World Cup Rank Bank – South Korea

The Son rises in the East

In what must be a welcomed distraction from the threat of a psychotic neighbour standing over the fence in his garden, letting off fireworks and mouthing “I’m going to end you” in the dead of night, 2018 looks like proving itself to be a real turning point in terms of South Korea’s recent history, with sporting conquest front and central.

Having staged a successful Winter Olympiad (where FIB favourite Elise Christie had lots of time to relax on the ice), the Korean’s sporting attention will now turn in a northwesterly direction, and this Summer’s finals in Russia. In what is their tenth overall appearance on the grand stage, and incredibly their ninth in a row, the past hosts will be hoping to bask in the glow of the Son.

 

Manager: Shin Tae-yong

Another manager less than a year in his role, Shin Tae-yong has been christened by some as the “Asian Mourinho”. He stepped up from his role managing the U-20 and U-23 sides back in June of last year, when South Korea’s usual canter to a World Cup Finals threatened to derail after three defeats from eight in the final qualification stage. Alas, Shin dragged them across the line – just!

The 48 year-old had a distinguished playing career, spending 22 years at Korean giants Seongnam before a brief spell in Australia. He returned to Seongnam as manager in 2009, and, in what has been his greatest achievement to date, delivered the AFC Champions League in 2010, before being persuaded into the international set up by the KFA in 2014.

 

Star Player: Son Heung-min (Tottenham Hotspurs)

Surely, the greatest Asian footballer to grace the Premier League, the Spurs attacker has been in tremendous form this season and is the undoubted superstar for his country. Technically superb, able to fashion chances from little and having a knack of being in the right place at the right time, Son has a ratio of roughly a goal in every three since his move from the Bundesliga, in 2015. His international stats are strikingly simp85971ilar having scored 20 goals for his country in 62 appearances. In a team lacking in many household names, Son and captain Ki Sung-yueng will bear much of the creative responsibility.

S-on a side note, he will also be making a return to my Fantasy League Team this weekend – I know there’s at least a few people out there that will interested in that tit-bit. You know who you are. I see ya…

 

Road to Russia

South Korea began their qualifying campaign way, way back in June 2015, with a 2-0 win against Myanmar in their opening game of the AFC’s second round of qualifying. They sailed the group, winning all eight matches and in particular putting lowly Laos to the sword both home and away.

The final stage of qualifying wasn’t just as straight forward for the Taeguk Warriors. Having made a solid start to the group, if a little open at the back, the Koreans began to stumble after three successive away defeats to main rivals Iran, more worryingly China and catastrophically, cut-adrift Qatar. Uli Stielike was fired and Shin handed the task of not chicken ballsing the whole thing up, with the Uzbeks and, almost fairy tale like, the Syrians closing in. On a whirlwind final day, South Korea had to avoid defeat in Uzbekistan and hope that Syria couldn’t pull off a surprise away win against an already-qualified Iran. A stalemate in Tashkent, and the heartbreak of a draw for Syria in Tehran, in a game that they had led, and the Koreans were home in a boat.

 

Record v Ireland: Won (0) Drawn (0) Lost (0)

Short and sweet – nothing to report here. The Koreans fell only last week to Michael O’Neill’s band of Northern brothers at Windsor Park. Not that we can claim it.

 

How will they go?

Despite having the mercurial Son at their disposal, the writing is really on the wall for the South Koreans going into the Finals. Things were bad enough for our Oriental friends drawing Germany in Group F, but for a team that has fallen to Russia, Morocco and a Northern Irish team with Trevor Carson in goal over the past few months, I don’t expect them to cause Sweden much bother. Mexico should be a tighter affair.

Prediction: 4th – Seoul-ong little ones. Until next time.

World Cup Rank Bank – Serbia

Eager to scratch the 2010 ić

Having scratched and snarled their way to automatic qualification, laughing off Ireland’s tilt in the process, the Serbs arrive in Russia ready to go to war again. And that’s just their fans.

