The European Challenge - Little Boy Blue's World Cup Countdown

Last updated : 08 June 2010 By Little Boy Blue

Having talked up England's chances last weekend, I'm sure they are about to enjoy their most successful tournament since Italia'90.  Losing Rio Ferdinand is a blow and, while Fabio Capello appears to be a big fan of Ledley King, I'm not sure his knees will be able to take what could be a seven game campaign over the next month.  If I was in charge I'd make use of every minute on the training ground to mould Jamie Carragher and John Terry into a solid unit and, while I was at it, I'd make sure Joe Hart was the goalkeeper working with them.


England could certainly make it to the semis and then anything can happen.  Who knows?


With Marcello Lippi back at the helm with holders Italy, it would be daft to pay too much heed to all the negative stuff coming out of their camp.  Our wee pal Rino Gattuso will ensure they have a competitive edge in midfield, they won't give up the trophy without a fight and they should comfortably see off Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia to top Group F, probably lining up their first serious game against Denmark in the last sixteen, on the way to a quarter-final clash with Spain.  Tasty, eh?


It is causing much angst in Italy that Inter Milan managed to win the Champions League without an Italian in their starting eleven.  I don't suppose they will fancy the game against Spain but Lippi will see to it that his team is well prepared.  Maybe the Spaniards won't fancy it either.


As European Champions, Vicente del Bosque's team are under pressure to deliver.  Injuries to Fabregas, Villa and Torres haven't helped their preparations but, with a Barcelona backbone, they shouldn't have too much trouble topping Group H ahead of Switzerland, Chile and Honduras.  But with second place in Brazil's Group G (Portugal or Ivory Coast) due to meet the Group H winners, the knock-out stages will be a serious test of the Spanish challenge.


France's opener against Uruguay will be fascinating.  As coach Raymond Domenech is working his notice, I'm not convinced they will have the togetherness necessary for success in a major tournament.  Much will depend on how Franck Ribery and their big star for the future, Yoann Gourcuff, perform and, with Nicola Anelka likely to get the nod ahead of Thierry Henry, it will be interesting to see how he gets on without his Chelsea sidekick Drogba.


Failure to win Group A would have France on a collision course with Argentina in the second round, with England probably awaiting the winners.  I can't see the French getting beyond the quarter-finals.


Everybody knows it is madness to underestimate the Germans but I'm afraid I just can't get excited about Joachim Loew's side.  Michael Ballack's absence means the entire squad is Bundesliga based which should help with the bonding process but, having to settle for third place as hosts in 2004, it is hardly realistic to expect them to do any better in South Africa.


The look the likeliest winners of Group D - surely enough to make sure England win Group C to avoid an early knock-out meeting - but, with Argentina their probable quarter-final opponents, on a vengeance mission for the penalty shoot-out defeat in Berlin four years ago, I can't see them getting past the last eight.


Holland will be many Bears' favourites - c'mon Gio van Bronchhorst! - and their Group E opener against Denmark on Monday lunchtime should be a cracker.  In addition to the strong Ajax-Feyenoord-PSV base to the squad, the Dutch have a number of players plying their trade in England, Germany, Italy and Spain so they are as dangerous as they have ever been, with the strict team ethic more than compensating for the lack of a Cruyff-Gullit-Van Basten-like talisman.


My one worry for Holland is that they are likely to face Brazil in the quarter-finals and my dosh would be on Brazilian flair to undo Dutch organisation and determination.


Denmark will be equally well structured but, with the exception of Arsenal's Nicklas Bendtner, they appear to be overloaded with thirty-somethings.  They should accompany the Dutch out of the group but, with Italy likely to be next on the agenda, the Danes will probably be on their way home by the end of June.


Portugal will be worried by being included in the same group as Brazil and the Ivory Coast.  They meet the Africans in their first fixture on Tuesday and it really is a must-win game.  Any points dropped would pile on the pressure and, with Brazil in opposition in their third match on June 25, they could find themselves in the unenviable position of needing to take something from Brazil to stay in the thing.  Fingers crossed for Pedro Mendes.


Having two-times Champions League winner Ottmar Hitzfeld in charge, Switzerland might be a more serious threat than many anticipate.  They'll probably lose their opener to Spain, which would make their most significant match the clash with Chile on June 21, with the prize being a second round meeting with Brazil, quickly followed by a flight home.


Slovakia, Slovenia and Greece just look like makeweights to me.  The Slovaks clearly see no need to recall Filip Sebo (where is he playing these days?), Slovenia are unlikely to get out of England's group and I suppose the Greeks will be too busy laughing to concentrate on the fitba.  Well, they've got the big Laughing Cavalier himself, Soti Kyrgiakos, at the back.  He'll rip the jersey off an opponent's back, spend the next five minutes hugging and kissing his victim and will give the ref the most disbelieving of smiles if he gets penalised.  With the clown we refer to as Ha-Ha up front, the Greeks should be good for a giggle.


It hurts me to say it but I see England as Europe's best hope, with Holland and Italy not too far behind.  I fancy Brazil v England and Argentina v Italy in the semis, setting up and all South American final.


Tomorrow: A STAR IS BORN.  LBB looks back on the World Cup stars of the past and ponders over who might catch the eye in South Africa.