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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Asia Awaits Its New Champions As The Asian Cup Draws To A Close

After 28 games over a period of three weeks, the final of the Asian Cup takes place tomorrow with South Korea taking on host nation Australia. Whilst not considered as one of the pinnacle International tournaments, this year’s event has showcased the talent that can be found in this region and just how far the game has progressed. Competitiveness in the region has improved dramatically over the past decade with more teams challenging for final spots in the tournament. Along with the regulars like Japan, South Korea, UAE and Australia come new pretenders like Qatar, Uzbekistan and debutantes this year, Palestine highlighting the rich diversity that this cup has.

Four years ago, Japan lifted the Cup after beating Australia in the final  Image from Getty)

Four years ago, Japan lifted the Cup after beating Australia in the final
Image from Getty)

It’s an incredible achievement for Palestine to reach the Asian Cup and one that has not gone unnoticed in the footballing community. Despite much publicized adverse conditions, the Palestine team qualified in style by winning the AFC Challenge Cup without conceding a single goal and drawing only one out of the five games. Whilst their experience in Australia was not quite what they had hoped for (three defeats, eleven goals conceded, only one goal scored) they exit the tournament with their heads held high. Similarly Uzbekistan’s remarkable resurgence continues as they put up an impressive show by finishing second in what was a difficult group Despite losing to group winners China, they secured good wins over North Korea and Saudi Arabia to progress to the quarter finals where they were eventually knocked out by South Korea.

It should be a great final between arguably two of the strongest teams in the region. The pair met in the group stages in a hotly contested battle with South Korea eventually coming out on top thanks to a goal from Jung Hyub Lee. Australia will be looking to make amends in the final in front of the home crowd at the packed ANZ stadium in Sydney.  There is extra incentive for the Aussies heading into the match given that they have never won the Asian Cup. Their best performance to date was four years ago in Qatar when they reached the final only to be beat by Japan in extra time. The memories of that day still live fresh in the mind of Australian legend Tim Cahill. The former Everton midfielder has been the heart and soul of the Australian team for over a decade and did announce his retirement from international football after last year’s World Cup, only to be persuaded to stay on for the Asian Cup. For Cahill, it was an opportunity to sign off in style – a win in the Asian Cup on home turf his final swan song. His contribution and influence to the team is unquestionable but along with it he brings goals. His three goals so far, including an impressive brace against China have propelled Australia to the final. Now one last performance is needed from their star man to rewrite history and finally put Australia’s name on the Asian Cup.

Standing in their way is two times champions South Korea. Despite having not won the trophy since 1960, South Korea have been there and thereabouts in almost every tournament since, three times finishing as runners up and four times as the third place team. After a dismal World Cup where they failed to show their true potential, picking up only one point from a possible nine in a 1-1 draw with Russia in the opening game. Changes at the top were made fairly quickly upon their return with manager Hong Myung-Bo being sacked and replaced by former West Germany midfielder turn sweeper Uli Stielike. Having spent the six years before coaching Qatar based sides Al Arabi and Al Sailiya; Stielike understood the significance of the Asian Cup and immediately started to put plans in place for an aggressive assault on the competition. He wasted little time in refreshing the squad he inherited adding Hoffenheim’s Jin Su Kim and Guangzhou’s Hyun-Soo Jang to a defense which was considered one of the worst in the World Cup. Stielike who was affectionately nicknamed “The Stopper” as a player has tightened up the defence and has encouraged the front line to close down more in order to play a high line game and relieve the pressure on the backline. So far the plan has worked with South Korea managing to get all the way to the final without conceding.  Upfront the addition of fairly unknown striker Lee Jeong-Hyeop has transformed the attack and given South Korea an edge in the matches they have played so far.

With the expectations on what South Korea should achieve at this tournament set low by the South Korean FA, Stielike and his side can look forward to the final with no pressure attached. It would be nice to complete the tournament without conceding a single goal as it would illustrate how far they have come since Brazil and in turn restore pride back into their bewildered fans but for the manager the only thing that is important is the victory. He knows that it will be a different Australia than the one they faced in the group stage and will be prepared for a hostile crowd. For the neutral it will be a match to remember with two of Asia’s best teams going at it with an intense ferocity for at least ninety minutes if not more. The victor will lift the trophy that night and earn their place in the record books whilst the loser will go back and ponder what could have been.

