I've been very busy at work and finding myself without a lot of topics about which to write with college football done and European footie in a lull before the Champions League takes off in earnest at the end of February. (I should be writing more about the Hawks, who are playing well right now, but it's a little hard to get excited at any one point of an 82-game season.) So, without further fanfare, say hello to a new feature at this here blog: a weekly, stock up/stock down look at the major contenders for this summer's World Cup.
Stock Down: Brazil - The Selecao are, at present, the second favorite to hoist the Jules Rimet Trophy this summer, but there are chinks in the armor. For one thing, the last two times Brazil won the World Cup followed qualifying campaigns in which they barely preserved their streak of being the only country to appear at every World Cup. Qualifying with ease has generally been a bad sign for Brazil. More specifically, Dunga has settled on a lineup, but a number of the major figures in that lineup are injured or looking shaky. The front line is composed of: (1) Luis Fabiano, who is injured; (2) Kaka, who has been a major disappointment so far at the Bernabeu; and (3) Robinho, who just forced a transfer from Manchester City to Santos, forgetting that Brazilians are supposed to spend their primes in Europe. Felipe Melo, who was a revelation for Fiorentina last summer and for Brazil at the Confederations Cup, has been a disaster at Juventus, as has Diego, who was hoping to force his way into the Brazil side. The rest of the midfield would be Elano, who is currently playing for Galatasaray, and Gilberto Silva, who is 834 years old.
Let's be honest here: Brazil never lack for players and they can fill out a depth chart full of quality options better than any other team in the world. However, this can be a problem. Many of Brazil's first-choice players are not in-form, which means that there will be some uncertainty because the guys behind them in the pecking order are of such high quality. This is not an easy problem for Dunga to handle.
Stock Up: Argentina - Let's imagine for a moment that Argentina were coached by a replacement-level gaffer and not a guy who reminds me of Tony Montana, post-Take it to the Limit. The team's major problem during an uneven qualifying campaign was a weak backline. Now, Walter Samuel is playing at a high level and was just part of the Inter backline that completely shackled a previously high-flying Milan attack. Gabi Milito is returning to fitness at Barcelona and should be the first central defender on the depth chart behind Puyol and Pique. (It sure shouldn't be Marquez or Chygrynskiy, but that's another story.) Voila, there's a central defense pairing that could win a World Cup. Also, our replacement level coach would be able to pick between in-form Diego Milito and in-form Gonzalo Higuain to partner with Leo Messi, who is torrid right now. Argentina are still suspect at left and right backs, not to mention goalie, but the rest of the roster is rounding into form.
Stock Down: Ivory Coast - There will be a lot of pressure on the Elephants as the standard bearers for an entire continent at the first African World Cup, but they just put in an underwhelming performance at the African Cup of Nations, drawing with Burkina Faso and then losing in the first knock-out round to Algeria. Soccer365 makes the good point that Eurocentric footie fans overrate Ivory Coast (and I would include myself with that description) because it has a number of European stars, but other African sides have plenty of quality players. Personally, I don't totally buy that explanation. If there are players in Africa who are just as good as Didier Drogba, then European clubs would buy their rights. Jerrad Peters assumes the existence of a failing of the market and I would need more evidence before I believe it. Still, it's hard to argue with the results and Ivory Coast did not look good at the ANC. As in 2006, they are in a very tough group, so they will not have the luxury of rounding into form over the course of the tournament.
Stock Up: The Netherlands - Yup, it's about time for me to start deluding myself. Wesley Sneijder's move to Inter has been an unmitigated success, as he not just a regular for one of the elite European sides, but he has in fact shown himself to be the Nerazzurri's most critical player because he's the link-up player that Inter have sought for years. He ever comes with that quintessential Dutch hothead:
Robin van Persie was flying for Arsenal before getting injured in a friendly for the Dutch, an injury from which he will heal in advance of the summer and which will ensure that he doesn't have too many miles on the odometer in June. Arjen Robben is in form for Bayern. If Ruud van Nistlerooy gets his legs back at Hamburg, then the Dutch are going to have the best attacking options of any team in the tournament. I still don't like this team's backline, but the forwards and attacking midfielders should be good enough to deter opponents from taking too many risks.