International

International

England faces Hodgson’s choice over Rooney role

June 15, 2014 Tags: , International, Opinion 9 comments
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Wayne Rooney has so often been the subject of debate. England’s best hope and bête noire, sometimes in equal measure, in the decade since the Scouser’s international début in February 2003. Rooney’s electric performances in the following summer’s European Championships earned a £30 million move to Manchester United – the start of a period that set Rooney in motion towards global stardom. It is a promise only partially fulfilled.

In Germany two years later drama ensued, with Rooney breaking a bone in his foot just weeks before the tournament began. Rushed back into the squad amid national concern, the forward announced his return with the now immortal boast: “the big man is back in town.” He was – only to be sent off in England’s quarter-final defeat to Portugal for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho’s groin.

Eight years later and Rooney is yet to register a World Cup goal. In truth he didn’t come close against Italy in Manaus on Saturday night. It was a game that may just prove to be as much of a defining point in Rooney’s career as that 2004 Euro tournament a decade ago. The point at which Rooney’s star began to fade in earnest.

Roy Hodgson’s decision to switch Rooney to England’s left in a 4-2-3-1 formation said much: the United forward is no longer considered good enough to lead England’s line. Nor, it seems, to play ‘in the hole’ at number 10. Instead, shunted out to the wing – a position Rooney detests – the United player was subjugated to a supporting role as Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge starred.

So long the great white hope, Rooney underwhelmed, to leave Hodgson with a genuine dilemma: if Rooney is fit only for England’s wing, there may well be better options out wide too. Rooney’s place is no longer guaranteed.

After all, while Rooney was rarely influential as an attacking threat – bar a fine assist for Sturridge’s equaliser – the United man was often caught out of position defensively, drifting inside, and exposing England’s left flank. It was an exercise in tactical indiscipline that many coaches would struggle to forgive.

In truth, of course, Rooney is judged to different standards than his team-mates. The criticism leveled in the wake of England’s 2-1 defeat to Italy comes in the context of a game where few of the English team genuinely impressed, bar Sterling and Sturridge. Rooney was certainly no worse than any other England player in aggregate.

Yet, England’s talisman has so often failed to reach that next level either; to rise above the mediocre and deliver more. There are so many examples of an outstanding player dragging an average team to great feats. Just not Rooney.

Rooney has suffered for, and not lived up to, those great expectations. At 18 hopes were hugely inflated that the Liverpool-born forward would join the game’s élite. He has achieved much, and could yet break club and international goalscoring records, but it is a data point that fails to tell the whole story. It is a career that has come to feel anti-climatic.

And yet there is a paradox. Despite performances for club and country over the past three seasons that have rarely excelled, or even excited, the Scouser still puts up the numbers. There were 19 goals and 15 assists in all competitions last season – 16 and 13, respectively, the campaign before. He scored 34 in one season just four years ago.

Yet, there are also so few games that stand out in recent seasons; no dominant performances, little of the explosive excitement that marked the teenager out for greatness. It will, one now presumes, never return.

The forward may have run further during Saturday’s game than any other England player – a story often repeated last season – but supporters have long suspected that Rooney’s perpetual perspiration has permanently replaced the quality that has been eroded from his game.

Instead it was Sturridge and Sterling that excelled in Rooney’s two preferred positions. Sturridge led the line well, scoring a fine equaliser, while Sterling was a dynamic revelation behind his team mate. The Liverpool teenager may not have taken a traditional number 10 role – he didn’t dictate England’s play or tempo – but there is little doubt a new international star was born.

Rooney, meanwhile, simply chose to ignore his great failing – the indiscipline that leaves his manager wondering whether the Scouser is a greater defensive liability than he is an attacking asset.

“If you look at the way we play, it’s not playing out and out on the left wing,” said the 28-year-old. “You’re playing more inside, you’re coming inside off the line. It’s not really playing too much on the left.”

Except, of course, he should have been on the left, especially when Leighton Baines was repeatedly left exposed to Italy’s marauding winger, Antonio Candreva. In deploying just two central midfielders against Italy’s triumvirate Hodgson could ill-afford for Steven Gerrard or Jordan Henderson to drift out of position to cover Rooney’s absence either.

Then, late in the game, with Rooney finally pushed up front, the 28-year old blew a huge chance to bring England back into the tie. It was the kind of opportunity players of the highest caliber take in the biggest games. “What a chance,” Hodgson was seen to mutter on the bench. That it was.

It was left to Paul Scholes to rally in Rooney’s defence. This from the man who, in the build up to the World Cup, had openly questioned whether the Scouser’s best days are now behind him. Who needs friends, eh?

“The best position for Wayne is centre-forward,” said Scholes on Sunday. “If you think about the contenders at the World Cup and goalscorers – Holland play Robin van Persie in his best position. Brazil play Neymar where he wants to play, Argentina with Messi, Portugal with Ronaldo.

“He’s England’s best goalscorer but he was played on the left, played on the right, then in the centre. Where’s the confidence in Wayne to say: ‘You’re our main player. You’re our centre-forward.’”

Yet, the result and performance leaves Hodgson with a genuine choice – to deploy Rooney once more in a wide role, and accept that the player’s indiscipline could well cost England a crucial goal against Uruguay, or to shift one of his two best players against Italy away from the roles in which they starred.

It is, of course, no choice at all.

Come August Louis van Gaal will face a similar dilemma at United. It will surprise many if the Dutchman shirks the big decision. After all, Rooney is no longer United’s best number nine. That is to say little of the excellent relationship enjoyed between Robin van Persie and his international coach.

Meanwhile, in Juan Mata and Shinji Kagawa United possesses two classic ‘number 10s’, albeit of highly contrasting styles. Each will better contribute to United’s balance than Rooney.

It is an observation that leaves Rooney’s career at a crossroads. Revered for his goalscoring exploits, while reviled for his dalliance with both Manchester City and Chelsea. Rooney is man that remains the talk of the nation. Rarer, it seems, for the right reasons.

United’s bean counters are locked in a dilemma too having pressed home David Moyes’ desire to lock Rooney down to a lengthy and expensive new five-year contract. One presumes van Gaal will countenance no interference from above, but with the ink barely dry, United’s board is in danger of looking embarrassingly profligate.

Back on the pitch Rooney is no longer the big man. The Englishman may have to accept that his options have narrowed. Probably at both club and international level.

Brilliant van Gaal has Dutch flying and Reds purring

June 14, 2014 Tags: , International, Opinion 7 comments
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It was a result to bring a tournament to life: Netherlands’ awe-inspiring demolition of world and European champions Spain at Arena Fonte Nova on Friday night. It was, perhaps, a night on which Tiki Taka died just a touch as it’s forebear, TotalVoetbal, sprang into life once more. The Dutch victory, by five stunning goals to one, inspired a nation that held low surprisingly expectations, and thrilled the club Louis van Gaal is to join later this summer.

Indeed, if Manchester United fans were not yet excited by the veteran manager’s arrival next season then surely any reticence has now dissipated into the Salvador heat. After all, two European Championship victories in 2008 and 2012, and the World Cup in 2010, places this is a Spanish side in an élite alongside the finest of any generation, including the Brazilians of 1970 vintage. The Dutch, playing to van Gaal’s tactical masterplan, simply annihilated Spain.

To put Netherlands’ victory into perspective La Roja had lost just three competitive matches since 2008 before Friday: the 2009 Confederations Cup semi-final to USA, the 2010 World Cup opening game against Switzerland, and last summer’s Confederations Cup final against Brazil. Not since 1950 had the Spanish conceded five or more in a competitive game.

True, Barcelona’s slide from its peak at club level had many observers predicting the end of Spanish dominance on the international stage. Yet, it is an observation that also comes in the context of Real Madrid’s Champions League victory final – and Sevilla’s in the Europa League. The national side qualified for Brazil comfortably too – Vincente del Bosque’s outfit coasting through eight matches without defeat.

Still, van Gaal has overseen a renaissance in Dutch football over the past two years, with the Oranje winning each of it’s 10 qualifying matches bar the 2-2 draw with Estonia in Tallin. Yet, the the Dutch also came into the tournament with public confidence at a low. van Gaal’s is a multi-talented squad, but the a blend of youth and talent errs just a little on the side of callow, especially in defence.

None of this mattered in Salvador, where the Netherlands scored five on a night that recalled Bayern Munich’s brutal demolition of Barça over two legs in April 2013. Tiki Taka is not over as a philosophy, but football is certainly an ever evolving beast.

Netherlands’ eventual dominance was not always obvious in the early exchanges though; certainly not as Xabi Alonso struck home a 27th minute penalty – dubiously won – to give Spain a lead. Nor perhaps until Robin van Persie’s glorious diving header brought the Dutch level five minutes before half time.

Yet, the familiar Spanish pattern of ball retention morphed into a strangely pensive mentality over the first period that perhaps underlines La Roja’s growing fragility. The old belief, it seems, has eroded more than anybody realised.

Deviation from the norm was also underlined by Diego Costa’s involvement as the lone Spanish forward – a ‘false 9’ was nowhere in sight. The change in tactical direction seemingly prompted another unfamiliar phenomenon: 30 long balls from Spain that were wholly contrary to a long-established philosophy. Spain, it seems, found a ‘Plan B’ in the robust Atletico Madrid striker; whether it is one that will bring yet more success is very much in doubt.

The Dutch, meanwhile, expertly enacted the now familiar plan to counter-attack at pace; a strategy that destroyed Barça’s Tiki Taka in 2013 and then Pep Guardiola’s Bayern in this season’s Champions League semi-final.

Yet, van Gaal’s approach was an evolution again, with the veteran making a late decision to switch to a back three, while stringing five out across midfield, to offer the Robin van Persie-Arjen Robben attacking axis space to roam. It worked more impressively than even the great coach could have foreseen – even if van Gaal was keen to play down the feat.

“This is a nice start, but we have nothing,” said the incoming United coach. “If we do not win our next game against Australia we have made no progress, but now we are obviously in a good position.”

This was a Dutch victory built not on parking the bus – the fashionable strategy to eschew all possession – but on a determination to spread the game across the pitch, press high and attack at real pace.

It was also built on a clutch of truly wonderful goals. van Persie’s diving header from Daley Blind’s cross-field pass is set to be a classic replayed for generations to come.

“This is a dream come true for us and that’s why we need to enjoy the moment,” said the United forward.

“My equaliser came at just the right time and when Robben made it 2-1, it gave us a huge lift and hurt them badly. The key was to keep the pressure on till the very end, which we were able to do because we’re in great shape.

“This is because of the coach. He has prepared us great and he predicted how the game would go. It’s incredible, because it was exactly as he and the staff predicted for us.”

van Persie’s joyous sprint towards his current – and future – coach, wild high-five, and obvious passion was in marked contrast to much of last season. This is a striker whom David Moyes inexplicably failed to inspire; perhaps even a player the Scot neither rated, nor was prepared to indulge.

van Gaal has no such trouble, not only trusting van Persie as his national captain, but building a team around the 30-year-old’s considerable gifts.

“There was so much feeling,” said the coach “If you can make a goal in that way it’s great, really fantastic. It was great that he (van Persie) came to me. That is a sign of appreciation and that appreciation is mutual.”

It is an observation that should excite United supporters, whether executive vice chairman Ed Woodward brings in the much debated phalanx of new signings, or not. After all, van Persie’s goals alone will push the Reds further up the Premier League table than Moyes was ever likely to achieve.

Yet, it is the Dutch coach’s strategic and tactical brilliance that won the day against Spain despite Robben and van Persie’s individual brilliance. The genius to counter Tiki Taka without hint of conceding the impetus, and the intuitive understanding of how to extract more than the sum of Netherland’s considerable parts.

Good times lie ahead.

Rant’s mega World Cup preview

June 12, 2014 Tags: International, Opinion No comments
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On the eve of the big kick off in Brazil United Rant looks ahead to the World Cup, where 32 teams take part in 64 matches across 12 venues, from Manaus in the north, to Porto Alegre some 2,000 miles south. There’s plenty of Manchester United interest too, with 13 players and one manager set to feature over the next month…

GROUP A

BrazilBrazil
Qualified: as hosts
Manager: Luiz Felipe Scolari

Veteran Scolari is into his 23rd coaching position in a career that has twice come round to the Seleção. Scolari may have failed at Chelsea, but 20 major trophies, including the 2002 World Cup, underpin his status in the world game.