There will be no room for niceties on-field either, pitched into what on paper is a tough group. Can an experienced Serbian side draw on the pain of their demoralising exit at the 2010 finals, and advance to the knockout stages this round?

 

Manager: Mladen Krstajić

The former defensive hard man and one quarter of the feted “Famous Four” backline that qualified for the 2006 finals undefeated, giving as much up at the rear as a constipated nun. Krstajić leads the latest Slav charges, having stepped into the fray at Christmas, after slap head Slavoljub Musin was ousted at the end of their successful qualifying campaign, for being too successful with older players. Go figure.

It’s safe to assume that Krstajić will rely heavily on robustness and physicality if the Eagles are to make headway in the competition, and let me tell you, he isn’t short of it. Plenty of robusty beauties at his disposal.

 

Star Player: Nemanja Matić (Manchester United)

Rangey, consistent and combative – so good Mourinho brought him back to Chelsea after they had relinquished him as a youngster – the midfielder has been2017-08-26T182610Z_1342841797_RC15D36132B0_RTRMADP_3_SOCCER-ENGLAND-MUN-LEI a major influence in his first season at Old Trafford.  Matić has the ability to dictate the game, and will be crucial, not only in out-muscling advancing opponents and breaking up play, but collecting the ball from the back four and launching attacks of his own. His presence will also allow some of Serbia’s more expressive options further forward the freedom to flaunt their wares.

 

 

Little Known Fact: I’m a Slav For You

Interestingly, FIFA recognises Serbia as the sole successor to the famous Yugoslavian sides of the past. And yes, the break up of the Republic back in 1992, has since spawned seven recognised national football teams, but Serbia can, with a fair degree of clout, claim to have quite a prestigious footballing heritage. And who’s going to argue with them?

Yugoslavia can boast two fourth place finishes at World Cups and a gold medal at the Summer Olympics held in Rome in 1960 amongst their accolades. But perhaps Yugoslavian, and indeed Serbian, football’s greatest moment came in the Stadio San Nicola, Bari on the 29th May 1991. Red Star Belgrade, with a sumptuous, youthful midfield quartet of Prosinečki, Jugović, Mihajlović and Savićević became Kings of Europe. The latter three became synonymous with viewers of Gazzetta Football Italia of a Saturday morning in the 90s, or at least when Gazza hadn’t been out on a Friday night.

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Record v Ireland: Won (2) Drawn (3) Lost (0)

Having played the Serbs on five occasions now, since they launched their solo career back in 2006, we have yet to topple them, and in truth we haven’t really come close. Andy Keogh scrambled a draw with a last-minute equaliser in Croke Park in 2008, and scrambling to stay on terms has been the name of the game ever since with this lot. Their dominating performance over us in September put pay to any real hope of automatic qualification, and cued Martin O’Neill’s exit from…oh no, wait…

 

How will they go?

Despite being the lowest ranked team in their group, Serbia certainly have the capability to spring a few surprises and should not be underestimated. Having beaten Germany in Port Elizabeth in their second group game in 2010, they went into the final round-robin game with Australia knowing that a draw would be suffice to see them through. They blew it. This Summer offers a chance of redemption for veterans of that day, the likes of Stojković in goal, and defensive stalwarts Kolarov and Ivanović, and whilst the Serbs have exciting talent in the likes of a rejuvenated Mitrović up front, the aforementioned Matić and new Spanish-born wonder kid Milinković-Savić, the aging legs could be exposed most acutely by the brilliant Brazilians. Expect tough, not-so-pretty encounters with the Swiss and the Costa Ricans.

Prediction: 3rd – just fancy the Swiss to pip them to qualification.

