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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Potential World Cup Reds (qualified nations only)
On the plane
Patrice 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.
Phil 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.
Chris Smalling, England – likely to make the squad, although recent performances for country have been nervous and uncertain.
Michael Carrick, England – certain to feature after missing out on Euro 2012, although age and fitness will be a concern.
Tom Cleverley, England – likely to make Hodgson’s squad, although the 24-year-old is not having the best season at club level.
Wayne Rooney, England – England’s most important player in Brazil and potentially Rooney’s final chance to shine on the international stage.
Danny Welbeck, England – Welbz is “dat guy” at international level, with eight goals in 20 internationals – better than his club record.
Marouane Fellaini, Belgium – part of the ‘Red Devils’ squad in Brazil, and will compete with Axel Witsel for a place in the team
Shinji 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.
Nani, 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.
Antonio 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
Javier 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.
Robin van Persie, Netherlands – Holland’s leading goalscorer must be desperate to shine in what may be his final World Cup tournament.
David 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.
Fabio 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.
Rafael 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
Ashley Young, England – awful club form means that the former Aston Villa winger has lost his place in the national side.
Wilfried 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
Alexander Büttner, Netherlands – very unlikely to make Holland’s squad for the World Cup even if the plague hits every left-back in the lowlands.
Anderson, 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!
Adnan 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.
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.
Stadium: Arena Amazonia
Stadium: Estadio Castelao
Stadium: Estadio das Dunas
Stadium: Arena Pernambuco
Stadium: Arena Fonte Nova
Stadium: Estadio Mineirao
City: Belo Horizonte
Stadium: Arena Pantanal
Stadium: Estadio Nacional
Stadium: Arena de Sao Paulo
City: Sao Paulo
Stadium: Estadio do Maracana
City: Rio De Janeiro
Stadium: Arena da Baixada
Stadium: Estadio Beira-Rio
City: Porto Alegre