Brazil host World Cup 2014 with more than 200 million Brazilians expecting comprehensive victory in Estádio do Maracanã on 13 July. Absolutely, positively, nothing less will do. Fortunately, Scolari has fashioned, if not a classic Brazilian side in the 1970 mold, then a highly talented one. Victory over Spain in last summer’s Confederation Cup final confirms Brazil will be formidable opponents on home soil where Barcelona’s Neymar is the star turn.

United connection: United’s trio of Brazilians Anderson, Rafael da Silva and Fabio da Silva all missed out on Seleção, although Andreas Pereira is in the under 20 side. Anderson has not featured for the national team since 2008, while Fábio has not played since his debut in September 2011. Rafael, who has two full caps, featured in the London Olympics as an under-23 player, but was roundly accused of underperforming in the Wembley final. He hasn’t featured since.

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CroatiaCroatia
Qualified: through the UEFA play-offs
Manager: Niko Kovač

German-born Kovač played for Hertha Berlin, Bayer Leverkusen, Hamburger and Bayern Munich during 15 years in the Bundesliga, but chose to represent Croatia at international level. He earned more than 80 caps and appeared at the 2002 World Cup, Euro 2004, World Cup 2006, and Euro 2008. After retirement Kovač took on coaching duties with Red Bull Salzburg juniors, before taking the Croatia under-21 team in January 2013. The 42-year-old was appointed Croatia manager in October 2013 following Igor Štimac’s dismissal.

Croatia finished behind an excellent Belgian side during qualification before beating Iceland in the play-offs. It was a reprieve for the Croats who failed to qualify for the 2010 tournament in South Africa. However, three defeats in qualification highlights an unhappy two years in which Štimac’s outfit lost to Scotland, twice, and Belgium. Scotland! Twice!

Josip Šimunić and Darijo Srna add experience at the back, while Mario Mandžukić and Nikica Jelavić will be expected to score the goals in Brazil.

United connection: no Croats have ever played for United, although the country was an option for Adnan Januzaj before the youngster opted for Belgium. Sir Alex Ferguson desperately wanted to bring Luka Modrić to Old Trafford, only for the diminutive midfielder to join Real Madrid for more than £30 million in summer 2012.

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MexicoMexico
Qualified: via the international play-offs
Manager: Miguel Herrera

Club América’s Herrera is in charge after José Manuel de la Torre was fired as coach of the national team by Femexfut president Justino Compean last September. There was little surprise given El Tri’s disastrous qualification campaign.

The last time Mexico failed to qualify for the World Cup Chicharito was not even a thought, let alone a glint, in the postman’s eye. While the ‘Cachirules scandal‘ resulted in disqualification from the 1990 tournament, El Tri are perennial qualifiers. The campaign for 2014 was so nearly a disaster on a national scale though, with the Mexicans thankful that USA beat Panama on the final matchday. As it was, El Tri faced the ignominy of a play-off against New Zealand for a spot in the World Cup.

The most remarkable thing about Mexico’s struggle to reach Brazil is that there is a wealth of talent available. After all, the under-23 squad was victorious at the 2012 Olympics in London. Hernández has one in two at international level, while Giovani dos Santos, and Andres Guardado offer plenty of creativity.

United connection: Hernández is United’s one and only Mexican, but will he still be a Red after summer 2014? There has been more than a whisper from the striker’s camp in recent months that the 25-year-old is frustrated at spending much of his time on United’s bench last season. He is no longer guaranteed a starting spot with Mexico.

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CameroonCameroon
Qualified: via CAF play-offs after topping Group I
Manager: Volker Finke

German Finke is a veteran of the Bundesliga having managed Freiburg for more than 15 years before taking over at Urawa Red Diamonds and then Köln. He was named head coach of Cameroon in May 2013.

Finke’s side qualified via the revamped play-off system after rocky progress through the group stage. Defeat to Libya on matchday two threatened the Indomitable Lions‘ World Cup future, although the side eventually thrashed Tunisia 4-1 in the CAF play-off.

This is not, however, one of Cameroon’s finest sides having failed to qualify for either of the past two ACoN tournaments, while the team was knocked out of World Cup 2010 after losing all three matches at the group stage. Captain Samuel Eto’o will lead the side, while Mainz’ Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting will pose a genuine goal threat. In Alex Song there is steel in midfield, while Valencia’s Stéphane Mbia adds a touch of class.

United connection: Eric “so good they named him twice” Djemba Djemba appeared 24 times for the national team, including at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan.

GROUP B
Spain World Cup
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SpainSpain
Qualified: top of UEFA Group I with 20 points from eight games
Manager: Vincente del Bosque

Was it the impossible job that del Bosque secured in 2008 or the best on the planet? Either way the former Real Madrid coach has built one of the finest international teams in history. Taking over from Luis Aragonés’ after the 2008 European Championship win, del Bosque secured the World Cup in 2010, and then the Euros again 2012. If his quality was in any doubt, del Bosque has also secured two La Liga titles, two Champions Leagues and countless personal honours.

This Spanish side is surely comparable with the finest of any generation, including the Brazilian of 1970 vintage, although many wonder if this summer is a tournament too far. La Roja qualified comfortably enough, coasting through eight matches without defeat and drawing only with France in Madrid and, bizarrely, with Finland in Gijon. Still, Brazil hammered Spain in last summer’s Confederation Cup final. Could Spain’s reign be coming to an end, with ageing legs and waning hunger a factor?

United connection: David de Gea and Juan Mata both made the Spanish squad, the former after Victor Valdez’ injury, although there is a good argument that United’s number one is the in-form ‘keeper in del Bosque’s squad. Gerard Piqué will also feature.

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NetherlandsNetherlands
Qualified: top of UEFA Group D with 28 points from 10 games
Manager: Louis van Gaal

The new United manager is a man with a penchant for rubbing players, the media and opponents up the wrong way, but there is little doubt his methods achieve results. The Amsterdam-born veteran has secured 19 major trophies across a career that has spanned Ajax, Barcelona – twice – and Bayern Munich. In coaches Danny Blind and Patrick Kluivert van Gaal has smartly surrounded himself with contemporary links to his squad.

van Gaal has overseen a renaissance, with the Dutch side winning each of it’s 10 qualifying matches bar a 2-2 draw with Estonia in Tallin. This is a multi-talented squad, with the right blend of youth and talent at just the wrong time. After all, Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar will score goals. Against anyone, almost anywhere. Yet, in South America history says this is a Netherlands side that cannot win a first World Cup, not least with a back-four that is inexperienced.

United connection: Robin van Persie will lead the Dutch side in what will surely be the 30-year-old’s last World Cup, possibly his final tournament of a sparkling career. The Netherland’s highest goalscorer could go out on the highest of highs.

Alexis

ChileChile
Qualified: third in CONMEBOL qualifying with 28 points from 16 games
Manager: Jorge Sampaoli

Sampaoli has built a strong reputation over a decade coaching across South America. The Argentine enjoyed no playing career of note, but secured three major trophies with Universidad de Chile before taking over the national team in December 2012.

If there was any doubt about Chile’s quality the debate should have been ended by the comprehensive nature of victory over England at Wembley last year. Chile’s football is often slick, with neat passing exchanges and a love of possession to match any. In Sampaoli the nation has a coach prepared to be tactically flexible – the smooth transition between a back three and a back five is likely to flumox more than one side at the World Cup.

In midfield Juventus’ Arturo Vidal and Fiorentina’s Matías Fernández provide silk and steel, while Barcelona forward Alexis Sánchez will surely break the national scoring record over the next two years. Sánchez enjoyed a decent season Barcelona and now has 22 goals in 66 caps for the national side.

United connection: Sir Alex Ferguson twice attempted, and failed, to secure Sánchez’ signature for the Reds. The former Udinese forward signed for Barça in July 2011 much to the Scot’s chagrin.

Tim Cahill, Australia

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AustraliaAustralia
Qualified: second in Group B, behind Japan
Manager: Ange Postecoglou

Postecoglou was born in Athens, emigrating to Australia at the age of five. He enjoyed a modest playing career, before achieving greater success managing the young Socceroos, Brisbane Roar, and latterly Melbourne Victory.

This isn’t the finest Socceroos side to grace the World Cup, although qualification through the Asian tournament was achieved with just two defeats across 14 matches. With a world ranking of 57, there is little expectation that Australia will progress to the latter stages of the tournament.

Still, there is experience in the squad, with Crystal Palace player Mile Jedinak, veteran Mark Bresciano, and New York Red Bulls star Tim Cahill all in the squad. The attack will be led by former Everton midfielder Cahill and Japan-based striker Joshua Kennedy, although talented midfielder Tom Rogic misses out through injury.

United connection: United’s only ever Australian player, Mark Bosnich, played 38 games for the Reds across two spells with the club. Bosnich was later sacked by Chelsea for taking cocaine. Postecoglou was manager of South Melbourne when United met the Australian side in the 2000 World Club cup.
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GROUP C

ColombiaColombia
Qualified: second in CONMEBOL qualifying with 30 points from 16 games
Manager: José Pékerman

Argentine Pékerman was considered a specialist youth coach after developing a highly successful Argentina under-20 side in the 1990s. Later he spent two years in charge of the full team before Argentina crashed out of the World Cup 2006 to Germany.

Los Cafeteros enjoyed an outstanding qualification campaign, losing at home only to Argentina. But, then, we have been here before, with a high-quality Colombia outfit often failing on the big stage. There may be few world stars in this Colombia side, but that should not deflect from the genuine threat Pékerman’s side will pose on South American soil. The draw will be crucial, but fifth-ranked Colombia will be disappointed if a quarter-final spot is not booked. James Rodríguez and Jackson Martínez will lead an attacking line-up, although the side will miss injured Radamel Falcao.

United connection: no Colombians have ever played for United, although there was plenty of speculation about a move for Rodríguez last summer – a rumour swiftly ended by Monaco’s deep pockets. Meanwhile, youthful Porto winger Juan Fernando Quintero has been scouted.

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GreeceGreece
Qualified: through the UEFA play-offs
Manager: Fernando Santos

Santos took over from ‘legendary’ manager Otto Rehhagel after a disappointing 2010 World Cup. The Portuguese has a long association with Greek football, having managed PAOK, AEK Athens, and Panathinaikos. He has been named Greek coach of the year four times and previously secured the Portuguese Liga with Porto in 1999.

The 2004 European Champions secured qualification following a tense play-off victory over Romania. However, this is a Greek outfit with little more talent than the 2004 side – and that squad was distinctly average. Unlike the team of a decade ago there is no chance Santos’ side will pull off a surprise in Brazil, although in Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Theofanis Gekas and Giorgos Samaras there is some talent available. The team will be led by veteran Giorgos Karagounis.

In the group stage the Greeks came second to Bosnia, although a total of 25 points from 10 games is impressive enough. In true Rehhagel fashion five of the Greeks eight victories came with a 1-0 scoreline, pointing to an essential problem: a lack of goals. The Greeks scored just 12 in 10 group matches.

United connection: no Greeks have played for the Reds, although midfielder Sortiris Ninis was the subject of much speculation in 2011. The transfer did not materialise and Ninis remains in Greece.

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Africa

Cote-dIvoireIvory Coast
Qualified: via CAF play-offs after topping Group C
Manager: Sabri Lamouchi

Former France international Sabri Lamouchi took up his first managerial post with the Ivorians in May 2012 – a surprise appointment given the coach’s inexperience. Lamouchi enjoyed a fine club career, notably with Auxere and Monaco, and then later in spells with Parma and Inter.

Les Éléphants beat Senegal in the African play-offs to seal a place at a third World Cup tournament. Victory ensured an undefeated campaign, after Lamouchi’s side came through a qualifying group that contained Morocco, Tanzania and Gambia.
World Cup 2014 surely represents the last chance for Cote Ivoire’s ‘Golden Generation’, with Kolo Touré, Didier Zokora and captain Didier Drogba all likely to retire next summer. Much will rest on the shoulders of inspirational Manchester City midfielder and cake lover Yaya Touré, while Drogba will share goalscoring duties with Salomon Kalou, Gervinho and Wilfried Bony.

