing too  for Mexico as they struggled to find their rhythm. They needed extra time in both their quarter-final against Costa Rica and their semi final against Panama  to win the games and book their final spot.

Mexico sealed their place with a controversial win over Panama  (Image from Getty)

Mexico sealed their place with a controversial win over Panama
(Image from Getty)

This could hand Jamaica a much-needed boost with Mexico potentially facing up to fatigue after two gruelling matches in four days. But El Tri will be the strong favourites to lift their tenth title, and will take comfort in the fact that they are not facing the US as predicted. Jamaica however will once again relish the underdog carding and will be out to show that the US result was not a fluke as they look to lift their first ever Gold Cup.

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USA Ready To Defend Gold Cup Title

Can the US defend the Gold Cup? (Image from AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)The US Men’s National Team has had some trouble recently however they have come together to defend their Gold Cup title with experience over youth. Manager Jurgen Klinsmann has chosen to use a more experienced team at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, but the youthful team he is using in the Gold Cup could prove to be the US team of the future. 

#1: The Youthful Team

The youthful team that is going to the Gold Cup is facing other youthful teams from neighboring countries. There are many experienced players in the world who choose not to play the Gold Cup, and the countries must dip into their junior ranks to find the players they need. The players on the US team are more experienced overall, and the US team’s chances will rise immediately. Even the likes of John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin have played for the US over ten times despite being only 22 years old. 

The US squad looks remarkably different now without the likes of Donovan and Holden  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

The US squad looks remarkably different now without the likes of Donovan and Holden
(Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

#2: Stiff Competition

As always the threat to the US regaining the title lies with Mexico. The El Tri are not at full strength in the Gold Cup, but the Mexicans always field great teams filled with players who play professionally around the world. Stiff competition comes in the form of a US team that is not able to get past its previous failures. The Americans have won the Gold Cup, but that team did not perform very well in the last World Cup. The Americans are stuck in a cycle that sees them only progressing so far before being eliminated. The change in the roster could cause problems for a team that does not have an identity, and the match betting on the team becomes quite complicated.

As always, Mexico pose the biggest threat  Image from Getty)

As always, Mexico pose the biggest threat
Image from Getty)

#3: Is This Klinsmann’s Last Stand?

There has been little improvement to the US team since the World Cup and Jurgen Klinsmann is running out of opportunities to turn around the USMNT program. The team has not improved much since Klinsmann took over, and the Americans are not in the mood to be disappointed again in 2018. The World Cup 2018 could be a watershed for everyone in the ranks of world soccer, and Klinsmann could be let go if it appears that he is unable to manage the Americans to victory. His coaching philosophy is not perfect, and his results are varied.

Could this be a defining tournament for Klinsmann  (Image from Getty)

Could this be a defining tournament for Klinsmann
(Image from Getty)

#4: Will The US Win The Gold Cup?

The Gold Cup is anyone’s tournament to win, and it is a tournament the Americans could easily lose. The major changes in the American roster have caused an upheaval that most onlookers do not understand. The upheaval that the Americans take to the Gold Cup could become so problematic that they are eliminated early. The experienced team that the United Stated takes to the Gold Cup could help turn around Jurgen Klinsmann’s fortunes, but the Gold Cup is only one step in the rebirth of American soccer.

This article was written by Tony Samboras who is a sports writer with a passion for soccer. He has written for many online publications and currently writes for www.freebets.com.au

The New Generation Of Mexico Stars About To Take Over The World

After the failure to reach the 1974 World Cup and then the 1976 European Championships, the French Football Federation (FFF) decided to make swift and proactive changes to improve their chances of qualifying for upcoming tournaments and protect France’s long-term future. FFF President Fernand Sastre wanted to focus on youth and a build national centres of excellence to encourage the growth of the next generation of French players. The idea was the brain child of former France National team boss, Ștefan Kovács who had seen similar types of centres at home in his native Romania. But the coach knew he needed Satre’s help to get the idea off the ground. Within 6 years, centres like Clairefontaine were established to nurture new talent and rules had been passed onto all clubs within the league setup regarding  youth development and squad selections. The new rules passed made it mandatory that all clubs invest in youth schemes and feature youth players in their squads which encouraged their rapid developments.

Former FFF President Fernand Sastre  (Image from Getty)

Former FFF President Fernand Sastre
(Image from Getty)

Within 2 years, France started to see signs of early success and the national team, inspired and led by Michel Platini, lifted the European Championship in 1984. But it would be 14 years later at World Cup 1998, held ironically in France, that the new generation would finally step forward and lift the cup. Players like William Gallas, Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka all came through the youth setup at Clairefontaine, whilst Zidane, Pires, Thuram and David Trezeguet featured at other centres. The 1998 class would go on to win Euro 2000, which officially confirmed the 1976 restructuring as a success. Other nations like Belgium, Turkey and Germany are following suit, promoting youth development as one of their core requirements but none have been as successful as Mexico.

Home Grown – France win the World Cup 1998 on home soil

The catalyst of change for Mexico’s was their under 17’s triumph in the 2005 youth World Cup. They realised that they already had talented youngsters but were not exploiting them and were suffering as a consequence. Football in Mexico had been grinding along for several years before in 2005, the Mexican FA decided that radical reform was needed to solve the disconnect between it club sides to its youth set up. For years, Mexican youth football was not professionalized so a lot of the best young talent simply fell out of the system and sometimes out of football all together.

Gold in London for Mexico (Image from Getty)

Gold in London for Mexico (Image from Getty)

The first task of the newly created sports development committee, formed in 2005, was to solve this problem and introduce new policies that would prevent Mexican football from sliding backwards. What they did was radical – they instructed each club that they needed to field a player under 21 years of age, for at least 45 minutes at a time, in every game throughout the season. They didn’t stop there, introducing two new youth leagues at under 17 and under 20 level that again needed to be funded and run by the senior teams. What this did was forced the clubs to make youth development a priority and invest heavily, even create youth teams in some cases.

Jonathan Dos Santos, younger brother of Giovani, is one of many talented youngsters emerging

The results are now evident to see with talent youngsters like Marco Fabien, Jonathan Dos Santos, Carlos Fierro and Marco Bueno all emerging in recent years and attracting the attention of the world’s best teams. Success at international level has been astonishing as well as the team develops together as a unit. In the two years leading up to 2013, Mexico’s youth teams dominated tournaments winning 10 out of a possible 13, including their Under 23 Olympic Gold at London 2012. Their performance in the final, where they blew away an impressive Brazil side with ease didn’t go unnoticed and now Mexico is firmly on every scouts radar, if it wasn’t already. As this team grows together and improves, who knows what they will achieve.

