Heat check: how are we actually doing at predicting these games? Well, so far we’re 7-for-10 at predicting results, and have called the exact scoreline twice. Not bad, if we do say so ourselves.
New Zealand v. Slovakia (Group F, 7:30 AM ET)
One-sentence preview: One of the contenders for the worst match of the competition (though we lean more towards Honduras-Switzerland ourselves).
New Zealand are here for the first time in almost 30 years, and feature a roster that includes an amateur who holds down a day job as a banker (Andy Barron), and (presumably) several sheep. But they also feature a guy who plays in the English Premier League (D Ryan Nelsen), and come in on a bit of a weird roll, having beaten Serbia and lost narrowly away to Australia in warm-ups. They will try hard. But, then, so did Australia, and see how far that got them.
Slovakia have more top-end players, especially D Martin Skrtl and M Vladimir Weiss (who is an English club teammate of New Zealand’s Nelsen). They finished at the top of their Central Europe-heavy qualifying group, satisfyingly keeping their old friends the Czech Republic out of the tournament along the way. They will try hard. One thing to watch: Slovakia weirdly both scored and allowed a lot of goals during qualifying, so there is the chance that this will turn into a sloppy shootout.
Prediction: Slovakia 1-0 New Zealand. Nope.
Ivory Coast v. Portugal (Group G, 10 AM)
One-sentence preview: Injuries take the air out of an otherwise fascinating Group of Death matchup.
Unfortunately, this game is as much about those who won’t be there as it is those who will. Ivory Coast were to have been led by Chelsea’s Randy Moss clone, F Didier Drogba, who has a fantastic knack for scoring goals in big English tournament games. Sadly, Drogna broke his arm in a friendly, and likey is out for the group stage (though he continues to maintain that he’ll make it back). In his absence, the team can still look to multiple players from Europe’s best leagues, including brothers Yaya and Kolo Toure, F Salomon Kalou, and D Emmaunel Eboue. While there’s still plenty of talen on hand, what’s a little uncertain now is whether the team can unlock a top-level defense in the absence of the one-man wrecking crew that is Drogba.
Bad luck, then, that the depleted Ivorians have drawn Portugal in the first round. Portugal have an extremely experienced defense, led by Drogba’s Chelsea teammate Ricardo Carvalho and the World’s Biggest Portagee, 6’2” FC Porto D Bruno Alves. Up front, it’s all about former world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo, who’ll need to provide most of the offense for a team that’s always light on strikers. Portugal’s already limited offense took a hit recently, when Man U winger Nani went down with a collarbone injury. Nani could have given the team a much-needed wide attacking option that would have let Ronaldo act as more of an outright striker. Now, Ronaldo’s going to have to both create and finish the goals, which might be too much even for him.
Prediction: Portugal 0-0 Ivory Coast. Nobody wants to slip up early behind group favorites Brazil. This result means that the group’s second qualification place will come down to whoever beats North Korea the worst.
Brazil v. North Korea (2:30 PM, Group G)
One-sentence preview: Honest to God, this match is going to be close for a while.
On the one hand, this Brazil team is quintessential Brazil: they’re one of the favorites to win the World Cup, and have more talent than any other team (with the possible exception of Spain). On the other hand, this Brazil team is about as un-Brazilian as possible. Based on their form during the most recent club year, you can make the case that their three best players nominally operate in the defensive half of the field (Inter Milan GK Julio Cesar, Barcelona D Dani Alves, and Inter Milan D Maicon). With Kaka coming off a lousy year, Robinho having bombed out of European club football, and Ronaldinho having failed to even make the team, there is no obvious attacking fulcrum. Instead, this Brazil team can turn defense into offense faster and better than any other team in the world, with everyone up to and including the central defenders being capable of getting forward and scoring. This Brazil team will win less with flair than they will with toughness and overwhelming athleticism.
North Korea…well, nobody has any idea. They appear to have surprisingly decent finisher in Hong Yong-Jo, but that doesn’t matter in this game because he’ll never see the ball.
The reasons we see this game as being close initially are that (1) Brazil want to counter attack, but (2) North Korea are going to construct a derelict heavy machinery factory in front of their own goal and basically not leave their own end. You can’t counterattack if the other team never crosses midfield. It will take time for Brazil to break them down.
Prediction: Brazil 2-0 North Korea. Tied at halftime, though (and we bet the odds on a scoreless first half will be juicy).