The Ivorians have never made it past the group stage at the World Cup, although they enjoy a kinder draw than in previous tournaments.

United connection: Sir Alex once admitted that signing Drogba in 2012 was a serious temptation after the striker’s contract with Chelsea ended that summer. In the end Drogba moved Shanghai Shenhua where he played 11 games before joining Galatasaray.

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JapanJapan
Qualified: top of Asia Group B, ahead of Australia
Manager: Alberto Zaccheroni

Veteran Zaccheroni has enjoyed a fine management career across the club and international game. The Italian secured a Serie A title with Milan in the late 1990s, together with the AFC Asian Cup in 2011 and the EAFF East Asian Cup last season. He has also managed Lazio, Inter, and Juventus.

Japan lost three matches across 14 in the Asia tournament in qualifying comfortably. Yet, Zaccheroni’s side started slowly in securing just 10 points from a possible 18 in the first phase to fall behind Uzbekistan. However, the team grew in confidence over the two-year qualifying campaign, adjusting to the Italian’s notoriously unconventional 3-4-3 system to make best use of attacking talents Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki, Yasuhito Endo and talisman Keisuke Honda.

United connection: Kagawa will start the tournament in a loose left-sided attacking role that contains none of the defensive restrictions placed on the playmaker by former United manager Moyes. Kagawa complained that his international chances are being hampered by a less-than-regular starting spot with the Reds last season.

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GROUP D

UruguayUruguay
Qualified: via play-off – fifth in the CONMEBOL with 25 points from 16 games
Manager: Óscar Tabárez

Veteran coach Tabárez is in his second spell in charge of the national team. He led the team to fourth place in the 2010 World Cup, which was followed by victory in Copa America the following year. Tabárez has managed in Argentina, Colombia and Italy over an extensive career.

Tabárez’ outfit was forced to qualify via a one-sided international play-off against Jordan after finishing the CONMEBOL tournament in fifth place. It was quite a comedown for Los Charrúas who performed so well at the 2010 tournament in South Africa. There is plenty of talent at Tabarez’ disposal, with Liverpool’s Luis Suárez joining Edinson Cavani in a potent attacking unit. Gastón Ramírez, Nicolás Lodeiro, Cristian Rodríguez and Walter Gargano add genuine quality in midfield.

United connection: former United striker Diego Forlán will make Los Charrúas‘ squad for Brazil, although he is likely to start the tournament on the bench with Suárez and Cavani the prefered attacking duo.

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Costa-RicaCosta Rica
Qualified: second in CONCACAF qualification standings
Manager: Jorge Luis Pinto

Colombian Pinto took the Costa Rica job part way through the qualification process, but has built a strong side that could surprise some this summer. Pinto is a veteran of 18 coaching positions – the 60-year-old is in his second spell with Los Ticos.

Costa Rica qualified for World Cup 2014 with two games to spare, ending a decade long wait to return to the world stage. Victory over Mexico on the final matchday was unnecessary, but underlined the progress made over the past two years, including a 3-1 home win over the Americans last September.

Fulham’s Bryan Ruiz is a familiar name, while the experienced Álvaro Saborío has scored at both club and international level. Meanwhile, Levante’s Keylor Navas has been outstanding between the sticks in La Liga.

United connection: Pablo “Paulo” Wanchope Watson scored one of the finest ever goals ever against United at Old Trafford, beating four Reds before firing past Peter Schmeichel during Derby County’s 3–2 in 1997.

Wayne Rooney World Cup

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EnglandEngland
Qualified: top of UEFA Group H with 22 points from 10 games
Manager: Roy Hodgson

Hodgson’s has been a circuitous route to the England manager’s job, through 20 positions at home and abroad. Hodgson began his managerial career at lowly Halmstads BK in Sweden, before coaching in Switzerland, Italy, UAE, Norway, Finland and the Premier League, where moderate success came with Fulham and West Bromwich Albion. There was, to some amusement at Old Trafford, a spell of total failure in charge of Liverpool.

England qualified for the 2014 tournament – anything less would have been a national disaster of epic proportions – but this is no vintage Three Lions side. Draws home and away with Ukraine, together with those in Montenegro and Poland, briefly put England’s qualification in doubt. Two victories over Montenegro and Holland secured a spot in Brazil.

Yet, Hodgson’s side also qualified without defeat. It is the essential paradox with this English side. Good, but good enough? Hodgson has been widely praised for trusting in a more youthful squad than many expected.

United connection: United has been home to England internationals since Charlie Roberts in 1905. Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones were on the plane to Brazil. Ashley Young and Michael Carrick missed out to little surprise.

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ItalyItaly
Qualified: top of UEFA Group B with 22 points from 10 games
Manager: Cesare Prandelli

In Prandelli Italy boasts the arch pragmatist, a man who had achieved little as a club manager save for two Serie B titles with Verona and Venezia more than a decade ago, but is prepared to tear down and build again. Goalkeeper Gigi Buffon and midfielder Andrea Pirlo are the only survivors from Italy’s 2006 World Cup winning squad to make the plane for Brazil.

The Lombardian coach fashioned a Euro 2012 final appearance from a functional Italian squad underpinned by the majestic Pirlo. The 56-year-old surely cannot do it again, although third place at last summer’s Confederations Cup bodes well for the Italians’ hopes.

There is talent – both experienced and new in the squad – which is led once again by Pirlo. Goals should come from Ciro Immobile and Mario Balotelli, while Claudio Marchisio and Daniele De Rossi will add midfield steel to Pirlo’s craft. Italy will miss the injured Giuseppe Rossi.

United connection: Rossi didn’t make it at United, scoring four goals in 14 appearances before departing for Villareal in 2007. An anterior cruciate ligament injured wiped out Rossi’s 2011, but a summer move to Fiorentina has proven inspired. The New Jersey-born striker was scoring at almost a goal a game this season before a second knee injury wiped out the striker’s World Cup hopes.

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GROUP E

SwitzerlandSwitzerland
Qualified: top of UEFA Group E with 24 points from 10 games
Manager: Ottmar Hitzfeld

Switzerland is boring. The Swiss make chocolate. And clocks. And avoid making key decisions, like picking sides in a war. At least so goes the theory. Yet, Hitzfeld has proven to be an inspired and leftfield choice as national manager. The long time Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund manager, now into his sixth year as Swiss coach, has taken a nation of just eight million to four tournaments in a row.

Qualification came reasonably smoothly this time as well, even if Iceland, Slovakia, Norway, Albania and Cyprus doesn’t rank as the highest quality opposition.

Hitzfeld will look to Wolfsburg ‘keeper Diego Benaglio, together with midfielder Gokhan Inler and superbly talented youngsters Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka and Valentin Stocker. The Swiss could cause some sides a surprise at the World Cup and qualification for the knock-out rounds is a realistic goal.

United connection: No Swiss has ever played for United, but Reds are more than familiar with manager Hitzfeld, who was in charge of Bayern Munich on the greatest of all great nights in May 1999.

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EcuadorEcuador
Qualified: fourth in CONMEBOL qualifying with 25 points from 16 games
Manager: Reinaldo Rueda

Rueda is the former coach of the Colombian under-20 side that finished third in the 2003 FIFA World Youth Championship. The Colombian national also led the under-17 side to a fourth place finished at the U-17 World Cup in the same year. He took charge of the Ecuadorians in 2010 after a four-year spell with Honduras.

Outsiders to qualify, Rueda has fashioned his squad of local and internationally based players into a fine outfit, especially at home. Captained by United’s Antonio Valencia, Ecuador finished the CONMEBOL campaign without losing in Quito, dropping points only to Argentina along the way.

There is little pressure on La Tri to reach the latter stages in Brazil, although any progress beyond the second round will improve on Ecuador’s performances in 2002 and 2006. The side will miss Christian Benitez, whose death effected the squad both on and off the pitch.

United connection: Valencia will lead Ecuador at the 2014 tournament back on the right wing after appearing in a central midfield position in previous years. The winger was deeply affected by the death of team-mate Benitez, whose number 11 shirt has now been retired.

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FranceFrance
Qualified: through the UEFA play-offs
Manager: Didier Deschamps

Deschamps has grown as a manager through spells with Monaco, Juventus and Marseille, including a 2004 Champions League final appearance. His Monaco side lost 3-0 to José Mourninho’s Porto in the final. Deschamps led Juve back to Serie A after the Calciopoli scandal, although clashes with club management meant the former Old Lady midfielder never managed the club at the highest level. Deschamps succeeded Laurent Blanc after Euro 2012.

Les Bleus, les crisis! It almost came unstuck for Deschamp’s team, with France losing 2-0 away to Ukraine in Kyiv in the opening match of the play-offs. Yet, an inspired performance at home, aided by two goals from Liverpool’s Mamadou Sahko, secured a place in Brazil. France played creditably during qualification, although this is nowhere near the best French side of the past 20 years. Just one loss during the group stage, in Saint-Denis to Spain, points to a French side that has grown since the disaster of the 2010 World Cup tournament.

It is a squad with talent to spare though – ‘keeper Hugo Lloris offers security, defender Raphaël Varane is a rare talent, while forward Karim Benzema should score goals. The French will miss star man Franck Ribéry.

United connection: Patrice Evra will go to the World Cup despite his often controversial relationship with the French public. Meanwhile, Juve star Paul Pogba could come of age at the tournament. How United missed out!

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HondurasHonduras
Qualified: third in CONCACAF qualification standings
Manager: Luis Fernando Suárez

Colombian Suárez is no stranger to the World Cup having coached Ecuador at the 2006 tournament, where his side reached the second round in a run that included victories over Poland and Costa Rica. Suárez has also managed Atlético Nacional, winning the Categoría Primera in 1999, and Deportivo Cali.

The Hondurans began the final group stage with victory over USA and suffered just two defeats in the final 10 matches. Few will fancy the Central Americans to make a real mark at the World Cup, but there is both experience and quality at Suárez’ disposal. Wilson Palacios, Emilio Izaguirre and Maynor Figueroa are familiar names, while Carlo Costly will lead the attack in Brazil.

United connection: Javier Hernández scored twice for Mexico against Honduras in a pulsating 2-2 draw between the sides at San Pedro Sula last March.

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GROUP F

ArgentinaArgentina
Qualified: top of CONMEBOL qualifying with 32 points from 16 games
Manager: Alejandro Sabella

Sabella, 59, is a former Leeds United and international midfielder who formed a long-term coaching partnership with Daniel Passarella before being appointed Argentina coach in 2011.

Sabella’s team has a chance, as any side that includes Lionel Messi does, although Argentina has flattered to deceive so often since reaching the final in 1990. Messi certainly isn’t a failure at international level, although 37 goals in 83 internationals is nowhere near his club record, but it is with the diminutive Barcelona forward that a nation’s hopes rest. Sergio Agüero, Érik Lamela, Gonzalo Higuaín, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Ángel di María will surely provide the firepower to take Argentina to the knockout stages.

United connection: there are no United players in the Argentina squad, although the Reds were close to a deal with Benfica for the defender Ezequiel Garay last summer. David Moyes’ appointment nixed a move for the former Real Madrid centre-back.

Messi

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Bosnia-and-HerzegovinaBosnia-Herzegovina
Qualified: top of UEFA Group G with 25 points from 10 games
Manager: Safet Sušić

Sušić enjoyed a fine playing career, predominantly in France with Paris Saint-Germain, while gaining more than 50 caps for Yugoslavia. He was a rare talent – a playmaker of such esteem that Sušić was once voted PSG’s finest import of all time. As a coach Sušić is yet to hit the same heights at club level, but is enjoying rare success as manager of his homeland.

This will be Bosnia’s first major tournament since gaining full independence in 1995 – a right earned over one of the tightest qualification groups in Europe. Sušić’s outfit boasts a fine record, with victory over Greece in Zenica last March proving to be the decisive result in the group.