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Where Next For Little Pea As Madrid’s Buying Deadline Passes

Where next for Little Pea? (Image from PA)It was meant to be his dream move but has slowly turned into a nightmare. Despite a recent burst in form that has seen him net four times in the last six appearances, Real Madrid will not be taking out their option to buy Javier Hernandez outright from Manchester United. Deemed surplus to requirements by new United manager Louis Van Gaal, Hernandez was offered to several clubs before Real Madrid swooped in with a season long loan to buy deal. Joining the likes of Bale, Ronaldo and Rodriguez at the Bernabeu was too good an opportunity for the diminutive Mexican striker, known in his homeland simply as Little Pea. But Hernandez has struggled to force his way into Ancelotti’s starting eleven on a regular basis especially with French striker Karim Benzema in superb early season form. But a recent knee injury followed by a sprained ankle has kept Benzema out of action over the past month handing Hernandez his chance. Despite taking it well and scoring some vital goals as Real Madrid continue to chase trophies both at home and abroad, Madrid have decided at this stage not to make a bid for Hernandez letting Manchester United’s imposed Thursday deadline for their option to buy Hernandez pass without action.

Hernandez signed for Manchester United in 2010 after impressing their scouts who watched him star for Guadalajara in Liga MX. He arrived at Old Trafford for a fee of € 7.5M and almost immediately became a fan favourite with his energy and enthusiasm for the game and more importantly his goals. His style of play and the tendency by Sir Alex Ferguson to use Hernandez from the bench sparked obvious comparisons to former United striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. But unlike the Norwegian, Hernandez did manage to force his way into the starting line up on a more regular basis as the goals flew in. But with the departure of his mentor Ferguson, Hernandez slipped down the pecking order and with the arrival of the likes of Robin Van Persie and this season Colombian hotshot Radamel Falcao, Hernandez knew his playing time would be limited at United. A loan move to Real was agreed with the belief that he could win a permanent move but that has not materialized as yet so Hernandez will likely have to reassess his career at the end of the season and decided where he wants to play next.

There won’t be a shortage of potential suitors with clubs in England, Italy, Spain and Germany expressing an interest in the Mexican international striker. He has already rejected a reported offer to move to MLS side Orlando City, preferring instead to stay in Europe. If he decides to return to England, several clubs like Newcastle, Southampton and West Ham are options with the trio heavily linked to the player. Serie A sides Lazio and AC Milan have also expressed an interest, whilst German side Wolfsburg are also rumoured to be monitoring the situation closely as they look to strengthen their squad after an impressive Bundesliga title push this year. His recent form in Spain has sparked interest from other sides in the Primera Division such as Seville and Atletico Madrid. He may end up remaining in Spain with his current suitors, Real Madrid who still have not formally closed the door on a full time move, despite not activating their first option as part of the loan agreement. They may however move for Colombian striker Radamel Falcao, currently on loan at Manchester United who like Hernandez has been unable to hold down a first team place.  If former Atletico Madrid striker Falcao is to move back to the Spanish capital with Real, the door could be reopened for Hernandez to have another chance at United however it looks like a slim chance given that Van Gaal is reportedly chasing PSV’s Memphis Depay and is considering transforming winger Adnan Januzaj into a striker.

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Five World Cup Stars Looking To Move Up In The World

Memphis Depay set up and score a goal in Holland's 3-2 win over Australia (Image from Getty)

With the first week of the World Cup now completed and the tournament now entering the second round of the group stage, fans across the globe have now had a chance to see their teams in action. After some spectacular matches including Holland’s 5-1 hammering of Spain, Costa Rica’s surprise 3-1 victory over Uruguay and a dominant 4-0 victory for Germany over Portugal, several players have stood out already leading to the much anticipated transfer speculation. There is no better platform for a player to showcase what he has to offer than the World Cup and a good performance can often lead to a high value transfer. Clubs too want their players to be successful as it drives up the value of them, potentially leading to an evaluated fee after the tournament has ended. Whilst several players will move as a result of this year’s World Cup, we now look at five surprise packages who after some good displays already could have earned themselves a dream move.

Wonder save by Ochoa to deny Neymar  (Image from AFP)

Wonder save by Ochoa to deny Neymar
(Image from AFP)

Matt Besler – Sporting Kansas City

For the first 45 minutes of the USA vs. Ghana match until an injury stopped him, Matt Besler was one of the best players on the park. The Sporting Kansas City defender was instrumental in organizing the US defense and stopping Ghana from posing a real threat. Besler’s rise to international status comes on the back of his growing reputation in the MLS. A permanent fixture for Kansas, Besler has now established himself as US head coach Jürgen Klinsmann’s preferred option at centre back too. He will be praying that Besler is fit to face Portugal on Sunday knowing that any positive result may help their chances of progression. Having spent his entire career in the MLS, it may be time for the 27 year old Besler to depart for pastures new with England or Holland likely destination. Besler previously turned down trials with English clubs Portsmouth, QPR and Birmingham but if he continues to perform he may have a tougher challenge of turning down some of the bigger clubs across Europe.

Besler (5) stops Ghana in their tracks  (Image from Getty)

Besler (5) stops Ghana in their tracks
(Image from Getty)

Guillermo Ochoa – Free agent

“Simply Stunning” was how one broadcaster described Guillermo Ochoa’s performance against host Brazil and it’s hard to argue. The Mexican goalkeeper produced a heroic display that prevented Neymar and friends from stealing all three points. Mexico put in a shift against Brazil and deserved their point, if not more but would not have managed it without Ochoa making three tremendous saves during the game. One in particular, a Gordon Banks esque save, when Ochoa got down low to spoon away a Neymar header that was destined to be a goal, will live in the memory of Mexican fans for years to come. He followed up with a stunning point blank save from Thiago Silva and a late save from a left foot drive by that man again, Neymar. After the game, Ochoa’s image was shown on fan Instagram accounts and Tumblr pages depicted as Superman and even received a marriage proposal from Mexican singer Thulia based solely on his performance. A free agent after leaving French side AC Ajaccio, Ochoa is now being linked heavily with Liverpool and Arsenal, both of whom need a safe pair of hands for next season. But the two English clubs are unlikely to be Ochoa’s only option with various French, Italian and Spanish clubs now in the hunt for the Mexican Superman.