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Player Fights For His Life As Family Watches In Horror

Fan favourite Molina (Image from PA)It should have been a day to celebrate but turned into a nightmare for Mauricio Molina. The player who has been capped 13 times by Colombia now plays for South Korean outfit FC Seoul in the K League Classic was involved in a sickening clash of heads during a match on Sunday that almost cost him everything. With his family watching from the stands in horror, it was the quick actions of a teammate that saved Molina’s life. The game against Busan IPark started like any other with the home team on the attack. Molina, starting the game in his usual midfield role found himself in the opposition box as right back Jin-Kyu Kim swung a lofty cross into the area. Molina climbed to challenge for the ball but instead clashed with Busan goalkeeper Gi-Yong Kim and defender Hack-Yong Jang  with the trio knocking heads, sending Molina to the deck with a thud.   

Molina lies unconscious on the pitch surrounded by teammates  (Image from YouTube)

Molina lies unconscious on the pitch surrounded by teammates
(Image from YouTube)

 Noticing something was wrong with their colleague, Molina’s teammate Dejan Damjanović rushed to his aid. After realizing that he had been knocked unconscious by the clash of heads, Dejan and teammate Jin-Kyu Kim  moved the player into a recovery position as medical staff scrambled onto the pitch. It was then that Dejan noticed that Molina’s colour was off and recognized this as a sign of a blocked airway caused by Molina swallowing his tongue. He instinctively reached into the midfielder’s mouth and cleared the blockage effectively saving his life. In the stands, Molina’s wife stood motionless unsure of what was happening to her husband on the pitch below. Next to her, her son slowly began to realize that there was a problem with his father and began to cry. In harrowing scenes the mother and son stood alongside friends hoping to see any sign of movement from Mauricio. Surrounded by the medical staff from both teams, Molina eventually regained consciousness and managed to sit up, to everyone’s relief. After a short period, Molina was helped to his feet before walking off to applause from supporters on both sides.

To the Rescue - Dejan Damjanović  (Image from Getty)

To the Rescue – Dejan Damjanović
(Image from Getty)

After the match, fans took to social media to offer their support and prayers for the player. At home resting, Molina took to twitter to thank the fans for their words and spoke about what happened on the pitch. He credited his family for giving him the strength on the pitch to wake up and spoke of his love for his wife and children who went through so much emotion watching him suffer on the field.

“This was the power that woke me up yesterday, the strength of my family. My wife @almarla that under the desperate try to aid me and my two sons field # Alejo and # Mares suffering in the gallery. The most powerful force sent from heaven. I love them!”

Molina will spend the next few weeks under observation by medical staff connected to the club in the hope that he will be well enough to start playing again soon. Molina is looking forward to getting back onto the pitch as soon as possible so that he can properly thank his teammates in the best way he knows how for saving his life.

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South Korea’s Latest Star Hoping To Fire His Way To Legend Status

Hamburg's Heung Min Son (Image from Getty)When Hamburg scouts flew to South Korea in 2008, they hardly expected to find a South Korean school boy who would eventually turn into a first team striker. But in Heung-Min Son they did and quickly signed him up to their youth academy before others could beat them to it. Having agreed to make the move to Germany, an undaunted Son embarked on a mission to show his new team exactly what he could do and over the past five years has done exactly that. Possessing blistering pace, close control and the ability to use both feet to strike the ball with power and accuracy, it’s no wonder the Hamburg scouts were keen to get ink onto a contract. Some five years on and Heung-Min Son has gone on to establish himself in the Hamburg first team. Son has received praise from fans, media and former players alike with comparisons being made to South Korean legend Cha Bum-Kun and even German legend Gerd Muller. At only 20 years of age, Heung-Min Son has the rest of his career ahead of him but if this season is any indication, he looks like following Cha Bum-Kun and former Manchester United star Park Ji Sung into the South Korean legends category as well.