This side is better than many at the tournament and could progress from a tight group where Sušić’s midfield diamond will offer the Bosnians some defensive security. Asmir Begović is a dependable presence in goal, while Miralem Pjanić and Zvjezdan Misimović offer creativity and goals from midfield. Manchester City’s Edin Džeko will be expected to score Bosnia’s goals.

United connection: Rumours of a United bid for Pjanić have circulated more than once in the past year, with the playmaker’s performances at Roma drawing admiring attention from many of Europe’s elite clubs.

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IranIran
Qualified: top of Asia Group A, ahead of South Korea
Manager: Carlos Queiroz

The much-travelled Queiroz took control of Iran in April 2011 after a traumatic spell with Portugal, which included a difficult qualifying campaign for World Cup 2010 and eventual defeat to Spain in the second round.

Queiroz has fashioned a robust Iranian side, which qualified comfortably ahead of the more fancied Koreans, but struggled to score goals in the second phase of the Asian tournament. Captain Javad Nekounam is the team’s creative heart, while Spanish-based Masoud Shojaei adds quality to Queiroz’ side. Iran will look to striker Karim Ansarifard to score the goals that will take the side beyond the group stages for the first time.

United connection: Queiroz had two spells at Old Trafford as Sir Alex’ assistant. Often criticised for his defensive tactical leanings, Queiroz added more than a little European know-how to United’s approach. A vital cog in the Reds’ 2008 Champions League victory.

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NigeriaNigeria
Qualified: via CAF play-offs after topping Group F
Manager: Stephen Okechukwu Keshi

Keshi has won the Africa Cup of Nations both as player and coach – one of only two men to do so. The former defender earned 64 caps for the Super Eagles before turning to coaching first with Togo, then Mali and eventually with his homeland in 2011.
Nigeria qualified undefeated after beating Ethiopia home and away in the play-offs. The 2013 ACoN champions have high hopes of progressing beyond their best ever finish at the World Cup – the second round in both 1994 and 1998. That said, there was similar confidence four years ago, when the Nigerians crashed out at the group stage.

There is plenty of quality in the squad this time, with goalkeeper and captain Vincent Enyeama underpinning a solid defence that may contain no world stars, but conceded just four goals in qualifying. Premier League stalwarts Shola Ameobi and Victor Moses will join Emmanuel Emenike in attack.

United connection: midfielder John Obi Mikel was a United player for about two weeks in April and May 2005, before a now infamous switch to Chelsea. Bizarrely the transfer netted United around £12 million in compensation.

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Kroos

GROUP G

GermanyGermany
Qualified: top of UEFA Group C with 28 points from 10 games
Manager: Joachim Low

What’s not to love about Löw? Jurgen Klinnsman’s former assistant has taken this Germany side to ever greater heights, creating a dynamic young side that will surely reach the latter stages in Brazil. Löw enjoyed a modest playing and managerial career before pitching up at Tirol Innsbruck in 2002, taking the now defunct club to the Austrian championship.

Löw took his side through a near perfect qualification campaign, where just two points were dropped in 10 matches – that a remarkable 4-4 draw with Sweden in Berlin. This is a Germany side that has grown after the European Championship in Poland and Ukraine, with young players developing and a new generation coming through to add to considerable experience.

Mario Götze, Mesut Özil, Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Manuel Neuer form the spine of Germany’s strongest side in two decades. The side is a challenger for the title, although Die Mannschaft will miss injured Marco Reus.

United connection: No German has ever played for United’s first team, although former youth Ron-Robert Zieler now has two full caps to his name and sat on the German bench during Euro 2012.

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PortugalPortugal
Qualified: through the UEFA play-offs
Manager: Paulo Bento

Bento has been described in some quarters as one of the best young managers in the business. Certainly, the former Benfica player made a mark in four years as Sporting’s manager, securing the Cup twice, but failing to win the league. He was a player of some note, appearing for Portugal 35 times and playing in both the 2000 Euros and World Cup 2002.

However, Portugal’s qualification tournament was very nearly a disaster. In the end Cristiano Ronaldo’s brilliance won a play-off with Sweden, but cataclysmic draws with Israel in the group stage, and defeat in Moscow almost cost Seleção a spot at the 2014 tournament. Portugal will hope to emulate the performance in Germany at World Cup 2006 when the side reached the semi-final.

United connection: Oh Cristiano, the love unrequited. Nani will also feature in Brazil, although there’s little feeling of warmth for the 27-year-old misfit.

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GhanaGhana
Qualified: via CAF play-offs after topping Group D
Manager: Akwasi Appiah

Appiah is a former international who is enjoying his first senior management position with the Black Stars, after taking charge of the under-23 side in 2011.

Ghana qualified for World Cup 2014 with some ease, topping Group D undefeated before knocking Egypt out in the play-offs 7-3 on aggregate. Appiah’s side has something to prove after finishing just fourth at this year’s ACoN tournament though, losing to Mali in the third place play-off. There’s plenty of talent on offer, with Marseille’s Ayew brothers joining captain Asamoah Gyan in attack.
Meanwhile, Sulley Muntari, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Kwadwo Asamoah add genuine quality in midfield. Ghana will hope to match the excellent performance at World Cup 2010 when the Black Stars were controversially knocked out by Uruguay.

United connection: Ferguson attempted to acquire vice-captain Michael Essien in 2005, before Chelsea outbid the Reds with a £24 million offer for the former Olympique Lyonnais midfielder.

USA
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United-StatesUnited States
Qualified: first in CONCACAF qualification standings
Manager: Jürgen Klinsmann

Klinnsman’s iconic status in the world game reached its zenith when the former Tottenham Hotspur striker won the penalty that sealed Germany’s 1990 World Cup win. As a coach, Klinnsman began the process of Germany’s revival, before taking over Bayern Munich for a single season in 2008. California-loving Klinnsman was appointed USA manger in July 2011.

The Americans qualified by topping the CONCACAF standings with 23 points from 10 games. But the campaign could hardly have started in more disastrous fashion, with defeat to Honduras in the opening qualification fixture. Yet, by the end, Klinnsman had fashioned a robust and talented American team.

There are plenty of familiar names: Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, and Clint Dempsey, although Landon Donovan was surprisingly left out. Given the difficult draw the Americans will do to reach the knockout stages.

United connection: ‘keeper Howard has made a fine career since being dumped by Sir Alex in 2007. Howard is one of four Americans to have played for United, together with Jonathon Spector, Ed McIlvenny and James Brown.

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GROUP H

BelgiumBelgium
Qualified: top of UEFA Group A with 26 points from 10 games
Manager: Marc Wilmots

How Wilmots must count his blessings, coming into the Belgium job just as a ‘golden generation’ emerges. The 44-year-old hasn’t earned the chance through a club career – a year in charge of second division Sint-Truiden earning only the sack – but as assistant to former national manager Georges Leekens. Wilmots has certainly taken advantage, fashioning a side that is better than its ‘dark horse’ status.

Qualification was achieved with ease, with the Red Devils completing group A eight points ahead of Croatia. With talent including Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, Mousa Dembélé and Adnan Januzaj, Belgium should score goals. Yet, it was in defence that Wilmot’s team excelled during qualification, conceding just four times during qualification. The side will miss the injured Christian Benteke.

United connection: Marouanne Fellaini is in Wilmot’s squad, although the big midfielder may compete for a spot in Wilmot’s side with Zenit Saint Petersburg’s Axel Witsel. Januzaj made a very late decision to commit to Belgium and could feature from the bench.

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AlgeriaAlgeria
Qualified: via CAF play-offs after topping Group H
Manager: Vahid Halilhodžić

Bosnian Halilhodžić is a veteran Francophile, having played for both Nantes and Paris Saint German in a fine club career. Later, as a manager, Halilhodžić took charge of Lille OSC, Stade Rennais and PSG.

Algeria emerged victorious from five of six group matches to top a section that included ACoN semi-finalists Mali, together with Benin and Rwanda. Victory over Burkina Faso on away goals qualified the Algerians for a second successive World Cup.

The largely European-based squad is youthful and inexperienced, but what Halilhodžić lacks in age he may make up for in talent. Valencia’s Sofiane Feghouli is an attacking midfielder of genuine class, while Medhi Lacen is a neat defensive-minded player doing well at Getafe. Captain Madjid Bougherra is no stranger to fans in the UK.

United connection: United once played Algeria. No, really.

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RussiaRussia
Qualified: top of UEFA Group F with 22 points from 10 games
Manager: Fabio Capello

Capello enjoyed a fine playing career, predominantly at Juventus, Roma and Milan, before becoming Rossoneri manager for the first time in 1991. It has been a heavyweight managerial career since. Forgot the drama of Capello’s England exit and concentrate on five Serie A titles, two La Liga’s with Real Madrid, and the 1994 Champions League, with the finest Milan side in living memory.

Russia appointed Capello to the managerial job in July 2012 following Dick Advocaat’s resignation. It has been a largely successful appointment, although Russia’s passage to World Cup 2014 has not always been smooth. Paired with Portugal, defeat in Lisbon last June threatened automatic qualification, especially when it was followed by an inexplicable loss to Northern Ireland.

Capello has fashioned a functional, if ageing side. In Igor Akinfeev the Russians have a fine goalkeeper, while Zenit St Petersburg’s Roman Shirokov and Victor Fayzulin offer goals from midfield. Club-mate Aleksandr Kerzhakov scored five in qualification after a disappointing Euro 2012.

United connection: Andrei Kanchelskis played 36 times for Russia, 17 for the Soviet Union and six for CIS – but none for Ukraine, despite being born in Kirovograd, some 250 miles south of Kyiv.

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South-KoreaSouth Korea
Qualified: second in Asia Group A behind Iran
Manager: Hong Myung-bo

Former player Hong took charge of the Red Devils in June after the departure of Choi Kang-Hee. Hong earned 136 international caps in a stellar career, before taking charge of South Korean teams at the under-20 and under-23 levels.

Perennial qualifiers South Korea suffered a most traumatic road to the World Cup, finishing behind Iran Asia Group A after a poor campaign. Defeat to Lebanon in the penultimate second phase match left the Koreans needing to beat tiny Kuwait to progress in the Asian tournament at all. The campaign eventually cost Choi his job and Korea’s World Cup place was only sealed on goal difference from Uzbekistan.

Much will rest on striker and captain Park Chuyoung, while in midfield Bolton Wanderers’ Lee Chungyong is a fixture on the right flank. Few expect much from an average Korean side.

United connection: Park Ji-Sung has long since retired from the national team, although the former Red gained exactly 100 caps. Park appeared at the World Cup in 2002, 2006 and 2010.

Rant’s World Cup Preview Part III: Europe, World Cup Reds and venues

December 6, 2013 Tags: International, Opinion 3 comments
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In the third and final part of Rant’s World Cup Preview (for no other reason than because we can…) we look at qualifiers from Europe, the Manchester United players likely to make the tournament, and all those fine stadia you’ll be visiting. The draw for the finals takes place on Friday 6 December.

Part 1 – Rant’s World Cup Preview Part I: South America and Asia
Part 2 – Rant’s World Cup Preview Part II: Africa and North America

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Flag of NetherlandsNetherlands
Qualified: top of UEFA Group D with 28 points from 10 games
Manager: Louis Van Gaal

Van Gaal is a man with a penchant for rubbing players, the media and opponents up the wrong way, but there is little doubt his methods achieve results. The Amsterdam-born veteran has secured 19 major trophies across a career that has spanned Ajax, Barcelona – twice – and Bayern Munich. In coaches Danny Blind and Patrick Kluivert van Gaal has smartly surrounded himself with contemporary links to his squad.

Indeed, the manager has overseen a Dutch side that won each of it’s 10 qualifying matches bar a 2-2 draw with Estonia in Tallin. This is a multi-talented squad, with the right blend of youth and talent at just the wrong time. After all, Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, Rafael van der Vaart, Wesley Sneijder and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar will score goals. Against anyone, almost anywhere. Yet, in South America history says this is a Netherlands side that cannot win a first World Cup.

United connection: Robin van Persie will lead the Dutch side in what will surely be the 30-year-old’s last World Cup, possibly his final tournament of a sparkling career. The Netherland’s highest goalscorer could go out on the highest of highs.