Ochoa has been made into Superman on social media  (Image from Instagram)

Ochoa has been made into Superman on social media
(Image from Instagram)

Dries Mertens – Napoli

His impact in the 2-1 turnaround victory for Belgium over Algeria was clear to see. Coming off the bench, Mertens added pace to what had been a lackluster Belgian side in the first half. The Napoli star has had an impressive season in Italy last season and has already attracted a few admirers but his performance and winning goal against Algeria will only add more clubs to that list. Napoli will be unwilling to sell given his contribution (1 goal for every three games) last year but may be forced to part with him given a substantial offer from Spain or England. The dynamic winger, who’s career goal tally is impressive to say the least, is likely to start Belgium’s next match against Russia in place of Nacer Chadli and will be looking to add to his World Cup goal tally. Luis Enrique is thought to be a fan of his as is Arsene Wenger so Mertens may have a decision to make come the end of Belgium’s World Cup journey.

Mertens celebrates after scoring the winner against Algeria  (Image from PA)

Mertens celebrates after scoring the winner against Algeria
(Image from PA)

Ricardo Rodriguez – Wolfsburg

Rodriquez made history against Ecuador by becoming the first player to assist two goals in a single World Cup match for Switzerland since 1966. The left back, who currently plays for Wolfsburg in Germany put in a stellar performance and is credited as one of the players who helped Switzerland turn around a 1-0 deficeit after Ecuador took the lead. The 21 year old has only been in the Swiss national setup for less than three years but has quickly established himself under Ottmar Hitzfeld as the team’s most reliable defender. Comfortable in attack as his is in defending, Rodriguez is one of Switzerland’s several Immigrant players. Born in Zurich to a Spanish father and Chilean mother, Ricardo could have played for either of these World Cup teams but chose the country of his birth much to Switzerland’s relief. A constant in the Wolfsburg team, Rodriguez’s performances for club and country, especially at this World Cup will likely lead to a transfer away from the Wolves to a bigger club, with Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund two favourites already for his signature.

Rodriguez set up two goals for Switzerland as they pegged back Ecuador  (Image from ALAIN GROSCLAUDE/AFP/Getty Images)

Rodriguez set up two goals for Switzerland as they pegged back Ecuador
(Image from ALAIN GROSCLAUDE/AFP/Getty Images)

Memphis Depay – PSV

Sometimes a substitute appearance is all you need to impress and for Memphis Delay, that appearance happened during Wednesday’s game against Australia. The PSV youngster came on as a second half substitute and made a valuable contribution by setting up Holland’s equalizer and then scoring his first ever international goal – a 30 yard screamer that won the game. A fairly new addition to the full national side, having played at all levels for Holland from Under 15’s and upwards, Depay became the youngest Dutchman to score at a World Cup with his strike against Australia.  The 20 year old winger has been one of the revelations in the Dutch league this past couple of seasons and is destined for greater things., with PSV unlikely to hold on to one of their prized assets for much longer. Fans of Football manager will know that Depay often joins Barcelona in the game but fiction may become reality soon given Luis Enrique’s interest in the player. However he will face competition from Depay’s current boss at international level, Louis Van Gaal who is interested in taking the player to Manchester United as he starts his revolution there at the end of the tournament.

Depay's strike impressed the watching Van Gaal  (Image from Getty)

Depay’s strike impressed the watching Van Gaal
(Image from Getty)

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Spotlight On The Eight Players Who Could Provide That World Cup Spark

Hagi was the star in 94 but who will spark this time? (Image from Getty)In any World Cup, there are star players who are expected to shine. Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Andrea Prilo and Robin Van Persie will all be looked at to provide the spark needed that ignites the tournament. But more often than not, the world’s biggest football competition throws up a few other names and stars are born. Brazil will be no different with several players providing talking points for discussion around the water cooler the next morning. But which players will create that spark that has fans talking about them for the months ahead? Remember Gheorghe Hagi’s performances at USA 94 or perhaps Oleg Salenko’s five goal brace at the same tournament? Or maybe it was Paolo Rossi in the 1982 World Cup when he inspired Italy to victory despite only returning to the national side after a three year ban? BOTN looks at eight potential players who could take away the limelight from Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar and write their own World Cup chapter.

Prove him wrong - De Bruyne  (Image from PA)

Prove him wrong – De Bruyne
(Image from PA)

Belgium – Kevin De Bruyne

Regret is not something often expressed by managers but Jose Mourinho could be about to regret letting Kevin De Bruyne leave Chelsea earlier this season. The pacey Belgian winger left Stamford Bridge to join Wolfsburg after Mourinho found him surplus to his plans. But since his move, De Bruyne has done nothing but impress both for club and country. Now a regular fixture in Marc Wilmot’s team, De Bruyne was sensational during qualifying finishing as his country’s top goal scorer with four goals. As part of an exciting Belgian side now going to the World Cup, the quick feet and lighting pace of De Bruyne is all set to show his old coach exactly what he is missing.

Di Maria has been in superb form for Real Madrid  (Image from PA)

Di Maria has been in superb form for Real Madrid
(Image from PA)

Argentina – Angel Di Maria

Whilst the focus will be on Lionel Messi to inspire Argentina to success, it may actually be Angel Di Maria that steps up to the job. The Real Madrid winger was instrumental in his side’s recent Champions League victory and will carry his good form into the World Cup. With a high work rate, combined with unbelievable pace and close control, Di Maria is a nightmare for opposing defenders and will exploit any weakness he can find in them over and over again. In the past, he has been found guilty of not tracking back but this appears to be something that he is working hard on correcting with a majority of his runs now starting within his own half. Di Maria could be the key to Argentina’s success, especially in the latter rounds, which in turn should relax and more importantly release Messi to inspire the team to glory.

Fred will be the main goal threat for Brazil  (Image from Getty)

Fred will be the main goal threat for Brazil
(Image from Getty)

Brazil – Fred

Like Pele in 1970, the pressure of winning the World Cup in 2014 for Brazil will lie firmly on one player’s shoulders – Neymar. But like Argentina, the player to watch may not be the dazzling light from Barcelona; instead Brazil’s chances of retaining the World Cup on home soil may lie at the feet of Fluminense’s 30 year old striker Fred. The tall, yet technically gifted front man has established himself as Brazil’s preferred number nine and has only looked under threat of losing his place once from Diego Costa before he switched his allegiance to Spain. Sensational in the Confederation Cup run last year, Fred’s ability to hold up the ball upfront and invite Brazil’s quick and dynamic midfield to attack is his biggest asset. His finishing skills are not quite on the same level as legend’s Romario or Ronaldo but like Bebeto in 1994, Fred could play a pivotal role if Brazil are to go all the way.