World Cup Rank Bank – Nigeria

How cool do you think you are? You could think you’re pretty cool. My aul mate Baz played Darude’s Sandstorm on Paddy’s Night blowing into the top of a half drunk bottle of Vitazade. At the time, I thought that was pretty cool. Twenty four hours later, I now realise I was just drunk. But dare anyone tell me that the coolness of Nigeria’s USA ’94 garb, has depreciated over the last twenty four years – and this year’s isn’t too shabby either. Yes, from the land that brought you Daniel Amokachi’s right foot, Taribo West’s hair stylist and John Fashanu’s many hats – I give you, the Super Eagles!Super-Eagles-at-USA-94-

Manager: Gernot Rohr

The experienced German leads up a team of coaches, having been appointed to the role of head coach back in August 2016. You’ll remember a previous post where I made the rather spicy comment that angel-on-Earth, Hervé Renard, had seen more African outposts than Joseph Conrad. Well, Gernot gives him a run for his money – Nigeria being his fourth consecutive international management role having oversaw the fortunes of Gabon, Niger and Burkina Faso since 2010. That’s where the similarities with Herv the Swerve stop, unfortunately for Herr Rohr – who’s resemblance is more Albert Reynolds battering out the Anglo-Irish Agreement than it is Jesus.

Star Player: Kalechi Iheanacho (Leicester City)

Despite having somewhat of a disappointing time at Leicester to this point- his failure to dislodge Jamie Vardy playing a pivotal role – Iheanacho is proving his worth at international level with his country.  Having scored eight times in the green of the SuperKelechi-Iheanacho-676701 Eagles in only fourteen appearances, the young striker will relish the chance to put his name firmly back to the forefront domestically, by impressing at the tournament. Nigeria have plenty of exciting options alongside the former Man City man in attack in the shape of Odion Ighalo, Alex Iwobi and the more offensively deployed Victor Moses.

 

Road to Russia

Nigeria’s journey to the finals started along with the four other African representatives in November 2015, disposing of minnows Swaziland over two legs. Subsequently, they were drawn into what many pundits were calling “the group of death” alongside highly ranked Cameroon and Algeria and the tricky Zambia, with a berth in Russia only reserved for top spot. But a strong start to the group and three wins from three at home ensured they were the first African team to book their travel arrangements for this Summer. They even had enough in reserve to have their draw away to Algeria stripped from them and awarded to the home side in the wake of fielding an ineligible player. So cool. So Super Eagles.

Record v Ireland: Won (2) Drawn (1) Lost (0)

We have still to beat those pesky Nigerians. Having first welcomed them to Landsdowne Road in the farewell and good luck game before heading to Saipan, the Nigerians played out a one-all draw most recently with us back in May 2009, in a game played at Craven Cottage. Sandwiched between that was a three-nil drubbing in an end of season embarrassment called the Unity Cup, back in 2004, whilst any decent European footballing nation was focusing on the upcoming European Championships. Tasty names from that team sheet included the likes of Nick Colgan, Martin Rowlands and Ireland’s own miracle man Clive Clarke, who’s career was cut short a few years later after suffering a cardiac arrest whilst playing for Sunderland against Forest.

 

How Will They Go?

Group D is definitely one of the most exciting groups of the first stage. Nigeria are pitted against a GOAT inspired Argentinian side, the ever unpredictable Croats and debutantes Iceland – who we know only too well proved to England that revenge is a dish best served cold, the latter having made Kerrynigeria-2018-world-cup-home-kit-3 Katona synonymous with the island nation. Unfortunately for the Nigerians, the only thing that could well live long in the memory at this tournament are their absolutely naughty jerseys. Despite their undoubted flair in attack, I shudder to think what the likes of Messi, Mandžukić and Sigurðsson would do to their defence.

 

Prediction: 4th – let’s hope they score, so we can enjoy an audacious celebration at least.