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Flag of ItalyItaly
Qualified: top of UEFA Group B with 22 points from 10 games
Manager: Cesare Prandelli

In Prandelli Italy has the arch pragmatist, a man who had achieved little as a club manager save for two Serie B titles with Verona and Venezia more than a decade ago, but is prepared to tear down and build again. It is likely only goalkeeper Gigi Buffon will survive from Italy’s 2006 World Cup winning squad to make the plane for Brazil.

Yet, the Lombardian fashioned a Euro 2012 final appearance from a functional Italian squad underpinned by the majestic Andrea Pirlo. The 56-year-old surely cannot do it again, although third place at this summer’s Confederations Cup bodes well.

There is talent both experienced and new in the squad, led once again by Pirlo, with goals coming from Stephan El Shaarawy, Mario Balotelli and perhaps even United old boy Giuseppe Rossi. Claudio Marchisio and Daniele De Rossi will add midfield steel to Pirlo’s craft.

United connection: Rossi didn’t make it at United, scoring four goals in 14 appearances before departing for Villareal in 2007. An anterior cruciate ligament injured wiped out Rossi’s 2011, but a summer move to Fiorentina has proven inspired. The New Jersey-born striker is scoring at almost a goal a game this season.

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Flag of BelgiumBelgium
Qualified: top of UEFA Group A with 26 points from 10 games
Manager: Marc Wilmots

How Wilmots must count his blessings, coming into the Belgium job just as a ‘golden generation’ emerges. The 44-year-old hasn’t earned the chance through a club career – a year in charge of second division Sint-Truiden earning only the sack – but as assistant to former national manager Georges Leekens. Yet Wilmots has certainly taken advantage, fashioning a side that is better than it’s underdog status.

Qualification was achieved with ease, with the Red Devils completing group A a full eight points ahead of Croatia. With talent including Christian Benteke, Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Mousa Dembélé, Belgium should always score goals. But it was in defence that Wilmot’s team excelled, conceding just four times during qualification.

United connection: Marouanne Fellaini will certainly go to the World Cup, although the big midfielder may compete for a spot in Wilmot’s side with Zenit Saint Petersburg’s Axel Witsel.

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Flag of SwitzerlandSwitzerland
Qualified: top of UEFA Group E with 24 points from 10 games
Manager: Ottmar Hitzfeld

Switzerland is boring. They make chocolate, clocks and ski. And avoid making key decisions, like picking sides in a war. At least so goes the theory. Yet, Hitzfeld has proven to be an inspired and leftfield choice as national manager. The long time Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund manager, now into his sixth year as Swiss coach, has taken a nation of eight million to four tournaments in a row.

Qualification came reasonably smoothly this time as well, even if in Iceland, Slovakia, Norway, Albania and Cyprus, the Swiss didn’t exactly face the highest quality opposition.

Hitzfeld will look to Wolfsburg ‘keeper Diego Benaglio, together with midfielder Gokhan Inler and superbly talented youngsters Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka and Valentin Stocker. Could cause some sides a surprise at the World Cup, although qualification for the knock-out rounds is likely to be the realistic goal.

United connection: No Swiss has ever played for United, but Reds are more than familiar with manager Hitzfeld, who was in charge of Bayern Munich on the greatest of all great nights in May 1999.

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Flag of GermanyGermany
Qualified: top of UEFA Group C with 28 points from 10 games
Manager: Joachim Low

What’s not to love about Löw? Jurgen Klinnsman’s former assistant has taken this Germany side to ever greater heights, creating a dynamic young side that will surely reach the latter stages in Brazil. Löw enjoyed a modest playing and managerial career before pitching up at Tirol Innsbruck  in 2002, taking the now defunct club the the Austrian championship.

Löw took this Germany side through a near perfect qualification campaign – just the two points dropped in securing 28 from 10 matches. That a remarkable 4-4 draw with Sweden in Berlin. This is a Germany that has grown from after the European Championship in Poland and Ukraine, young players developing and a new generation coming through to add to considerable experience.

Mario Götze, Mesut Özil, Philipp Lahm and Manuel Neuer we know.  Julian Draxler, the Bender brothers, and Patrick Herrmann could surprise many. Certain challengers for the title.

United connection: No German has ever played for United’s first team, although former youth Ron-Robert Zieler now has two full caps to his name and sat on the German bench during Euro 2012.

Spain World Cup

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Flag of SpainSpain
Qualified:  top of UEFA Group I with 20 points from eight games
Manager: Vincente del Bosque

Was it the impossible job that del Bosque secured in 2008 or the best on the planet? Either way the former Real Madrid coach has built one of the finest international teams in history. Taking over from Luis Aragonés’ after the 2008  European Championship win, del Bosque secured the World Cup in 2010, and then the Euros again 2012. If his quality was in any doubt, del Bosque has also secured two La Liga titles, two Champions Leagues and countless personal honours.

Indeed, this Spanish side is surely comparable with the finest of any generation, including the Brazilian of 1970 vintage. Three international tournaments in a row is testament to that observation. La Roja qualified comfortably enough, coasting through eight matches without defeat and drawing only with France in Madrid and, bizarrely, with Finland in Gijon. Still, Brazil hammered Spain in this summer’s Confederation Cup final. Could Spain’s reign be coming to an end?

United connection: Sadly, David de Gea is unlikely to make the Spanish squad although there is a good argument that United’s number one is the in-form ‘keeper available to del Bosque. However, Gerard Piqué will certainly be on the plane, injury permitting.

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Flag of RussiaRussia
Qualified: top of UEFA Group F with 22 points from 10 games
Manager: Fabio Capello

Capello enjoyed a fine playing career, predominantly at Juventus, Roma and Milan, before becoming Rossoneri manager for the first time in 1991. It has been a heavyweight managerial career ever since. Forgot the drama of Capello’s England exit and concentrate on five Serie A titles, two La Liga’s with Real Madrid, and the 1994 Champions League, with the finest Milan side in living memory.

Russia appointed Capello to the managerial job in July 2012 following Dick Advocaat’s resignation. It has undoubtedly been a successful appointment, although Russia’s passage to World Cup 2014 has not always been smooth. Paired with Portugal, defeat in Lisbon last June threatened automatic qualification, especially when it was followed by an inexplicable loss to Northern Ireland.

Yet, qualification was achieved and in Igor Akinfeev the Russians have a fine goalkeeper, while Zenit St Petersburg’s Roman Shirokov and Victor Fayzulin will score goals from midfield. Club-mate Aleksandr Kerzhakov scored five in qualification.

United connection: Andrei Kanchelskis played 36 times for Russia, 17 for the Soviet Union and six for CIS – but none for Ukraine, despite being born in Kirovograd, some 250 miles south of Kyiv.

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Flag of BosniaBosnia-Herzegovina
Qualified: top of UEFA Group G with 25 points from 10 games
Manager: Safet Sušić

Sušić enjoyed a fine playing career, predominantly in France with Paris Saint-Germain, while gaining more than 50 caps for Yugoslavia. He was a rare talent – a playmaker of such esteem that Sušić was once voted PSG’s finest import of all time. As a coach, Sušić  is yet to hit the same heights at club level, but is enjoying rare success as manager of his homeland.

This will be Bosnia’s first major tournament since gaining full independence in 1995 – a right earned over one of the tightest qualification groups in Europe. Sušić’s outfit boasts a fine record, with victory over Greece in Zenica last March proving to be the decisive result in the group.

Few will back the Bosnia’s to progress to the knockout stages in Brazil, but this side is better than that. Asmir Begović is a dependable presence in goal, while Miralem Pjanić abd Zvjezdan Misimović offer creativity and goals from midfield. Manchester City’s Edin Džeko will be expected to score Bosnia’s goals.

United connection: Rumours of an imminent United bid for Pjanić have circulated more than once in the past year, with the playmaker’s performances at Roma drawing admiring attention from many of Europe’s elite clubs.

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Flag of EnglandEngland
Qualified: top of UEFA Group H with 22 points from 10 games
Manager: Roy Hodgson

Hodgson’s has been a circuitous route to the England manager’s job, through 20 positions at home and abroad. Hodgson began his managerial career at lowly Halmstads BK in Sweden, before coaching in Switzerland, Italy, UAE, Norway, Finland and the Premier League, where some success came with Fulham and West Bromwich Albion. There was, to some amusement at Old Trafford, a spell of total failure in charge of Liverpool.

England qualified for the 2014 tournament – anything less would have been a national disaster of epic proportions – but this is clearly no vintage Three Lions side. Draws home and away with Ukraine, together with those in Montenegro and Poland, briefly put England’s qualification in doubt. Two victories over Montenegro and Holland secured a spot in Brazil. Yet, Hodgson’s side also qualified without defeat. It is the essential paradox with this English side. Good, but good enough?

United connection: United has been home to England internationals since Charlie Roberts in 1905. Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Chris Smalling, Michael Carrick, and Phil Jones will almost certainly be on the plane to Brazil. Ashley Young harbours an outside hope.

Wayne Rooney World Cup

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Flag of PortugalPortugal
Qualified: through the UEFA play-offs
Manager: Paulo Bento

Bento has been described in some quarters as one of the best young managers in the business. Certainly, the former Benfica player made a mark in four years  as manager of  Sporting, securing the Cup twice but failing to win the league. He was a player of some note, appearing for Portugal 35 times and playing in both the 2000 Euros and World Cup 2002.

However, Portugal’s qualification tournament was very nearly a disaster. In the end Cristiano Ronaldo’s brilliance won a play-off with Sweden, but cataclysmic draws with Israel in the group stage, and defeat in Moscow almost cost Seleção a spot at the 2014 tournament. Portugal will hope to emulate the performance in Germany at World Cup 2006 when the side reached the semi-final.

United connection: Ah Ronaldo, the love unrequited. Nani will also be on the plane to Brazil, although there’s little love for the 27-year-old misfit.

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Flag of FranceFrance
Qualified: through the UEFA play-offs
Manager: Didier Deschamps

Deschamps has grown as a manager through spells with Monaco, Juventus and Marseille, including a 2004 Champions League final appearance with the former. His side would lose 3-0 to José Mourninho’s Porto in the final. Deschamps led Juve back to Serie A after the Calciopoli scandal, although clashes with club management meant the former Old Lady midfielder would never manager the club at the highest level. Took over the national side from Laurent Blanc after Euro 2012.

Les Bleus, les crisis! It almost came unstuck for Desampsch’s team, with France losing 2-0 away to Ukraine in Kyiv in the opening match of the play-offs. Yet, an inspired performance at home, aided by two goals from Liverpool’s Mamadou Sahko, secured a place in Brazil. France played creditably during qualification, although this is nowhere near the best French side of the past 20 years. Just one loss during the group stage, in Saint-Denis to Spain, marks a French side that has grown since the disaster of the 2010 World Cup tournament.

It is a squad with talent to spare though, from the ‘keeper Hugo Lloris, to defender Raphaël Varane, forward Karim Benzema, and star man Franck Ribéry.

United connection: Patrice Evra will go to the World Cup despite his often controversial relationship with the French public. Meanwhile, Juve star Paul Pogba could come of age at the tournament. How United missed out on him!

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Flag of GreeceGreece
Qualified: through the UEFA play-offs
Manager: Fernando Santos

Santos took over from ‘legendary’ manager Otto Rehhagel after a disappointing 2010 World Cup. The Portuguese has a long association with Greek football, having managed PAOK, AEK Athens, and Panathinaikos. Four times he has been named Greek coach of the year. Also secured the Portuguese Liga with Porto in 1999.

The 2004 European Champions secured qualification following a tense play-off victory over Romania.  However, this is a Greek side with no more talent than the 2004 variety – and that squad was distinctly average. Still, there’s no chance Santos’ side will pull off a surprise this time round, although in Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Theofanis Gekas and Giorgos Samaras there is some talent available. The team will be led by Fulham veteran Giorgos Karagounis.

In the group stage the Greeks came second to Bosnia, although a total of 25 points from 10 games is impressive enough. In true Rehhagel fashion five of the Greeks eight victories came with a 1-0 scoreline, pointing to an essential problem: lack of goals. The Greeks scored just 12 in 10 group matches.