Draxler will likely be used from the bench by Low  (Image from Getty)

Draxler will likely be used from the bench by Low
(Image from Getty)

Germany – Julian Draxler

Over recent years Germany has produced a host of fantastically gifted youngsters and their production line of talent continues with the introduction of Julian Draxler. The pacey Schalke winger may have surprised many with his inclusion in the squad but anyone who has watched him this past season in the Bundesliga will be more surprised that his inclusion was ever up for debate. As direct as they come and with a turning circle of a London cab with the ball locked firmly at his feet, Draxler is set for bigger things with several of Europe’s big boys already hovering nearby. Draxler is not likely to start given Germany’s wealth of talent, but is a certainty from the bench especially if manager Joachim Low spots opposition defenders tiring and on the back foot. Having only selected one out and out striker in Miroslav Klose, Low will be focusing heavily on how his midfielders can inspire and drive his team on. Draxler, along with Gotze and Ozil will be favoured candidates to take up that challenge.

Claise is hoping to get a starting spot now for Holland  (Image from PA)

Claise is hoping to get a starting spot now for Holland
(Image from PA)

Holland – Jordy Clasie

Through disaster comes opportunity and for Jordy Clasie, a unique opportunity has been presented to him due to two untimely injuries. After the early departure of Kevin Strootman due to a knee injury and with the recent withdrawal of Rafael Van Der Vaart with a calf tear, Clasie now faces up to the prospect of playing a starring role for Holland at the World Cup. Having missed out on Euro 2012 at aged 20, the now matured 22 year old Clasie now will get his chance even if it was at the expense of two of his colleagues. The Feyenoord midfielder has become a club favourite due to his never say die attitude and tenacity which he should bring to a young looking Dutch side. Comfortable on the ball, Clasie has been labeled the Dutch Xavi which in turn has attracted the interest of several EPL and Serie A teams. Expected to leave after the tournament, Clasie will want to give the Feyenoord fans one last thing to shout about – as he stars for Holland at the World Cup.

Insigne is a free kick specialist  (Image from AFP)

Insigne is a free kick specialist
(Image from AFP)

Italy – Lorenzo Insigne

Brought into the squad at the expense of Giuseppe Rossi, Lorenzo Insigne may be one of the surprises of the tournament. A diminutive figure who stands at only 5ft 4in, what Insigne lacks in height he makes up for two fold with his on field play. As a free kick specialist, that has memories of Alessandro Del Piero flooding back, Insigne offers Prandelli another option from set plays (that is if he can get the ball from the clutches of Andrea Pirlo) as well as a speedy winger out of the blocks. Comfortable on the wing or as a central striker, Insigne should see more playing time after a broken leg ruled out his starting rival, Ricardo Montolivo. Expect fireworks.

Pena wants to help Mexico past the round of 16  (Image from LEOPOLDO SMITH MURILLO/AFP/Getty Images)

Pena wants to help Mexico past the round of 16
(Image from LEOPOLDO SMITH MURILLO/AFP/Getty Images)

Mexico – Carlos Pena

The last time Mexico managed to progress further than the last 16 was at home in the 1986 World Cup. Manager Miguel Herrera knows how important it is for Mexican football to continue its development, considering little has been done since their Olympic triumph in 2012. Goals are what help progression and in Carlos Pena, Mexico has a player who knows how to score important goals when needed. The 24 year old Leon player has taken the Mexican league by storm this season with comparisons to Ruud Guillit being made on more than one occasion, not only because of his long hair but also due to the physical nature of his play on the pitch. Old before his days, Pena possess the brain of a seasoned professional but the stamina and enthusiasm of a kid. Speedy with the ball at his feet, he will look to supply the passes for Peralta and Hernandez up front that will help Mexico to qualify to the latter rounds.

Can Bacca fill Falcao's shoes?  (Image from AFP)

Can Bacca fill Falcao’s shoes?
(Image from AFP)

Colombia – Carlos Bacca

With Falcao now ruled out, Colombia will turn to Sevilla’s Carlos Bacca for goals. The powerful hit man, who started his career at Atletico Junior before success at Club Brugge, has been in great form this past season firing new club Seville to UEFA Europa league final victory over Benfica. Voted the best signing in La Liga last season, Bacca is already attracting interest from afar but expect his stock to rise even more over the course of the tournament as the goals fly in. Powerful with his back to goal but quick on the turn, Bacca poses a real threat to opposing defences especially those who mistake his apparent lack of enthusiasm for how the game is developing as a sign of weakness. In truth, Bacca is filled with confidence in his own abilities and knows that given half a chance he will put the ball into the back of the net.

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Wenger Eyes Hernandez As The Missing Piece Of The Puzzle

Little Pea as an Arsenal Player? (Image from PA)Undoubtedly a player of considerable talent, Javier Hernandez finds himself sitting on the sidelines as his team, Manchester United continue to struggle for consistency.  The Mexican striker has been mostly overlooked by new boss David Moyes, who appears reluctant to deviate from the Van Persie/Rooney front pairing. Whilst Ferguson was the prophet of squad rotation, Moyes prefers to stick with a team and run with it. It’s frustrating times for the player nicknamed “Chicharito” or “Little Pea” who would prefer a starting berth than a place on the bench. Rumours around the player’s general happiness suggest that he is looking towards January’s transfer window as a potential time to call it quits at Old Trafford.

Hernandez chances have been limited this season (Image from Getty)

Hernandez chances have been limited this season (Image from Getty)

One potential destination for Hernandez could be Arsenal, which might not be a bad option. The Gunners have been on fire this season, finally starting to look like true contenders again, with Wenger making some smart choices that are now paying off. With the acquisition of Mezit Ozil and the re-emergence of Aaron Ramsey, Arsenal now has one of the best midfields in Europe and with a solid defence are pushing for honours on all fronts. Upfront Oliver Giroud has been a revelation, after a slow start to his career in the Premiership the Frenchman is now looking like the player he was at Montpellier – powerful and forceful in front of goal, strong with the ball at his feet or in the air and an accomplished finisher. But Arsenal’s only weakness and something that has haunted them for years is strength in depth. If Giroud was ruled out with a long term injury, Arsenal would be exposed up front. Yes they have options in the form of Danish striker Nicklas Bendtner, German front man Lukas Poldoski and South Korea’s Chu Young Park, but none of the trio has looked comfortable playing as the solo striker in Wengers chosen 4-2-3-1 formation. Hernandez would offer that comfort to Wenger and a lot more.

