From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.33 :: NO.24 :: Jun. 17, 2010

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WORLD CUP BUMPER / STARS TO WATCH

Men of influence

Breaking away from populist picks, Raakesh Natraj takes a look at the less fancied, but equally capable players who have the game to announce themselves on the biggest stage.

AP

Spain's Gerard Pique (left)...The 23-year-old centre back is also capable of pushing up-field while on counter-attacks, and is often a threat during set-pieces.

Most coaches at club and international levels now opt for single-striker formations. This might seem overtly defensive at the outset, but it permits for a more efficient use of creative players. The Netherlands side at the 2010 World Cup for instance, may feature Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart playing behind the lone striker Robin van Persie, thanks to the use of two holding midfielders in Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong, in a 4-2-3-1 set-up.

In picking 11 players to watch, a deliberate effort has been made to leave out the obvious choices, the Messis, the Ronaldos and the Rooneys, who will determine the fortunes of their respective teams in direct ways. The current 11 will indicate a reasonable spread of talent across all World Cup groups and all positions on the pitch. The players chosen in the list, in a 4-1-4-1 system, are likely to be deployed in positions that are crucial to their national team's tactics, that largely being the case with the less fancied outfits.

Goalkeeper

Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus, Italy): The only World Cup winner in the pick, the Italian custodian was in breathtaking form during Germany '06, conceding just two goals during the course of his team's title-winning campaign. The highly decorated goalkeeper will need to be at his peak to marshal the defence which is manned by ageing defenders such as Fabio Cannavaro and Gianluco Zambrotta.

Right back

Philipp Lahm (Bayern Munich, Germany): Elevated to captaincy on Michael Ballack's absence, Lahm, along with Bastian Schweinsteiger will have to play close to their best to see the Teutons progress from a tricky group that includes Serbia, Ghana and Australia. Adept at playing in either full-back position and on the right wing on occasion, Lahm is no outsider to influencing games at the big stage, having scored the winning goal against Turkey in the 90th minute of the semifinal in Euro 2008. The only player to have played every minute of Germany's qualification campaign, the 26-year-old is also the youngest to captain a German side in a World Cup.

Centre backs

Gerard Pique (Barcelona, Spain): The lack of first team opportunities saw the Spaniard move back to his homeland from Old Trafford and the shift saw him make the breakthrough for both Barcelona and Spain. At 6 feet and 3-1/2 inches, Pique is a strong header of the ball, possessed of a sure touch and silky passing. The 23-year-old centre back is also capable of pushing up-field while on counter-attacks, and is often a threat during set-pieces, something that is indicated by four goals in 15 appearances for the national side since 2009.

Ricardo Carvalho (Chelsea, Portugal): Portugal's recent inability to find the net during qualifying and the warm-ups not withstanding, one feels that the likes of Ronaldo, Nani, Simao and Co. will get the job done sooner rather than later, if the defence holds up. At the heart of Portugal's back four will be Carvalho, a solid and no-nonsense defender. Carvalho exhibits most traits of a good old fashioned centre back, combined with a cool head and a masterful technique. He earned his spurs as part of the Champions League winning FC Porto team and moved on to Chelsea where he has been a part of a defensive bed-rock over the years.

AP

Dutch midfielder Wesley Sneijder's ability to make most of the space that opens up with the front men dragging defenders every which way will be crucial for his team's sucess.

Left back

Patrice Evra (Manchester United, France): After spending close to half a decade at Manchester United bolting the doors on adventurous right-wingers, the diminutive Frenchman will be looking to reprise a similar role for France. Equally adept at harrying front-men and going on driving runs down the left flank, what the 29-year-old lacks in aerial prowess, he more than makes up for with another dimension of his game, the ability to strike up a partnership with the winger while on overlapping runs. Evra has not lost a lot of pace over the years and his positional sense ensures that he strikes a balance between attack and defence, something that could be critical to France's campaign this year.

Holding midfielder

Rafael Marquez (Barcelona, Mexico): A versatile defender capable of playing at any defensive position, Marquez is also an excellent reader of the game, allowing him to play ahead of the back four in a role that has been earmarked for him in the national side. Capable of providing the defence with a protective shield, Marquez can work in conjunction with the full backs in either shepherding the advancing men into a defensive cul-de-sac or regain possession with timely tackles. Marquez is also capable of triggering counter-attacks with his ability to pick out runs with cross-field passes. Inarguably Mexico's most important and experienced player, the side's progress will mirror Marquez's form on the pitch.

Right winger

Aaron Lennon (Tottenham Hotspurs, England): Though Lennon's record as a goal-scoring winger is somewhat questionable, (he is yet to score for England and has 15 goals from 139 matches for Spurs) the legs that he will provide will be of inestimable value to an ageing English side. Wayne Rooney might be England's talisman, but he acknowledged Antonio Valencia's delivery from the right to be one of the major reasons for his rich haul of goals for Manchester United this season. Valencia's pace and pin-point crossing that Rooney fed off will have to be replicated by the 23-year-old Lennon in England's campaign in South Africa.

Attacking midfielders

Wesley Sneijder (Inter Milan, Netherlands): Sneijder's role in Inter's treble winning campaign was significant, playing to the left of centre and dropping in occasionally as a second striker behind Diego Milito. Goals in the quarterfinal and semifinal of the Champions League and an assist that resulted in Milito's first in the final, points to a man in prime form. The Dutch have also benefited from Sneijder's skills, when he scored one of the goals of Euro ‘08 against Italy, following it up with a stunning strike against France in the same tournament. Playing in a team that relies on pace in the form of Arjen Robben and Van Persie, Sneijder's ability to make most of the space that opens up with the front men dragging defenders every which way will be crucial.

Giorgos Karagounis (Panathinaikos, Greece): Karagounis' ability to score from free-kicks and thump the ball goalwards from range will be a route that Greece might have to employ with frequency, considering the Jabulani's floaty and unpredictable nature. Having plied his trade with Inter and Benefica over the years, the 33-year-old midfielder will be required to step up one more time for the Euro '04 champions. Karagounis will be required to take some of the goal scoring responsibilities off Georgios Samaras in their attempt to reach the knock-out stages at the expense of one of Argentina, South Korea or Nigeria.

Left winger

Angel Di Maria (Benfica, Argenitna): The 22-year-old has played only eight matches for the national side since his debut in 2008, but is already being touted by coach Diego Maradona as the next Argentine superstar.

Even if Maradona's proclamation is to be taken with a pinch of salt, the left winger's performance for Benfica (14 goals in 82 matches) is being touted for a move to Real Madrid after the World Cup. In a team of superfluous attacking talent, Di Maria's pace and link-up play will be a vital cog in Argentina's plans going forward.

Striker

Diego Forlan (Atletico Madrid, Uruguay): At the time of going to print, the 31-year-old striker was struck down with a training injury that put his participation in the quadrennial event in doubt. Provided he wins his race against time to be fit for the tournament, Uruguay will have at its disposal one of the foremost poachers of the modern game, a tag that his tally of 120 goals in 208 matches with Villarreal and Atletico Madrid justifies.

Forlan led the Atletico side to the UEFA Cup, rounding off his consistent display through the tournament with a brace in the final. Though his supply lines with the national team may not be as productive as with the club sides he has played for, Forlan will be absolutely essential to Uruguay's plans for the World Cup.



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