United connection: no Greeks have played for the Reds yet, although midfielder Sortiris Ninis was the subject of much speculation in 2011. The transfer did not materialise and Ninis remains in Greece.

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Flag of CroatiaCroatia
Qualified: through the UEFA play-offs
Manager: Niko Kovač

German-born Kovač  played for Hertha, Bayer Leverkusen, Hamburger and Bayern Munich during 15 years in the Bundesliga, but chose to represent Croatia at international level. He earned more than 80 caps and appeared at the 2002 World Cup, Euro 2004, World Cup 2006, and Euro 2008. After retirement Kovač  took on coaching duties with Red Bull Salzburg juniors, before taking the Croatia under-21 team in January 2013. The 42-year-old was appointed Croatia manager on 13 October following  Igor Štimac’s dismissal.

Croatia finished behind an excellent Belgian side during qualification, then beat Iceland in the play-offs. It was a reprieve for the Croats, who failed to qualify for the 2010 tournament in South Africa.  However, three defeats in qualification highlights an unhappy two years in which Štimac’s outfit lost to Scotland, twice, and Belgium. Scotland! Twice!

Josip Šimunić and Darijo Srna add experience at the back, while Mario Mandžukić and Nikica Jelavić will be expected to score the goals in Brazil.

United connection: no Croats have ever played for United, although Adnan Januzaj could, if he wanted to. How Sir Alex Ferguson wanted to bring Luka Modrić to Old Trafford. The dimunuative midfielder eventually moved to Real Madrid for more than £30 million.

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Potential World Cup Reds (qualified nations only)

On the plane

Flag of FrancePatrice Evra, France – the player Les Bleus’ supporters love to hate will certainly be on the plane to Rio in what is likely to be his last tournament before international retirements.

Flag of EnglandPhil Jones, England – the youngster will almost certainly be in Hodgson’s squad, with the defender’s flexibility key to his manager’s defensive plans next summer.

Flag of EnglandChris Smalling, England – likely to make the squad, although recent performances for country have been nervous and uncertain.

Flag of EnglandMichael Carrick, England – certain to feature after missing out on Euro 2012, although age and fitness will be a concern.

Flag of EnglandTom Cleverley, England – likely to make Hodgson’s squad, although the 24-year-old is not having the best season at club level.

Flag of EnglandWayne Rooney, England – England’s most important player in Brazil and potentially Rooney’s final chance to shine on the international stage.

Flag of EnglandDanny Welbeck, England – Welbz is “dat guy” at international level, with eight goals in 20 internationals – better than his club record.

Flag of BelgiumMarouane Fellaini, Belgium – part of the ‘Red Devils’ squad in Brazil, and will compete with Axel Witsel for a place in the team

Flag of JapanShinji Kagawa, Japan – certain to feature in Brazil and is likely to be deployed on the left side of a front three in Alberto Zaccheroni’s side.

Flag of PortugalNani, Portugal – failed to impress in the play-off against Sweden, but will certainly make the final 23, and is likely to start the tournament on Portugal’s right wing.

Flag of EcuadorAntonio Valencia, Ecuador – a national hero and a more flexible player than his club appearances might suggest with performances both on the wing and in central midfield for Ecuador

Flag of MexicoJavier Hernández, Mexico – Chichario missed the play-off win over New Zealand but should start the tournament aiming to add to his 35 goals in 57 appearances for the national team.

Flag of NetherlandsRobin van Persie, Netherlands – Holland’s leading goalscorer must be desperate to shine in what may be his final World Cup tournament.

Outside Chance

Flag of SpainDavid De Gea, Spain – likely to miss out unless one of Iker Cassilas, Pepe Reine, or Victor Valdes is injured in the season ahead despite, arguably, outperforming all three this season.

Brasil flagFabio da Silva, Brazil – sure to miss out having not featured for Seleção in over two years and nowhere to be seen in David Moyes’ United squad.

Brasil flagRafael da Silva, Brazil – outside chance of making the finals, but only through injury to others having not played for the national team since prior to the 2012 London Olympics

Flag of EnglandAshley Young, England – awful club form means that the former Aston Villa winger has lost his place in the national side.

Flag of EnglandWilfried Zaha, England – capped by Roy Hodgson as a Crystal Palace player but has not featured for United in the Premier League this season.

Enjoying the Beach

Flag of NetherlandsAlexander Büttner, Netherlands – very unlikely to make Holland’s squad for the World Cup even if the plague hits every left-back in the lowlands.

Brasil flagAnderson, Brazil – there is a chance Anderson will be found in Brazil next summer, but only on the Copacabana with a barbecue in one hand and a girl in the other!

Flag of BelgiumAdnan Januzaj, Belgium – very unlikely to be offered (or accept) a place in Marc Wilmots’ World Cup squad having turned down Belgium at every age group to date.

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World Cup Venues

What’s that you say? There are fine stadiums other than Old Trafford, and they may also contain that magic, ephemeral thing: atmosphere. Indeed there are, and the Brazilian authorities have begged, borrowed and quite possibly stolen their way to 12 fine venues for the tournament, although with just six months to go, not all are ready.

Map of Venues

Arena Amazonia - ManausStadium: Arena Amazonia
City: Manaus
Capacity: 42,374

Estadio Castelao - FortalezaStadium: Estadio Castelao
City: Fortaleza
Capacity: 64,846

Estadio das Dunas, Natal Stadium: Estadio das Dunas
City: Natal
Capacity: 42,086

Arena Pernambuco - RecifeStadium: Arena Pernambuco
City: Recife
Capacity: 44,248

Arena Fonte Nova - SalvadorStadium: Arena Fonte Nova
City: Salvador
Capacity: 48,747

Estadio Mineirao - Belo HorizonteStadium: Estadio Mineirao
City: 
Belo Horizonte
Capacity: 
62,547

Arena Pantanal - CuiabaStadium: Arena Pantanal
City: Cuiaba
Capacity: 42,968

Estadio Nacional - BrasiliaStadium: Estadio Nacional
City: Brasilia
Capacity: 68,009

Arena de Sao Paulo, Sao PauloStadium: Arena de Sao Paulo
City: Sao Paulo
Capacity: 65,807

Maracana, Rio de JaneiroStadium: Estadio do Maracana
City: Rio De Janeiro
Capacity: 75,117

Arena da Baixada, CuritibaStadium: Arena da Baixada
City: Curitiba
Capacity: 41,456

Estadio Beira-Rio, CuritibaStadium: Estadio Beira-Rio
City: Porto Alegre
Capacity: 48,849

Rant’s World Cup Preview Part II: Africa and North America

November 24, 2013 Tags: International, Opinion 4 comments
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In this three part guide to the World Cup Rant looks at the teams, the stadia and most importantly the United players and connections we are likely to see in Brazil. Some are more tenuous than others! In part II we look at xx qualifying nations from Africa and North America.

Flag of Ivory CoastIvory Coast
Qualified: via CAF play-offs after topping Group C
Manager: Sabri Lamouchi

Former France international Sabri Lamouchi took up his first managerial post with the Ivorians in May 2012 – a surprise appointment for such an inexperienced coach. Lamouchi enjoyed a fine club career, notably with Auxere and Monaco, and then later spells in Italy with Parma and Inter.

Les Éléphants beat Senegal in the African play-offs to seal a place at a third World Cup tournament. Victory represented an undefeated campaign, after Lamouchi’s side came through a qualifying group that contained Morocco, Tanzania and Gambia.

World Cup 2014 surely represents the last chance for Cote Ivoire’s ‘Golden Generation’, with Kolo Touré, Didier Zokora and captain Didier Drogba all likely to retired next summer. Much will rest on the shoulder’s of inspirational Manchester City midfielder Yaya Touré, while Drogba will share goalscoring duties with Salomon Kalou, Gervinho and Swansea City’s £12 million forward Wilfried Bony.

The Ivorians have never made it past the group stage at the World Cup, although they will hope for a kinder draw than in previous tournaments.

United connection: Sir Alex once admitted that signing Drogba in 2012 was a serious temptation after the striker’s contract with Chelsea ended that summer. In the end Drogba moved Shanghai Shenhua where he played 11 games, and then on to Galatasaray.

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Flag of NigeriaNigeria
Qualified: via CAF play-offs after topping Group F
Manager: Stephen Okechukwu Keshi

Keshi has won the Africa Cup of Nations both as player and coach – one of only two men to do so. The former defender earned 64 caps for the Super Eagles before turning to coaching first with Togo, then Mali and eventually his homeland in 2011.

Nigeria qualified undefeated after beating Ethiopia in the play-offs both home and away. The 2013 ACoN champions have high hopes of progressing beyond their best ever finish at the World Cup – the second round in both 1994 and 1998. That said, there was similar confidence four years ago, when the Nigerians crashed out at the group stage.

There is plenty of quality in the squad this time, with goalkeeper and captain Vincent Enyeama underpinning a solid defence that may contain no world stars, but conceded just four goals in qualifying.  Premier League stalwarts Shola Ameobi and Victor Moses will join Emmanuel Emenike in attack.

United connection: midfielder John Obi Mikel was a United player for about two weeks in April and May 2005, before a now infamous switch to Chelsea. Bizarrely, the transfer netted United around £12 million in compensation.

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Flag of CameroonCameroon
Qualified: via CAF play-offs after topping Group I
Manager: Volker Finke

German Finke is a veteran of the Bundesliga, having managed Freiburg for more than 15 years, before taking over at Urawa Red Diamonds and then Köln. He was named head coach of Cameroon in May 2013.

Finke’s side qualified via the revamped play-off system after rocky progress through the group stage. Defeat to Libya on matchday two threatened the Indomitable Lions‘ World Cup future, although the side would eventually thrash Tunisia 4-1 in the CAF play-off.

This is not, however, one of Cameroon’s finest sides having failed to qualify for either of the past two ACoN tournaments, while the team was knocked out of World Cup 2010 after losing all three matches at the group stage. Captain Samuel Eto’o will lead the side, while Mainz’ Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting will pose a genuine goal threat. In Alex Song there is steel in midfield, while Valencia’s Stéphane Mbia adds a touch of class.

United connection: Eric “so good they named him twice” Djemba Djemba appeared 24 times for the national team, including at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan.

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Flag of GhanaGhana
Qualified: via CAF play-offs after topping Group D
Manager: Akwasi Appiah

Appiah is a former international who is enjoying his first senior management position with the Black Stars, after taking charge of the under-23 side in 2011.

Ghana qualified for World Cup 2014 with some ease, topping Group D undefeated before knocking Egypt out in the play-offs 7-3 on aggregate. Still, Appiah’s side has something to prove after finishing just fourth at this year’s ACoN tournament, losing to Mali in the third place play-off. There’s plenty of talent on offer, with Marseille’s Ayew brothers joining captain Asamoah Gyan in attack. Meanwhile, Sulley Muntari, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Kwadwo Asamoah add genuine quality in midfield. Ghana will hope to match the excellent performance at World Cup 2010 when the Black Stars were controversially knocked out by Uruguay.

United connection: Ferguson attempted to acquire vice-captain Michael Essien in 2005, before Chelsea outbid the Reds with a £24 million offer for the former Olympique Lyonnais midfielder.

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Flag of AlgeriaAlgeria
Qualified: via CAF play-offs after topping Group H
Manager: Vahid Halilhodžić

Bosnian Halilhodžić is a veteran Francophile, having played for both Nantes and Paris Saint German in a fine club career. Later, as a manager, Halilhodžić took charge of Lille OSC, Stade Rennais and PSG.

Algeria emerged victorious from five of six group matches to top a section section that included ACoN semi-finalists Mali, together with Benin and Rwanda. Victory over Burkina Faso on away goals qualified the Algerians for a second successive World Cup.

The largely European-based squad is youthful and inexperienced, but what Halilhodžić lacks in age he may make up for in talent. Valencia’s Sofiane Feghouli is an attacking midfielder of note, while Medhi Lacen is a neat defensive-minded player doing well at Getafe. Captain Madjid Bougherra is no stranger to fans in the UK.