Cha Bum Kun stars for South Korea in the 1986 World Cup (Image from Reuters)

Cha Bum Kun starred for South Korea in the 1986 World Cup (Image from Reuters)

Since 2010, Son has been a part of the South Korean national team and has played 12 times to date, scoring only 1 goal so far. The striker would have had more caps for his country, even at his tender age, but his determination to repay Hamburg for the faith and support they have shown him since they brought him to the club as a 16-year-old, has led the player to turn down some international call ups. Indeed Son turned down the opportunity to join his countrymen in London for last years Olympic Games, instead preferring to spend the summer weeks preparing himself mentally and physically for the forthcoming Bundesliga campaign with Hamburg:

“In Korea, an Olympic appearance has a special meaning, but I want to speed up for Hamburg. What matters is to pour all my time into team training”

Son has been on fine form this year (Image from Getty)

Son has been on fine form this year
(Image from Getty)

His decision to do so has paid off handsomely for Hamburg as Son is having the best season of his career yet scoring 7 times in 19 appearances. Last year’s total five goals has already been surpassed and if his form continues, his goals will help Hamburg’s push for a top half finish. Son has also seen the benefits of his decision as he has begun to start more games this year than in previous campaigns, where he was used more from the bench. With his fine performances comes increased attention from larger clubs across Europe including Inter Milan and more recently Tottenham. It will only be a matter of time before a club decides to match the $12 million asking price that Hamburg have placed on the head of their talented young striker. Until that happens, Hamburg will enjoy watching their player flourish and grow into a star and so far have had glimpses of what is to come.

In a recent mid-season friendly match between Hamburg and Austrian side, Austria Vienna, Heung-Min Son showcased to watching scouts exactly what he can do. Picking the ball up midway within his own half, Son drove the ball up field using a combination of close footwork and pace before reaching the opposition box. Slowing his pace slightly he looked up to see that Austria Vienna goalkeeper off his line before unleashing an unstoppable shot with his left foot high into the right hand corner of the net to put Hamburg a goal up. The home crowd inside the Imtech Arena erupted in appreciation for their new star striker who capped a fine performance by setting up Hamburg’s second goal in their 2-0 win.

Son scores against Vienna (Image from AFP)

Son scores against Vienna
(Image from AFP)

With players like Heung-Min Son coming through their youth ranks, the future looks bright for South Korea as they push to be the dominant country in Asian football. South Korea have qualified for every World Cup since 1986 and are looking to maintain that run into Brazil 2014 and beyond, a task which looks achievable if they can get Son’s club form to brush off on his international form and start banging in the goals for his country.

To see Heung-Min Son latest strike, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=APftNbkLN4c

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Qatar 2022 – Where money grows on trees but talent is bare.

When Qatar was announced as the winning bid for the FIFA World Cup in 2022, the world watched in shock and amazement. Not only had this tiny sovereign Arab state beaten the rivals bids from Australia, USA and South Korea but it had done so at a landslide. What had FIFA judges seen about the Qatari bid that made them all go all bashful with excitement? Nothing really except for a dream. Qatar itself is a small country with a population of just over 1.8million, most of whom are foreign wrokers. It lacks the footballing infrastructure required to host these games but have built a plan based on money, and lots of it. It’s proposal to FIFA in the fall of 2010 was simple – they would build everything from scratch needed to host the World Cup within the twelve-year timeline. They would fund it through the countries vast wealth, primarily from their petrol and natural gas industries. Everything from stadiums to airports to hotels to transportation was presented and it won over the FIFA panel.