 

 

World Cup Rank Bank – Australia

Gotta love them ‘Roos. Personally, I have a soft spot for Australia when it comes to professional sport. They’re just great craic, aren’t they? If it’s not their cricket fans giving the English players hell during The Ashes, the anarchy of Pat Cash climbing through the throngs on Centre Court, or indeed the thongs of their Women’s Beach Volleyball team, it’s a Mark Bosnich green card marriage. Their footballers travel to Russia as the rank outsiders in what is officially the tightest group. But this isn’t their first rodeo, and their fans will be expectant, as the men from Down Under compete in their fourth successive finals.

 

Manager: Bert van Marwijk

The Aussie’s are managed by Dutch Football’s answer to Elvis and Michael Jackson, in father Bert van Marwijk and son-in-law Mark van Bommel. The paralleling of van Bommel and Michael Jackson entertains me. They have an unbeaten record at the helm, certainly at least in part thanks to the fact they haven’t yet had a match – van Marwijk announced his first squad for friendlies with Norway and Colombia last week. In the Dutch man, the ‘Roos are tapping into a vast wealth of international management experience. After guiding his compatriots all the way to the final in South Africa in 2010, he also secured Saudi Arabia’s qualification to this year’s tournament, oddly. Failing to agree a new contract with the Saudi’s in the aftermath of their qualification, van Marwijk left his role in the Gulf, but his physical and dynamic brand of football could well be a perfect fit for the Australians.

 

Star Player: Tom Rogic (Celtic)

Playmaker Rogic is a wholly biased choice, after his beautiful solo effort pulled the Hoops back on terms last Sunday in the Old Firm game, but he will play a central role if the Aussies are to have any success in Russia. He’s one of a number of recognisable names in their midfield, including the likes of Huddersfield’s Aaron Mooy, Villa enforcer Mile Jedinak and of course Premier League legend Tim Cahill, who has recently rocked back up at Millwall. Rogic and Mooy will look to lay on chances for goal threats Matthew Leckie and Tomi Juric up front, but for now, lets just drink that goal in again…

 

Record v Ireland: Won (1) Drawn (0) Lost (1)

Twice, Australia have made the trip over in international friendlies. Goals from John O’ Shea and Clinton Morrison secured a come-from-behind victory back in August 2003, a brief release from the terrible Euro 2004 qualifying campaign. Good man Mick. They returned again in August 2009, this time to Thomond Park, where Australia were to run out comfortable victors – Tim Cahill getting a brace on the night.

 

Little Known Fact: Hello, Goodbye at the FFA

So try to keep up. Five months ago, Australia claimed passage to Russia after a rousing second leg play off victory over Honduras in Sydney. Hurrah say all those at the Football Federation of Australia. Six days later the bombshell of coach Ange Postecoglou’s tearful resignation seemingly threw plans for the finals into the wind. However, in the months leading up to the decisive play off, conjecture was growing that Postecoglou was beleaguered with his country’s top job. At the end of January, the FFA announced that Bert van Marwijk would step in on an interim basis to negotiate preparations for Russia and the finals themselves, an exciting coup for all involved. But like a night I once had with a girl from Sweden when I was eighteen, the excitement will eventually lead to an all too brief affair. That’s because last Sunday it was announced that Graham Arnold, manager of Sydney FC, was to step into the breach on a long term basis after the World Cup. Many aren’t happy. Roberto Mancini and Marco Bielsa had been touted for the job, not to mention the questionable form of Arnold’s Sydney side since the start of March – one draw and three defeats could have come at a more convenient time one imagines. I’d imagine this is what arranged marriage feels like.

 

How Will They Go?

Despite being the lowest ranked team in their group, the distraction of the rotating coaches, and having to take on the delectable French, I actually feel Australia could cause a few surprises. Given that experience and creativity in their midfield, the games against Denmark and Peru could be extremely tight affairs, especially if van Marwijk and van Bommel have enough time to put their physical stamp on the team. Certainly, the 100/30 that Bet Victor are offering on them to finish Top Asian team at the tournament could prove a shrewd investment.

Prediction: 2nd – ballsy and outlandish statement. How very Australian of me!