As I write these lines, each and every team in the World Cup has played their initial game. We have seen some surprises and even shocking results (calling all Spaniards), some teams have played as we thought they would and some haven’t, either positively or negatively.
It is important to stress out that fans should not make definite judgements ahead of time. We can call this the “Argentina in 1990″ syndrome, but bear in mind that World Cup editions are filled with such examples. What happened with Argetina in the World Cup in Italy, in 1990? They came in as the defending World Champions (from 1986), again led by Diego Maradona. They made their debut with a shocking 1-0 defeat at the hands of Cameroon (which would eventually go on to become one of the tournament’s best stories), then they beat the Soviet Union and were only able to muster a 1-1 tie with Romania. They barely made it out of the group stage, but then they beat Brazil, Yugoslavia and Italy, all in the knockout stage, thus earning a trip to the Final (where they lost to West Germany).
The meaning of all this is that it is soon to overlook the likes of Italy, Spain, Portugal, France and England. Sure, for these sides the results weren’t good and the exhibitions could have been better, but one game is just that… one game.
That having been said, which are the 3 teams I would consider as, after one game, the “Golden Trio” of the tournament so far? In no special order they are:
Germany – like I mentioned in my review of the match between Germany and Australia, these Germans are a clear example of a team that is far better than the sum of its individual parts. They dominated Australia and, even more importantly, they made their chances count.
They have a disciplined and physical defense and midfield sectors and then the attacking trio of Podolski, Klose and Özil promises a rain of goals and good plays in this WC edition. They are a very young team, certainly unusually young for what is typical with German national squads, but coach Joachim Löw has managed to assemble a focused and seemingly cohesive group with good ball movement. Some players, most noticeably Ballack, couldn’t make it to South Africa, but perhaps that will turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
Müller and Özil are two young guys who are sure bets to explode in this tournament. Everyone will know their names when the dust settles in South Africa.
The youth movement around this German squad seems to be, and all early signs point to that, a good bet on the part of Löw. Let us consider that, arguably, Australia was Germany’s weakest opponent in this group (and that is debatable); it is still hard to envision seeing this team posting negative results against the likes of Serbia and Ghana.
Argentina – Maradona is not a tactical wizard. He doesn’t manage or care about the X’s and O’s of the game. He is an emotional leader who is trying to get his players fired up.
A lot has been written about Maradona’s reign so far as Argentina’s head coach. The qualifying process was a mess and Argentina almost didn’t make it to the tournament itself. Then there is also the issue with him having personal problems with some key, world-class players; the 23-man squad he called for this World Cup shows some extremely serious absences: Esteban Cambiasso, Lucho González, Lisandro López, Javier Zanetti, perhaps even Pablo Aimar and Javier Saviola. Cambiasso and Zanetti, in particular, are coming off terrific seasons. Not only that, but he called in guys like Verón and Palermo (clearly past their primes).
But what we saw in the first game was a world-class team playing like such: world-class. Make no mistake about it, the only reason why Argentina wasn’t able to run up the score was because the Nigerian goalkeeper had the best game of his lifetime. It is clear that Argentina has firepower most national squads can only dream of, with Messi, Higuaín, Milito, Tévez, Maxi Rodríguez and di María. These guys in particular can dictate and/or change any given game.
Their defense hasn’t been properly tested yet but if Heinze, Samuel and Demichelis can stay focused, then these Argentinians are clearly a formidable team.
By the way, now it is clear why Maradona called Verón: he is his link to the players, especially the youngest ones. Having a veteran who you trust can’t be a bad thing, after all.
Netherlands – these guys aren’t the “Mechanical Orange” (Gullit, Van Basten, Koeman, Rijkaard) but they sure pack a mighty game. They were able to outplay a solid Danish team (Denmark qualified with remarkable ease for this World Cup) while showing signs of being able to match up against any national squad in this tournament.
Out of all the pre-World Cup favorites the Netherlands are one of the few teams who are actually coming in with full strength. Robben has been the only absence while he tries to recover from a leg injury, but bear in mind that he is a part of the 23 players, and if the recovery goes along they will use him.
The orange defense and defensive midfield aren’t imposing. It is solid but some players are showing their age and it is certainly a weak spot for Marwijk’s squad. So how can they have a chance to win it all? Because few offensive units in this tournament are as powerful as the one these guys have. Kuyt, Van Persie, Sneijder and Van der Vaart were able to burn the Danish defense time and time again. They are an extremely fast unit; the potential addition of Robben makes for an even more complete nightmare for opposing sides.
They have such a deep offensive unit that even Ryan Babel didn’t see any playing time in their first game. But a player who did see playing time against the Danes was Eljero Elia, a 23-year-old who plays for Hamburg and that many are already calling one of the tournament’s most exciting players, for his tremendous technique and speed.
Now let us see what game 2 of the group stage has in store for us.