Former Dutch star Ronald De Boer backed the bid.
(Image from PA)

Backed by former pros Ronald Be Boer and Zinedine Zidane, the bid was indeed a grand plan and a high risk one as deemed by FIFA, with several issues beside the logistics of the bid being raised. One such issue was the intense heat of summer in Qatar where temperatures soar to breathtaking 41 degrees celsius (106 degrees fahrenheit) in June and July. With the games traditionally taking place during these months, the unbearable heat would cause havoc to the players and fans alike. Special covered stadium were designed that sprayed a cool mist of water over the teams and fans, supported by super turbines that would drive cool air throughout the ground in an attempt to tackle the heat. But little though was given to the times when no games were being played and fans made their way in their millions across the country by car, buses and trains. Suggestions of moving the World Cup for the first time to the cooler winter months have been met with mixed reactions. This would indeed correct the heat issue however it would disrupt a majority of the major leagues across the world as they attempted to find a 6 week gap in their already tight domestic schedules. Cancellations of cup tournaments and matches have been offered as potential options, but only for one year and likely at a cost to FIFA.

Youth development in Qatar is underway
(Image from Getty)

Regardless of when the tournament will be played and if the infrastructure is ready, one certainty is the need to have a competitive host nation compete in its first ever World Cup. Qatar have never qualified for any tournament to date, coming close on only a handful of ocassions. With a limited amount of players to choose from, youth development focused towards 2022 is a key priority, with money and effort been spent to make this a reality. An ambitious target of qualifying from the group stages has been set by the Qatar FA but a more realistic goal would be 3 good performances in what will be a baptism of fire. To achieve this, Qatar has invested heavily in a project called The Aspire Zone, a world-class sports complex that boasts a youth academy, state of the art medical facilities and stadia for events. The facility has already been used by Barcelona and Ajax and more clubs are due to follow in their footsteps over the next few years as Qatar gears up for the biggest event in its history.

Aspire Dome, part of the Aspire Zone complex
(Image from Reuters)

The current team is improving slowly, under Brazilian manager Paulo Autuori but still lacks the killer instincts needed to get them to a major tournament. Having scored in a handful of their previous games first, their lack of finishing has ended up costing them the game as time and time again their opponents have come back to draw or beat Qatar. In a match against Uzbekistan, Qatar looked like their luck in front of goal was changing when the Uzbekistan goalkeeper miss timed a challenge leaving the Qatar striker clean through on an open goal. Watch the clip here to see what unbelievably happens next: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l4CCc-Qi5iU

Improvements and developments can be made to the infrastructure in Qatar but one thing that can’t be taught is raw talent. Finding the stars of tomorrow may turn out to be the biggest challenge of them all that faces this new football loving nation.

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End Of An Era For Dutch Master

When we think about the greatest managers in the world today, Guus Hiddink’s name is often mentioned. The likeable Dutchman has spent the last 20 years of his life building a successful managerial career, off of the back of a somewhat unsuccessful playing career. Over the past 2 decades, Hiddink has managed club sides like PSV, Real Madrid, Valencia and Chelsea as well as international teams like South Korea, Australia, Russia and of course Holland. Yesterday Hiddink, 66, announced that was all going to come to an end when he finally retired from management next summer. The current head coach of Anzhi Makhachkala in the Russian League, has decided to move more into an advisory role, although has not confirmed if that is with Anzhi or another club just yet. Either way, Anzhi will have a task on their hands this coming summer to replace the Dutch master.

Hiddink started his playing career with his hometown youth team, SC Varsseveld before signing his first professional contract with De Graafschap in 1967.  After spending two unsuccessful years at PSV, the young midfield grafter finally became a regular starter at De Graafschap and favourite of manager Piet de Visser in 1972, who forged a strong bond with the player which has stayed with them over the years. Hiddink played 130 times for the club and helped them to gain promotion back to the Eredivisie, Holland’s top league and to this day is still a firm fans favourite. In 1977, Guus was transferred to N.E.C. Nijmegen, where he spent the next 4 years of his life. His spell at N.E.C was never as fruitful as his time at De Graafschap and saw Hiddink twice go out on loan to US clubs, firstly with Washington Diplomats and then with San Jose Earthquakes, but the draw of De Graafschap still lingered with him. So when the opportunity arose, Hiddink jumped at the chance and rejoined for on final swan song year. He retired in 1982 from playing and almost immediately became assistant manager at the club to manager Huib Ruijgrok. This would be Hiddink’s first taste of management but it wasn’t long before he got his first full-time job as manager.