Wenger likes the look of Hernandez  (Image from AFP)

Wenger likes the look of Hernandez
(Image from AFP)

At 25, Hernandez still has his best years ahead of him and with a likely price tag of around $12million, is a compelling option for Wenger. The Arsenal manager is also examining a potential loan move for Juventus striker Fernando Llorente but a move for Hernandez would be more appealing. Llorente caught the media’s attention in Spain with some fine performances for Athletic Bilbao which earned him a move to Italy but the player has failed to settle and has looked out of sorts alongside former Manchester United and City striker Carlos Tevez. At 6ft 3in, he is in a similar mode to Giroud but Wenger realizes that he could only play as a replacement for the French striker and not alongside him. Hernandez however at 5ft 7in offers more options with the ability and pace to play as a lone striker or potentially as a strike partner to Giroud. Whist Wenger doesn’t like to adjust his system, having the ability to go to a 4-4-2 formation or a 3-5-2 is a huge draw for the experienced coach. Hernandez has shown in his time for United that he can score all types of goals from tap ins to headers to long range strikes and links up well with creative players, something that Arsenal have in abundance.

Giroud has been in superb form for Arsenal  (Image from Getty)

Giroud has been in superb form for Arsenal
(Image from Getty)

For Hernandez, keen to secure regular club football to protect his place in the national team, it could be the perfect move. With the quality of movement and service he can expect at Arsenal, opportunities to score will come thick and fast. Joining the gunners, he would quickly become the 2nd striker which considering he has slipped down the United pecking order to 4th behind Van Persie, Rooney and Welbeck, is certainly something to consider. He would face the backlash of the United faithful who would see a move to arch rivals Arsenal as a sign of disrespect but many others have made the transition and survived so Hernandez can too. His love and respect for the club that brought him to England and gave him his chance on the bigger stage is evident but if the club cannot guarantee first team football and is willing to sell him, then he must go for the sake of his career. If Arsenal can pull off his signature in January, it will be yet another great piece of business for Wenger, already basking in the glory of the Ozil transfer. Hernandez would likely be an instant success and could quite conceivably return to Old Trafford as an Arsenal player and haunt Moyes, something that the Scotsman is well aware of. He will be reluctant to sell the Little Pea to the Gunners but letting an unhappy player leave for the sake of the wider group will be more important to Moyes than where Hernandez ends up.

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Brazil Or Bust: The Challenges Facing Teams At The World Cup

Sepp Blatter and Fernanda Lima at the Draw (Image from Getty)Friday’s World Cup draw was anything but easy to understand. The complicated system employed by FIFA to stack rank then draw the 32 teams left many wondering what had just happened. The look on England manager Roy Hodgson’s face said it all. But now that the draw is over, each team has full clarity of the task in hand and who they will be facing next summer. For some the draw was kind whilst others will be wondering whether to go at all. Speculation over who will win the tournament has gone into overdrive with Brazil, Argentina and Spain set as early favourites based on their FIFA rankings and the groups drawn but there are other factors at play that need to be considered.

All eyes on Brazil  (Image from PA)

All eyes on Brazil
(Image from PA)

Just looking at how the groups are laid out is not enough to try and work out who will be victorious in Brazil. There are other mitigating circumstances that will come into play and will affect the overall outcome. First and foremost the location of each game and the travelling required by some nations will have an effect on the condition of the players and how tired they will be. With only a few days between games, logistics will play a huge part in the preparations. Mexico look to have profited with a draw that sees their travel restricted top only a couple of hours each time. All of their matches will be played in the northern cities of Natal, Fortaleza and Recife. In the same group, home nation Brazil will spend a majority of time travelling as they attempt to appease the fans across the country. Whilst accustom to the climate and conditions, the heavy travel schedule over a short space of time make take its toll. Portuguese chances of progressing from the group stage took a hit when the draw was made. Not only did they land in a tough group with Germany, USA and Ghana, the way the fixtures are lined up could also factor into their potential success. A tough opener in Salvador against Germany is followed six days later with a tiring match against the US in tropical Manaus before a lengthy journey to Brasilia to face Ghana four days after that. Like many teams, the strength in depth of the squad will show as rotation will be key to survive the group stage. Squads like Croatia, Iran, Greece and Japan will all struggle as their key starting eleven falter and managers are forced to replace them with lesser quality players.

Travel will play a major role in who wins the World Cup  (Image from Google)

Travel will play a major role in who wins the World Cup
(Image from Google)

The weather and climate will also play a major role. In places like Manaus, centered in the middle of the Amazon, teams will experience high temperatures and lung busting humidity. During July, heavy rain is not uncommon but the summer months fall during the countries “dry spell” so the rain is usually limited to mid afternoon showers. Still this will likely alter the playing surface, forcing teams into tactical changes and potentially player selection. It’s a world away from the cooler temperatures of the south in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro where the weather is more controlled and will suit the European teams more. Don’t be surprised to see dark horses Belgium storm through the group stages after being given a kind draw. With an easy group (Russia, Algeria and South Korea) and all their matches to be played in the south (Rio, Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte), Belgium should be refreshed and firing on all cylinders come the knock out stages. France too should profit from having two of their three matches located in the south of the country. Travel will play a role but with a difficult game against the Swiss sandwiched nicely between ties against Honduras and Ecuador, France should progress with ease. England and Italy are both facing a difficult World Cup and will need to start strongly in their opening match against each other in Manaus on Saturday 14th June.  After the match, Italy travel east to Recife where they face Costa Rica then conclude the group with a likely winner takes all match against Uruguay in Natal. England however fly south to Sao Paulo to take on a Luis Suarez inspired Uruguay then north to play Costa Rica in Belo Horizonte. Hodgson will know that the match in Belo will be pointless if his team cannot pick up any points in the first two matches of the group. A tough challenge given the opposition, weather conditions and travel.

Belgium should benefit from an easy draw and little travel  (Image from Getty)

Belgium should benefit from an easy draw and little travel
(Image from Getty)

We are now just over six months away from the kick off of the 2014 World Cup. All 32 teams now know who they will be facing and what other challenges lie in wait for them when they reach Brazil. The toughest challenge for them all will be not necessarily the games themselves but everything around them. With transport infrastructure still an issue, hotels not complete and adverse weather conditions across the country, the winners of Brazil 2014 will have to overcome a variety of obstacles if they are to lift the famous golden trophy.

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England Hold Their Breath As The World Cup Draw Nears

Getting ready for the draw (Image from FIFA)With the World Cup draw happening tomorrow, nerves in the England camp are at an all time high.  England’s fate will be decided at 5pm (GMT) in Bahia, Brazil so in advance BOTN explores what could be England’s worst group.  Using the existing pools (England are in pot 4) and based on the various rules and regulations attached to the draw itself, here is the “Group of Death” for England. It features Spain from Pot 1, Chile from Pot 2 and Mexico form Pot 3 with England filling the final place from Pot 4.