United connection: Peter Kenyon, so the story goes, once bid just £8 million for Zinedine Zidane. Unsurprisingly Juventus turned it down. Zidane won the World Cup with France in 1998, but is of Kabyle-Berber Algerian descent. Oh, and United once played Algeria.

 

USA

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Flag of USAUnited States
Qualified: first in CONCACAF qualification standings
Manager: Jürgen Klinsmann

Klinnsman’s iconic status in the world game reached its zenith when the former Tottenham Hotspur striker won the penalty that sealed Germany’s 1990 World Cup win. As a coach, Klinnsman began the process of Germany’s revival, before taking over Bayern Munich for a single season in 2008. California-loving Klinnsman was appointed USA manger in July 2011.

The Americans qualified comfortably for World Cup 2014 in the end, topping the CONCACAF standings with 23 points from 10 games. But the campaign could hardly have started in more disastrous fashion, with defeat to Honduras in the opening qualification fixture. By the end, however, Klinnsman had fashioned a robust and talented American team.

There are plenty of familiar names: Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan will all be on the plane to Brazil. The Americans could well do better than the round of 16 achieved in 2010.

United connection: ‘keeper Howard has made a fine career since being dumped by Sir Alex in 2007. Howard is one of four Americans to have played for United, together with Jonathon Spector, Ed McIlvenny and James Brown.

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Flag of Costa RicaCosta Rica
Qualified: second in CONCACAF qualification standings
Manager: Jorge Luis Pinto

Colombian Pinto took the Costa Rica job part way through the qualification process, but has quickly built a strong side that could surprise some at the tournament. Veteran of 18 coaching positions, the 60-year-old is in his second spell with Los Ticos.

Costa Rica qualified for World Cup 2014 with two games to spare, ending a decade long wait to return to the world stage. Victory over Mexico on the final matchday was unnecessary, but underlined the progress made over the past two years, including a 3-1 home win over the Americans in September.

Fulham’s Bryan Ruiz is a familiar name, while the experienced Álvaro Saborío has scored at both club and international level. Meanwhile, Levante’s Keylor Navas has been outstanding between the sticks in La Liga.

United connection: Pablo “Paulo” Wanchope Watson scored one of the finest ever goals ever against United at Old Trafford, beating four Reds before firing past Peter Schmeichel during Derby County’s 3–2 in 1997.

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Flag of HondurasHonduras
Qualified: third in CONCACAF qualification standings
Manager: Luis Fernando Suárez

Colombian Suárez is no stranger to the World Cup having coached Ecuador at the 2006 tournament, reaching the second round in a run that included victory over Poland and Costa Rica. He has also managed Atlético Nacional, winning the Categoría Primera in 1999, and Deportivo Cali.

The Hondurans began the final group stage with victory over USA and suffered just two defeats in the final 10 matches. Few will fancy the Central Americans to make a real mark at the World Cup, but there is both experience and quality at Suárez’ disposal. Wilson Palacios, Emilio Izaguirre and Maynor Figueroa are familiar names, while Carlo Costly will lead the attack in Brazil.

United connection: Javier Hernández scored twice for Mexico against Honduras in a pulsating 2-2 draw between the sides at San Pedro Sula last March.

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Flag of MexicoMexico
Qualified: via the international play-offs
Manager: Miguel Herrera

Club América’s Herrera is in temporary charge after José Manuel de la Torre was fired as coach of the national team by Femexfut president Justino Compean in September. There was little surprise given the disastrous qualification campaign. Herrera is favourite to lead Mexico at the 2014 tournament.

The last time Mexico failed to qualify for the World Cup Chicharito was not even a thought, let alone a glint, in the postman’s eye. While the ‘Cachirules scandal‘ resulted in disqualification from the 1990 tournament, El Tri are perennial qualifiers. The campaign for 2014 was so nearly a disaster on a national scale though, with the Mexicans thankful that USA beat Panama on the final matchday. As it was, El Tri faced the ignominy of a play-off against New Zealand for a spot in the World Cup.

The most remarkable thing about Mexico’s struggle to reach Brazil is that there is a wealth of talent available. After all, the under-23 squad was victorious at the 2012 Olympics in London. Hernández has one in two at international level, while Giovani dos Santos, and Andres Guardado offer plenty of creativity.

United connection: Hernández is United’s one and only Mexican, but will he still be a Red come summer 2014? There has been more than a whisper from the striker’s camp in recent months, with the 25-year-old understandably frustrated to spend much of his time on United’s bench.

Rant’s World Cup Preview Part I: South America and Asia

November 21, 2013 Tags: International, Opinion 5 comments
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More than a dozen Manchester United players are likely to feature in the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, with the big kick off now just 204 days away. Qualification concluded on Wednesday when Mexico and Uruguay became the final pair of teams to reach the World Cup, which runs from Thursday, 12 June to Sunday, 13 July 2014. Across six confederations, 203 teams produced 828 qualifying matches and 2297 goals. In all 32 qualifiers will take part across 12 Brazilian venues from Manaus in the north to Porto Alegre some 2,000 miles south.

The draw for the tournament will be held in Rio de Janeiro on 6 December, with more than a few nervous coaches hoping to avoid the inevitable ‘group of death’ at the first stage, including England manager Roy Hodgson.

In this three part guide to the World Cup, Rant looks at the teams, the stadia and most importantly the Manchester United players and connections we are likely to see in Brazil. Some are more tenuous than others!

Brasil flagBrazil
Qualified: as hosts
Manager: Luiz Felipe Scolari

Veteran Scolari is into his 23rd coaching position in a career that has twice come round to the Seleção. Scolari may have failed at Chelsea, but 20 major trophies, including the 2002 World Cup, underpin his status in the world game.

Brazil host World Cup 2014 with more than 200 million Brazilians expecting comprehensive victory in Estádio do Maracanã on 13 July. Absolutely, positively, nothing less will do. Fortunately, Scolari has fashioned, if not a classic Brazilian side in the 1970 mold, then a highly talented one. Victory over Spain in last summer’s Confederation Cup final confirms Brazil will be formidable opponents on home soil where Barcelona’s Neymar is the star turn.

United connection: United’s trio of Brazilians Anderson, Rafael da Silva and Fabio da Silva, are highly unlikely to make Seleção. Anderson has not featured from the national team since 2008, while Fábio has not played since international since his debut on 22 September 2011. Rafael, who has two full caps, featured in last year’s Olympics as an under-23 player, but was roundly accused of underperforming in the Wembley final. He hasn’t featured for the full side since.

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Argentina flagArgentina
Qualified: top of CONMEBOL qualifying with 32 points from 16 games
Manager: Alejandro Sabella

Sabella, 59, is a former Leeds United and international midfielder, who formed a long-term coaching partnership with Daniel Passarella, before becoming Argentina coach in 2011.

Sabella’s team has a chance, as any side that includes Lionel Messi does, but Argentina has flattered to deceive so often since reaching the final in 1990. Messi certainly isn’t a failure at international level, although 37 goals in 83 internationals is nowhere near his club record, but it is with the diminutive Barcelona forward that a nation’s hopes rest. Sergio Agüero, Érik Lamela, Gonzalo Higuaín, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Ángel di María will surely provide the firepower to take Argentina to the knockout stages.

United connection: there are no United players in the Argentina squad, although the Reds were close to a deal with Benfica for the defender Ezequiel Garay last summer. David Moyes’ appointment appears to have nixed a move for the former Real Madrid centre-back.

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Flag of ColombiaColombia
Qualified: second in CONMEBOL qualifying with 30 points from 16 games
Manager: José Pékerman

Argentine Pékerman was once considered a specialist youth coach in developing a highly successful Argentina under-20 side in the 1990s. Two years in charge of the national team ended after World Cup 2006 when Argentina crashed out to Germany in the quarter-finals.

Los Cafeteros produced an outstanding qualification campaign, losing at home only to Argentina. But, then, we have been here before, with a high-quality Colombia outfit often failing on the big stage. There may be few world stars in this Colombia side, but that should not deflect from the genuine threat Pékerman’s side will pose on South American soil. The draw will be crucial, but fifth-ranked Colombia will be disappointed if a quarter-final spot is not booked. Radamel Falcao, James Rodríguez and Jackson Martínez will lead an attacking line-up.

United connection: no Colombians have ever played for United, although there was plenty of speculation about a move for Rodríguez last summer – a rumour swiftly ended by Monaco’s deep pockets. Meanwhile, youthful Porto winger Juan Fernando Quintero has been scouted.

Alexis

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Flag of ChileChile
Qualified: third in CONMEBOL qualifying with 28 points from 16 games
Manager: Jorge Sampaoli

Sampaoli has built a strong reputation over a decade of coaching across South America. The Argentine enjoy no playing career of note, but secured three major trophies with Universidad de Chile before taking over the national team in December 2012.

If there was any doubt about Chile’s quality the debate should have been ended by the comprehensive nature of victory over England at Wembley. Chile’s football is often slick, with neat passing exchanges and a love of possession to match any. And in Sampaoli the nation has a coach prepared to be tactically flexible. The smooth transition between a back three and a back five is likely to flumox more than one side at the World Cup.

In midfield Juventus’ Arturo Vidal and Fiorentina’s  Matías Fernández provide silk and steel, while Barcelona forward Alexis Sánchez will surely break the national scoring record over the next two years. Sánchez, who is currently enjoying his finest season at Barcelona, has 22 goals in 62 caps for the national side.

United connection: Sir Alex Ferguson twice attempted, and failed, to secure Sánchez’ signature for the Reds. The former Udinese forward signed for Barça in July 2011 much to the Scot’s chagrin.

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Flag of EcuadorEcuador
Qualified: fourth in CONMEBOL qualifying with 25 points from 16 games
Manager: Reinaldo Rueda

Rueda is the former coach of the Colombian under-20 side that finished third in the 2003 FIFA World Youth Championship. The Colombian national also led the under-17 side to a fourth place finished at the U-17 World Cup in the same year. He took charge of the Ecuadorians in 2010 after a four-year spell with Honduras.

Outsiders to qualify, Rueda has fashioned his squad of local and internationally based players into a fine outfit, especially at home. Captained by United’s Antonio Valenica, Ecuador finished the CONMEBOL campaign without losing in Quito, dropping points only to Argentina along the way. There is little pressure on La Tri to reach the latter stages in Brazil, although any progress beyond the second round will improve on Ecuador’s performances in 2002 and 2006.

United connection: Valencia will lead Ecuador at the 2014 tournament from a central midfield position. The flying winger was deeply effected by the death of friend and former team-mate Christian Benitez, whose number 11 shirt has now been retired.

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Flag of UruguayUruguay
Qualified: via play-off – fifth in the CONMEBOL with 25 points from 16 games
Manager: Óscar Tabárez

Veteran coach Tabárez is in his second spell in charge of the national team and took the Uruguayans to fourth place in the 2010 World Cup, which was followed by victory in Copa America the following year. Tabárez  has managed in Argentina, Colombia and Italy over an extensive career.

Tabárez’ outfit was forced to qualify via a one-sided international play-off against Jordan after finishing the CONMEBOL tournament in fifth place. It was quite a comedown for Los Charrúas who performed so well at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. There is plenty of talent at Tabarez’ disposal, with Liverpool’s Luis Suárez joining Edinson Cavani in a potent attacking pairing. Gastón Ramírez, Nicolás Lodeiro, Cristian Rodríguez and Walter Gargano add genuine quality in midfield.

United connection: former United striker Diego Forlán will make Los Charrúas‘ squad for Brazil, although he is likely to start the tournament on the bench with Suárez and Cavani the prefered attacking duo.

Tim Cahill, Australia

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Flag of AustraliaAustralia
Qualified: second in Group B, behind Japan
Manager: Ange Postecoglou

Postecoglou was born in Athens, emigrating to Australia at the age of five. He enjoyed a modest playing career, before achieving greater success managing the young Socceroos, Brisbane Roar, and latterly Melbourne Victory.

This isn’t the finest Socceroos side to grace the World Cup, although qualification through the Asian tournament was achieved with just two defeats across 14 matches. With a world ranking of 57, there is little expectation that Australia will progress to the latter stages of the tournament.