Hiddink and Piet de Visser remember where they started

In 1984, PSV manager Jan Reker noticed Hiddink and remembered watching him play for De Graafschap so persuaded the then 38-year-old to leave his team and join him at PSV. The move to Eindhoven proved invaluable as Hiddink, Reker and PSV own the league title that year. He would remain as assistant until the sacking of Reker’s replacement, Hans Kraay allowed an opening for Hiddink to get his shot. He officially took over in March 1987 and led the team to the title that year which open the door to Hiddink’s first European adventure the following year. And what a year that would be. With a squad that contained the likes of Ronald Koeman, Eric Gerets, Søren Lerby and Wim Kieft, Hiddink led PSV to the treble, picking up the title, Dutch Cup and the clubs first ever European Cup beating Benfica in the final on penalties. Hiddink continued his success with PSV into the next season winning his third league title before deciding to leave to firstly manage Fenerbache then later Valencia but his biggest challenge was yet to come in the shape of the Dutch National Team.

Taking over the top job in 1995, Hiddink knew he had a squad of great individual players but not a team. Feuds between black and white dutch players were frequent and his no-nonsense approach to this was to take action, sending Edgar Davids home just weeks before Euro 1996.  After surviving a group that contained England, Scotland and Switzerland, Holland would eventually be knocked out of Euro 1996 by France in the quarter finals on penalties. Hiddink would keep the job and lead them to World Cup 1998 in France where he would go one better and reach the semi finals before being knocked out by Brazil. Hiddink left after the tournament to move to Real Madrid but was sacked from there after making some off the cuff remarks about the clubs finances. A short spell at Real Betis followed before Hiddink’s next international experience.

Edgar Davids and Hiddink didn’t always see eye to eye

South Korea were a team in development when Hiddink took charge. As joint hosts of the 2002 World Cup with Japan, the hosts were never considered to have a chance. But under the guidance of Hiddink, South Korea were the surprise team of the tournament, qualifying top of their group and knocking Portugal and Poland out in the process. A march to the semi finals, beating Italy then Spain along the way, was only halted by an impressive Germany but left South Korea fans with a sense of pride and football scouts from across Europe scrambling to grab their stars. After the tournament, Hiddink returned to PSV as manager, winning 3 titles and 2 cups in the next 4 years. Whilst in his final year at PSV, Hiddink announced that he would also be taking on the job of the Australian national team where he would become an ever increasingly popular figure with fans and players alike.

He led Australia into World Cup 2006 and after being knocked out by Italy, in dubious circumstances, Hiddink left for his next adventure, to manage the Russian national team. It was here, through old friend Piet de Visser that Hiddink would meet a wealthy billionaire called Roman Abramovich. A friendship started that would eventually led Abramovich to appoint Hiddink as head coach of his own team, Chelsea. Hiddink managed the team briefly after the sacking of Brazilian Luiz Felipe Scolari in February 2009 and led them for the next four months, winning the FA Cup in the process. Strangely Hiddink decided not to remain at Stamford Bridge but honour an older agreement with the Turkish FA to take over the national team so in June 2010, he left Chelsea to do just that. But Russian money was never far away from Hiddink and he was eventually tempted away from his role in February 2012 by a new Russian billionaire, Suleyman Kerimov and his team, FC Anzhi Makhachkala. With a star-studded team including Roberto Carlos and Samuel Eto’o and millions to spend in the transfer market, Hiddink saw a chance to create something and took the challenge where he has remained ever since.

Eye on the Prize – Hiddink wants to win the Europa League before he goes

As the summer approaches, Hiddink gets closer to securing the Russian title to add to his collection. And with Anzhi still in the last 32 of the Europa League, he must be eyeing that trophy as well. Regardless if he wins it or not, Hiddink will go down as one of the most respected and loved coaches of all time. Many clubs and countries have benefited from his leadership skills over the years, some more than others. But what they all have in common is that they will look back at Hiddink’s contribution and mark it a defining moment in their football history.