Current World Cup holders, Spain  (Image from Getty)

Current World Cup holders, Spain
(Image from Getty)

The current World and European champions are amongst those in pot one that could pose a real threat to England’s chances. In fact all eight teams, with the possible exception of Switzerland will be a serious threat to England’s qualification hopes. Spain have talent in abundance and are incredibly hard to break down due to their intense passing game. Xavi and Iniesta are likely to dominate the play with Fabergas and Mata as support options. At the back, they have a solid backline with centre back pairing Barcelona’s Gerard Pique and Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos causing problems for opposition strikers, roaming just in front of Casillas, Reina or Valdes in goal. Upfront Spain’s rich talent pool continues with the likes of Fernando Torres, David Villa, Fernando Llorente and  Roberto Soldado to name a few offering options. Adding to this mix is newly converted Atletico Madrid striker Diego Costa who has been in blistering form so far this season. The Brazilian born striker, who recently pledged his allegiance to Spain instead of his homeland, has forged a successful partnership with David Villa for Atletico. This surely gives Spanish head coach Vicente del Bosque food for thought on whether he should unleash the pair for Spain during next summer’s tournament.

Diego Costa and David Villa  (Image from AFP Getty Images)

Diego Costa and David Villa
(Image from AFP Getty Images)

Chile tested England in their last trip to Wembley just under a month ago as Alexis Sanchez backed up his talking off the pitch with a sublime performance. The Barcelona striker made a sly remark about England’s pathway system for future footballers stating how it was too easy for youngsters to join academies and automatically play for a club in the future. In Chile the academy system is nowhere near as advanced as it is in England but appears to be producing the goods. At Wembley they convincingly beat England 2-0, throwing Roy Hodgson’s plans into disarray. Although England chose to field an altered side for the match allowing them to test some new faces, it was a huge win for the South American’s who have shown with the emergence of star players like Sanchez, Arturo Vidal, Felipe Gutiérrez and Gary Medal that they are a future force in world football.  Pot 3 may be considered to be the weakest pot but within them lies the stinging tail of Mexico who could relinquish all hope for England. With a squad made up of established stars and Olympic winning youthful exuberance, Mexico are considered to be one of the tournaments dark horses. Despite taking a rocky path in qualifying, Mexico’s strength is their desire to succeed which makes them a dangerous opponent.  Upfront, Mexico can call upon Manchester United’s  Javier Hernandez, Valencia’s Giovani Dos Santos or Santos Laguna’s Oribe Peralta to score the goals needed to progress.  In midfield, head coach Miguel Herrera mixes experience in the form of Andres Guardado (who is one game off his century for his country) with up and coming stars like Porto’s Héctor Herrera with some success. He could also spring a few surprises with his final squad selection if Erick Torres or Marco Fabian make the cut. Both players are good examples of the rich talent that Mexico is producing and that England needs to be aware of if they draw them in the World Cup.  

Chile ran out victors the last time they faced England  (Image from PA)

Chile ran out victors the last time they faced England
(Image from PA)

In the World Cup, there is no such thing as an easy team as England have found out in the past. There are various other teams who pose a threat to England’s chances of progression, most noticeably host’s Brazil, a Messi inspired Argentina and arch rivals, Germany. But some of the dark horses could also cause problems such as the Ivory Coast or Ecuador. Ivory Coast has plenty of talent including Manchester City’s Yaya Toure, former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, Roma’s Gervinho and CSKA Moscow’s Seydou Doumbia. They will be no pushovers, nor will Ecuador who are an improving side and will be a lot tougher than the last time England played them in 2006. Antonio Valencia and Vitesse’s Renato Ibarra are two talented wingers with lots of pace to burn plus with Felipe Caicedo up front, Ecuador could be a real threat. The country is still hurting from the death of legend Christian Benetiz so will be approaching the World Cup with a desire to do well for his memory. The USA are also amongst the group of teams who could be a potential danger as England found out in 2010 in South Africa. Coach Jürgen Klinsmann has spent the past few years experimenting with different players but now has established a nucleus of talent like Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley that he is building his team around. Added into this the emergence of Brek Shea, Terrance Boyd and Sunderland’s Jozy Altidore, Klinsmann has a strong group that is ready and prepared for the World Cup next year.

Hodgson will be hoping that he is still smiling after the draw  (Image from Getty)

Hodgson will be hoping that he is still smiling after the draw
(Image from Getty)

Hodgson and England will be hoping to avoid such a nightmare by drawing a generous group such as Switzerland, Algeria and Iran. Based on previous draws, England has had luck on their side but can it hold for Brazil? Interestingly one team in pot 4 will be moved into pot 2 just before the draw starts. This is to allow for 4 groups of eight and a somewhat easier drawing process. That said, it is still quite confusing as FIFA will not allow a group to have more than two European teams in it so adjustments will need to be made, ruling out the three European teams in Pot 1 being pulled.  If England were chosen for Pot 2, it could play in their favour or perhaps not. Either way, Hodgson is unlikely to get any sleep tonight as he worries about who his team will face next summer.

Blog by Richard Waterhouse

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Erick Torres Planning On Taking The World By Storm

On Fire: Erick Torres (Image from Getty)Mexico’s surprise win at last year’s Olympic Games highlighted a new batch of Mexican players about to take the football world by storm. Players like Marco Fabian, Nestor Araujo, Raul Jimenez and Jorge Enríquez all made a name for themselves at the Games and have attracted interest from clubs across the globe. But one player who didn’t make the squad is now blazing his own path in a quest to make himself known to the world and is doing a good job of it too. Erick Torres exploits on loan for Chivas USA have been nothing short of breathtaking and is starting to attract the gaze of foreign scouts from Europe’s biggest clubs. The young striker has been compared recently to another Mexican striker, Manchester United’s Javier Hernandez due to their similarity in their style of playing and his rapid success months after his debut. Like Hernandez, Torres is bursting with energy and lethal in the penalty box, making him one of the brightest prospects in Mexican football. Possessing an abundance of pace and flair as well as incredible close control, Torres looks set to become one of the worlds’s most feared strikers.

Follow my lead: Javier Hernandez leads the way  (Image from Getty)

Follow my lead: Javier Hernandez leads the way
(Image from Getty)

Born in Guadalajara, it seemed only right that Torres first club would be that of his home town. After starting in the youth teams, Torres was quickly promoted in 2010 to the first team as one of the most promising youngsters the club has ever produced. He made his official debut in the Mexican Primera División in November of that year against C.F. Monterrey, and marked his appearance in style with a debut goal which helped to salvage a point. That season he ended with 6 goals from 20 appearances including a stunning brace against Querétaro in March 2011 and a debut Super Clasico goal against arch-rivals América in a stunning 3-0 victory. The following season, Torres led the line for Guadalajara alongside Marco Fabian, finishing the season with 7 goals from 20 appearances. This form persuaded Chivas USA in the MLS to arrange a season long loan deal for the player, which has already started to pay dividends. Torres made his debut against Toronto and in usual Torres style marked it with the winning goal. He has continued in that vein with another 5 strikes in his last 6 games including a brace last Sunday against Vancouver. His first goal in that match highlighted the skill and talent he possesses as he scored with a stunning bicycle kick from the edge of the area, perfectly executed and simply unstoppable.