Still, there should be plenty of experience in the squad, with Lucas Neill, former Rangers midfielder Matt McKay, Crystal Palace player Mile Jedinak, veteran Mark Bresciano, and New York Red Bulls star Tim Cahill all likely to make the squad. The attack will be led by former Everton midfielder Cahill and Japan-based striker Joshua Kennedy.

United connection: United’s only ever Australian player, Mark Bosnich, played 38 games for the Reds across two spells with the club. Bosnich was later sacked by Chelsea for taking cocaine, yet took umbridge to Sir Alex Ferguson’s accusation of lack of professionalism in the Scot’s recent autobiography.

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Flag of IranIran
Qualified: top of Asia Group A, ahead of South Korea
Manager: Carlos Queiroz

The much-travelled Queiroz took control of Iran in April 2011 after a traumatic spell with Portugal, which included a difficult qualifying campaign for World Cup 2010 and eventual defeat to Spain in the second round.

Queiroz has fashioned a robust Iranian side, which qualified comfortably ahead of the more fancied Koreans, but struggled to score goals in the second phase of the Asian tournament. Captain Javad Nekounam is the team’s creative heart, while Spanish-based Masoud Shojaei adds quality to Queiroz’ side. Iran will look to striker Karim Ansarifard to score the goals that will take the side beyond the group stages for the first time.

United connection: Queiroz had two fine spells at Old Trafford as Sir Alex’ assistant. Often criticised for his defensive tactical leanings, Queiroz added more than a little European know-how to United’s approach. A vital cog in the Reds’ 2008 Champions League victory.

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Flag of JapanJapan
Qualified: top of Asia Group B, ahead of Australia
Manager: Alberto Zaccheroni

Veteran Zaccheroni has enjoyed a fine management career across the club and international game. The Italian secured a Serie A title with Milan in the late 1990s, together with the AFC Asian Cup in 2011 and the EAFF East Asian Cup last season. He has also managed Lazio, Inter, and Juventus.

Japan qualified with ease in the end, losing three matches across 14 in the Asia tournament. Yet, Zaccheroni’s side started slowly in securing just 10 points from a possible 18 in the first phase to fall behind Uzbekistan. However, the team grew markedly in confidence over the two-year qualifying campaign, adjusting to the Italian’s notoriously unconventional 3-4-3 system to make best use of attacking talents Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki, Yasuhito Endo and talisman Keisuke Honda.

United connection: Kagawa will start the tournament in a loose left-sided attacking role that contains none of the defensive restrictions placed on the playmaker by United manager Moyes. Still, Kagawa has complained that his international chances are being hampered by a less-than-regular starting spot with the Reds.

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Flag of South KoreaSouth Korea
Qualified: second in Asia Group A behind Iran
Manager: Hong Myung-bo

Former player Hong took charge of the Red Devils in June after the departure of Choi Kang-Hee. Hong earned 136 international caps in a stellar career, before taking charge of South Korean teams at the under-20 and under-23 levels.

Perennial qualifiers South Korea suffered a most traumatic road to the World Cup, finishing behind Iran Asia Group A after a poor campaign. Defeat to Lebanon in the penultimate second phase match left the Koreans needing to beat tiny Kuwait to progress in the Asian tournament at all. The campaign eventually cost Choi  his job and Korea’s World Cup place was only sealed on goal difference from Uzbekistan.

Much will rest on striker and captain Park Chuyoung, while in midfield Bolton Wanderers’ Lee Chungyong is a fixture on the right flank.

United connection: Park Ji-Sung has long since retired from the national team, although the former Red gained exactly 100 caps. Park appeared at the World Cup in 2002, 2006 and 2010.

Reds at Euro 2012: how did they do?

June 28, 2012 Tags: International 5 comments

Seven Manchester United players appeared at Euro 2012, with a further six former Reds also playing at the tournament. Rant looks back on each player’s performance, with the tournament winding up with the Spain – Italy final in Kiev on Sunday:

Wayne Rooney, England
England’s talisman suffered yet another disappointing competition, after injury, poor form or dismissal struck at tournaments in 2004, 2006 and 2010. But after a five-week layoff, with Rooney hamstrung by an English system designed above all to ‘not lose’, how could anybody expect any different? Sitting out matches against France and Sweden, Rooney made a goal-scoring return against co-hosts Ukraine, before a frustrating outing against Italy in the quarter-final. The United striker has taken the brunt of national blame for England’s quarter-final departure, but aged just 26, Rooney has at least three more tournaments at international level. The question is: will he finally star in one of them?

Appearances: 2
Goals: 1
Assists: 0
Chances created: 2
Shots: 6
Passing: 55/76 (72%)

 

Ashley Young, England
Young began the tournament as one of England’s brightest hopes, having scored six times in the previous 10 internationals before Euro 2012 kicked off.Yet, much like England’s other attacking players Young suffered for the negative system, turning in a poor set of metrics that included no goals, no assists and just two chances created for his team-mates over four matches. The former Aston Villa man can’t be happy with his overall performance. That more than half of Young’s touches came in his own half tells a story though – of a player deployed far more defensively that he is by United. There is more to come from Young, but he will be disappointed that he did not make his mark of this tournament.

Appearances: 4
Goals: 0
Assists: 0
Chances created: 2
Shots: 4
Passing: 76/102 (75%)

 

Danny Welbeck, England
Strong performances from Welbeck under difficult circumstances at Euro 2012 mean that the United youngster will leave Poland and Ukraine with plenty to be pleased about. The 21-year-old was neat and tidy on the ball, whether deployed either as a traditional ‘number 9’ or dropping deep to augment midfield. The Manchester-born striker also scored a superb winning goal against Sweden – flicking home with his heel to seal England’s 3-2 win in Group D. Welbeck has a very bright international future ahead of him, especially if he can add goals to an excellent all-round game.

Appearances: 4
Goals: 1
Assists: 0
Chances created: 2
Shots: 4
Passing: 82/90 (91%)

 

Phil Jones, England
The United defender-cum-midfielder was at Euro 2012 ostensibly as Glenn Johnson’s cover at right-back, although the 20-year-old failed to see any action in Poland and Ukraine. Jones may well have benefited from the experience of a major international tournament, although his club manager Sir Alex Ferguson can hardly be pleased that a player who suffered burn out and injuries during the second half of last season didn’t get a longer summer rest. Moreover, given Johnson’s less-than-secure defensive displays during the tournament, Jones may well be disappointed to have not seen more action.

Appearances: 0
Goals: –
Assists: –
Chances created: –
Shots: –
Passing: –

 

Patrice Evra, France
Former French captain Evra suffered another disappointing tournament, two years after the drama of South Africa at World Cup 2010. Selected despite some underwhelming club and national team displays over the past year, Evra was unceremoniously dropped by coach Laurent Blanc after France’s draw with England in the opening Group D fixture. It remains a perplexing decision given that Evra performed solidly against the English – this coming after the left-back was criticised for his performances in some of France’s warm-up games. Now aged 31, Evra may consider his international future.

Appearances: 1
Goals: 0
Assists: 0
Chances created: 1
Shots: 0
Passing: 65/69 (94%)

 

Nani, Portugal
United’s winger can be pleased with a strong tournament, in which the 25-year-old provided a string of consistent and threatening performances for semi-finalists Portugal. Embroiled in contract talks at Old Trafford, Nani can only have added to his reputation and value this summer. Nani, of course, was over-shadowed by Cristiano Ronaldo, but United player’s numbers add up to a fine tournament overall. Scored in the shoot-out loss to Spain in the semi-final, although will be disappointed with his performance against the World and European champions during the match itself.

Appearances: 5
Goals: 0
Assists: 2
Chances created: 13
Shots: 9
Passing: 106/142 (75%)

 

Anders Lindegaard, Denmark
Failed to make any appearances as the Danish exited the tournament at the group stage. After nearly five months off through injury, United’s second-choice ‘keeper was fortunate to make the Danish squad at all.

Appearances: 0
Goals: 0
Assists: –
Chances created: –
Shots: –
Passing: –


 

Former Reds at Euro 2012

Cristiano Ronaldo – the tournament in which Cristiano banished lingering doubts about his ability to perform at the highest level. Scored three times, hit the post on four occasions during the tournament. However, received criticism for not taking a penalty during the shoot-out loss to Spain

Gerard Piqué – still in the tournament, with Spain having made the final once again. Piqué didn’t have the finest campaign for Barcelona, but looks to be back to his best in the national shirt.

John O’Shea – a leading candidate among some pundits’ ‘worst team of the tournament’ lists. O’Shea, together with the haphazard Irish defence, were embarrassed against Croatia, Spain and Italy.

Darron Gibson – didn’t play for the Irish during a disastrous tournament.

Paul McShane – another former Red who didn’t feature for the Irish in three group matches.

Ron Robert Zieler – didn’t play for Germany as the Germans exited the tournament at the semi-final stage.

United Rant Live! Portugal v Spain

June 27, 2012 Tags: , International 4 comments

Just three games to go at Euro 2012, with Portugal meeting Spain in Donetsk on Wednesday, followed by Germany versus Italy in Warsaw on Thursday for the right to play in Sunday’s final. It should prove to be another fascinating round of matches in an excellent tournament to date, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani and co aiming to pull off a shock against World and European champions Spain in the Iberian derby on Wednesday.

Much will depend on how Portugal approach the match, having displayed such attacking verve in matches against Denmark, Holland and Czech Republic, after opening the tournament so negatively against Germany. Indeed, Spain remain favourites despite the frequent accusations of the “boring” football served up in the tournament to date.

As ever, Portugal’s hopes lie with Ronaldo, who now has six European Championship goals in total. Having hit the woodwork four times already, the former Manchester United man could have scored a lot more. Only Alan Shearer with seven, and Michel Platini who has nine, have scored more in the tournament’s history.

The omens may not lie with Portugal though – the Spanish have beaten their neighbours just twice in the past 54 years, but the head-to-head record has Spain with 16 wins to Portugal’s six. The Portuguese have lost four of five previous semi-finals at major tournaments too – the only victory coming against Holland at home in 2004.

Spain, meanwhile, has gone 10 Euro finals matches without defeat since losing to Portugal in the 2004 tournament. Del Bosque’s side has also kept eight consecutive clean sheets in knock-out games at tournaments. Iker Casillas is unbeaten in more than 13 hours of knock-out football, since the great Zinedine Zidane scored a last-minute goal for France at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

Both teams report a reasonably clean bill-of-health for the tie. Portugal striker Helder Postiga will miss the match with a thigh injury, with coach Paulo Bento likely to deploy Hugo Almeida in his stead. Postiga aside, Portugal should start with an unchanged line-up.

Meanwhile, Spain manager Vicente del Bosque has no new injury concerns after the quarter-final stroll against France, although the former Real Madrid manager must decide whether to recall striker Fernand Torres or persist with Cesc Fabregas as a ‘false 9’.

Join United Rant for live comment, analysis and chat during the first Euro 2012 semi-final. Early thoughts throughout the afternoon, with preamble, team news and pre-match comments from around 7pm.


 

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United Rant Live! England v Italy

June 24, 2012 Tags: International 79 comments

England versus Italy hardly recalls memories of iconic past games. After all these two venerable nations have met just twice in tournament football; Italy winning both in the 1980 European Championships, and at the 1990 World Cup, third place play-off. Indeed, the Azzurri has the edge in recent meetings, having lost just once to England in the past 35 years. That loss came at the height of Glenn Hodle’s ‘chic’ England side at Le Tournoi, Nantes, in 1997, when Ian Wright and Paul Scholes scored.

Neither side was much fancied to make an impact on Euro 2012, but one will certainly reach the semi-finals after tonight’s fixture in the Ukrainian capital Kiev. However, it is, perhaps, Italy that has caught the eye to date – looking impressive against Spain in the opening fixture. But Roy Hodgson’s functional England side has warmed into the tournament – few expect anything other than an even match tonight.

Join United Rant Live for more comment, chat and analysis on this Euro 2012 quarter-final. We’ll be with you live with team news from around 7pm, with preamble, updates and quotes throughout the day.


 

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