Torres scores against Seattle  (Image from Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports)

Torres scores against Seattle earlier this season
(Image from Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports)

Despite his young age, Torres has already had success at international level at various levels, first captaining Mexico’s under 17 squad at the 2010 Milk Cup in Northern Ireland, before moving on to join Mexico’s Under 20’s squad at the 2011 FIFA U-20 World Cup where he helped Mexico to a third place finish. Despite missing out on a place in the Olympic squad, Torres has his heart set on making his full senior debut for Mexico in the not so distant future. With Mexico lying third in the CONCACAF group behind the USA and Costa Rica with four games left to play, Torres may get his shot, especially if his form for Chivas continues.

To see Torres bicycle kick, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O6gIrl4r3R0

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Celebrations Gone Wild In Mexico With WWF Move On The Pitch

The now famous Nani Flip Goal Celebration (Image from AP)One of the best things about being a fan is watching your team score then celebrate. Sometimes these celebrations can be as simple as running towards the home crowd with your hands held high in an effort to receive their praise. Others prefer to be more creative, taking their golden opportunity to showcase a unique set of skills and the depths of their imaginations. Hours of practice can go in to create the perfect goal celebration, much to the frustration of managers and coaching staff across the globe. We all remember the unique celebrations such as Nani’s multiple flips or the wonderfully crafted Gone fishing celebration by Icelandic team Stjarnan FC. After scoring a late winning goal, the entire team took part in what looked like a fishing expedition where a player was reeled in by another then held aloft like the prize trophy fish for a teammate to photograph.

Something fishy with this goal celebration in Iceland (Image from TheSun)

Something fishy with this goal celebration in Iceland
(Image from TheSun)

But in a recent game in Mexico between Pachuca and Cruz Azul, the goal celebrations got a little crazy. Only three minutes into the game, Pachuna went on the attack through midfielder Ángel Reyna. After a tussle with Cruz Azul midfielder Israel Castro, Reyna brought a bouncing ball under control with one touch. His next was nothing short of sublime as the powered his strike into the top right hand corner of the Cruz goal, beating a helpless Jose Corona. What happened next was equally spectacular as Reyna and his teammates ran over to celebrate the goal. In a pre arranged and hopefully pre practiced celebration, Reyna got a hold of  teammate Abraham Carreño before performing a wrestling style manoeuvre on him that The Rock or Stone Cold Steve Austin would be proud of. Reyna, holding on to Carreño for support, whipped his legs up and round, grabbing Carreño by the neck before throwing him to the floor.

WWF Inspired Moves In Mexico  (Image from Youtube)

WWF Inspired Moves In Mexico
(Image from Youtube)

Both players were unharmed but their must have been concern on the Pachuca bench as they watched this all unfold.They players will have talked about this is training and agreed to do the celebration, even if manager Gabriel Caballero and his staff hadn’t. It will certainly go down as one of the craziest celebrations of all time and will likely be shown again and again throughout the years to come. At only 28 years old, Reyna still has a few years left in his footballing career but may now be thinking about the potential for a new career in the WWF following this performance.

To see the Gone fishing celebration, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=82wM8s-_2RM

To see the WWF finisher move, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iw52Oxp4BYs

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LA Blues As Galaxy Crash Out Of Champions League

It’s a hard pill to swallow when you come so close to a final that you can taste it but this season’s CONCACAF Champions League final will not feature an MLS team after its last participant, Los Angeles Galaxy were knocked out over two legs by Mexican side, Monterrey. Having narrowly lost the first leg 2-1 at home, LA travelled to Mexico with optimism in the hope that reaching the final was still in their hands. With a solid backline and a formidable strike force of Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane, LA knew they had the team capable of winning the game and progressing. But instead it will be an all Mexican final as Monterrey progressed to face Santos Laguna later this month after they beat Los Angeles again, this time by a solitary goal, which meant a 3-1 aggregate score and elimination for Galaxy.

Donovan was unable to find his stride  (Image from  Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports)

Donovan was unable to find his stride
(Image from Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports)

In a hostile environment, LA performed admirably but their efforts were in vain as they could find the finishing touch that has been with them this season in the league. At the back, the duo of former Monterrey player Omar Gonzalez and his defensive partner Leonardo held together a somewhat nervous back four but managed to shut down every opportunity that Monterrey had. The Mexican side, who have won this tournament for the past two years, looked dangerous in the first half, creating a series of good chances but Gonzalez was up to the challenge and shut them out. Galaxy too had chances in the first half, the best of which fell to Gonzalez, who was supported at the game by his family, found himself in space in the box but was unable to poke the ball past a confident Juan De Dios Ibarra in the Monterrey goal.

MaGee's exclusion baffled many  (Image from Getty)

MaGee’s exclusion baffled many
(Image from Getty)

The second half started much as the first half had finished with a frantic pace to it and several chances falling to either side. Carlos Cudicini looked solid in-goal for Los Angeles, which historically has always been a weak area of their team. The Italian used all of his experience to get down well early in the second half to block a de Nigris effort, keeping the game tied. With the minutes ticking away, Galaxy pushed forward and created two goal scoring opportunities with efforts by Juninho and Donovan were stopped well by Juan De Dios Ibarra. With nine minutes left the deadlock was broke but unfortunately for Galaxy, it was Cudicini that was picking the ball out of his net after a De Nigris strike crept past him to put Monterrey ahead by 3-1 on aggregate. LA heads didn’t drop, much to the delight of coach Bruce Arena but were unable to find a way back into the game before the final whistle blew.

Goalscorer Aldo de Nigris celebrates (Image from AP Photo/Alfredo Lopez-JAM MEDIA)

Goalscorer Aldo de Nigris celebrates (Image from AP Photo/Alfredo Lopez-JAM MEDIA)

Galaxy started the match with optimism, with the return of captain Landon Donovan, making his first appearance this season. He did manage to play the entire game but whilst Donovan is a tireless worker and runner, he is highly predictable and was easily stifled by the Monterrey players. Keane, so often the focal point for LA, couldn’t find the space he needed to perform some of his special brand of magic and left the field frustrated and annoyed by his own performance. Arena took a bold move at the start of the match by leaving Mike Magee on the bench, which was somewhat of a surprise to many, most notably Magee himself.

Whether the midfielder would have been able to give the team anything more than they had on the pitch  from the start will be for the analysts to decide but realistically, the tie was lost at home some weeks ago at home in Los Angeles. Monterrey will go on from here in hope of a hat trick of Champions League trophies whilst Galaxy head back to the drawing board. They will get another crack at the tournament this summer when it kicks off again in earnest but before that they must now travel to Texas to face an inform Dallas side looking for blood. Bruce Arena will be delighted with that prospect after his team gave it all under tricky conditions in Mexico.

 

Wonder Goal to Win Match Is Worthy Of The Praise

Argentine Eial Strahman (Image from Goal.com)Scoring the winning goal in a game is one of the sweetest feelings for any footballer. The feeling can only be bettered if that goal comes deep into injury time and is scored in a spectacular fashion. We have all witness match winning late goals as fans of the beautiful game which only adds to the overall excitement of the day. But for the players, these opportunities don’t come around that often. When they do, the players composure under pressure is fully tested as he or she stands to be the difference between one point and three points. If they can put it away, they will be the hero of the hour, praised by both fans and teammates. If they miss, they bear the brunt of some angry jabs and remarks from the same duo.

Eial Strahman has been in great form this year (Image from AFP)

Eial Strahman has been in great form this year
(Image from AFP)

For Argentine striker Eial Strahman, that opportunity fell to him during last weekends game between Universidad Guadalajara and Celaya. With the game tied at 0-0 going into the 93rd minute, it appeared to most that the match would end as a stalemate. Some fans had seen enough and made their way to the exits only minutes before but the ones that remained witnessed something magical. As Universidad attacked for what would be the final time, the ball is floated into the area towards the waiting head of veteran midfielder Juan Gomez. The 36-year-old jumped high to reach the ball but it floated just inches over his head, much to the surprise of the Celeya defenders. As the ball dropped, Celeya defender Jose Islas stretched out his right leg to clear the ball only for it to take a wicked deflection and sail upwards. Strahman, who was waiting in the box at this time closely marked by Luis Trillo, peeled away from his marker to position himself with his back to goal. With a single movement and watching the ball the entire way, Strahman launched himself into the air and performed a near perfect overhead kick that thundered past Juan Roldan in the Celeya goal.

Roldon is helpless as the ball flies into the net (Image from Guardian.co.uk)

Roldon is helpless as the ball flies into the net
(Image from Guardian.co.uk)

The strike was the last action of the game but not the end to the story. Following the goal and extended celebrations, the Celeya players resented what they saw as time-wasting and protested which resulted in a post match brawl with Celeya defender Abraham Riestra, goalscorer Strahman and Universidad striker Edgar González all receiving a yellow card. Unfortunately for Gonzalez, the yellow was his second of the match so a red card and suspension followed. But nothing could dampen the spirits of Strahman who will be happy with his match winning strike for some time to come.  

To see Strahman’s spectacular overhead kick, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PF6zzXWHZ6Y

Chivas End Cruyff Experiment

Johan Cruyff's mexican stay has endedJohan Cruyff’s hiring in February of this year as special consultant to FC Chivas de Guadalajara in the Mexican league was seen by many as a pr stunt. His job was never quite articulated so many wondered what the former dutch internationalist would be doing day-to-day and with little to no connection to Chivas before the appointment, why he was going in the first place. Cruyff was not lacking opportunities with both Liverpool and Tottenham apparently keen on hiring him as director of football. Neither did in the end, but Cruyff’s next role, at the age of 65 was more likely to be closer to his homes in Spain and Holland than across the Atlantic in Mexico. Nevertheless, the legendary figure accepted his new role in February 2012 from owner Jorge Vergara, in an apparent response to the clubs poor run of form that season.

Chivas for those who aren’t aware are the most successful club in Mexico, having won 11 league titles and numerous cups since its foundation in 1906. It’s current first team contains some of Mexico’s brightest prospects like midfielder Marco Fabián and striker Erick Torres, both of whom are being watched carefully by a host of European clubs following Mexico’s surprise victory in the London Olympics this summer. Despite the positive feelings about the club and its booming youth setup, Chivas has its fair share of problems. Since Jorge Vergara took over at the club in 2002, he has not been far away from controversy. In 2003, whilst attending an MLS conference, he publicly announced that the league would have a Chivas expansion team in it – Chivas USA, which indeed happened the following year. Whether that was as planned by the MLS or more forced upon them is anyone’s guess. Chivas USA has done well in the league since its inception, embracing the US style of play, growing its fan base and even introducing its own cheerleaders, the Chiva Girls. Vergara has other expansion plans and has been proactively looking for further ways to extend the Chivas brand to anyone who listens but so far has been unsuccessful.

The Chiva Girls take centre stage during half time

The Chiva Girls take centre stage during half time

Meanwhile back in Mexico, Vergara’s patience for managers is well-known to be minimum. Chivas has churned through its fair share of managers in his time in charge, growing similarities to a well-known British club with a russian billionaire of the same ilk. When Cruyff was brought in earlier this year, his first job was to find a new manager so the legend turned to fellow Dutchman John van ‘t Schip as the man he wanted. Hired in April, his task was simple – to win but so far the Dutchman has had limited success which may have ultimately led to his countryman’s dismissal earlier this week.

On Monday the club released a press statement stating that Cruyff no longer had a position at Chivas and had his contract terminated with immediate effect:

“The club has decided to terminate the services and consultancy with the company of Mr Johan Cruyff. This is because of not meeting the outcomes and objectives that have been established since the beginning of the contractual relationship. The coaching Staff will not be affected, therefore technical director, trainer and technical assistants will continue to work with the club. The club thank Mr Johan Cruyff for the support and collaboration he has provided.”

This was news to Cruyff who found out of his sacking by various news sources and social media sites. He hasn’t been able to speak to the club to confirm it, but the release by Chivas leaves little grey areas around what they are trying to say. Cruyff is understandably confused and upset by the recent events and spoke to a dutch newspaper yesterday about his apparent dismissal:

“I don’t know anything about it, I’m finding out about it now. I’m trying to find out what’s going on”

Chivas owner Jorge Vergara sacked Cruyff

Chivas owner Jorge Vergara sacked Cruyff

Whether Chivas were right to terminate Cruyff’s contract will be in the hands of his lawyers and no doubt FIFA but from the clubs prospective, they felt they brought him in to do a job which he had failed at. Chivas are not ready to get rid of their manager and are keeping faith with John van ‘t Schip, for the time being at least. However if Jorge Vergara’s record is anything to go by, Van ‘t Schip may be following Cruyff out of the revolving door at Chivas shortly.