This group should be easy, at least on paper. The Netherlands were the first team to qualify for the World Cup from Europe, are formidable in defense, strong in the midfield and have some better than decent options on the attack.
Tactically, the defense should consist of John Heitinga and Joris Mathijsen as the center backs with the seemingly ageless Giovanni van Bronckhorst in what should be his international swan song at left back and Gregory van der Wiel on the right. Edwin van der Saar who still could have probably done a fine job as keeper, has retired and I’m not as familiar with his replacement, Maarten Stekelenburg, but I hear good things about him. Van der Saar is clearly going to be a hard act to follow. The midfield defense will be borne by Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong, the latter best remembered for a nasty foul on the USA’s Stuart Holden in an apparently in-name-only friendly that fractured his fibula.
The key to Holland’s attack will be the skills of their marvelous playmaker, Wesley Sneijder, with support from wingers Arjen Robben and Eljero Elia. Robin van Persie rounds out the attack as an excellent target. In addition, the Dutch are terrific on set pieces with Robben, Sneijder and van Persie all excellent with free kicks.
Denmark is not quite the Denmark of the recent past, but should still have enough talent to get through. Thomas Sorensen is a fine keeper and has proven himself a worthy successor to Peter Schmiechel. The only defenders I have any familiarity with, however, are Daniel Agger, who has come up short in terms of playing time for Liverpool and Simon Kjaer, who could be a breakout defender for this WC. Kjaer is very fast for a defender and an excellent target on set pieces.
When I think of Danish midfielders of the recent past, the one who comes to mind immediately is Stig Tofting, a man who was a vigorous defender, but carried a lot of baggage of the disciplinary kind, once spending four months in jail for head-butting a bar owner. I’ve seen Christian Pulsen play with Seville and Juventus and he strikes me as Stig Tofting without the baggage. On the offensive midfield side, look for the still speedy Dennis Rommedahl, Jesper Gronkjaer and possibly Jakob Poulsen, especially if he’s healthy.
If they have two forwards, I’m not sure who they will pair with Nicklas Bendtner, the reigning Danish player of the year. Bendtner is a very physical sort of attacker, excellent in the air and would probably score many more goals if he was a better finisher. Jon Dahl Tomasson may be brought in for his experience to complement Bendtner’s youth.
Cameroon was the breakthrough team from Africa at the 1990 World Cup. The seemingly ageless Roger Milla scored four goals in that competition when he was 38 – and scored another goal four years later making him the oldest scorer in World Cup history. Recent appearances in the World Cup, however, have seen them manage only one win, beating Saudi Arabia, a team that gave up 12 goals and scored none, 1-0.
The players I am most familiar with are Carlos Kameni, their number one keeper for the past several years and who, in his club role at Espanyol managed to shut out Barcelona last season, Geremi, a very well-traveled defender currently playing in Turkey, Alex Song, a defensive midfielder who plays for Arsenal, Stephane Mbia a fine defensive midfielder for Marseille, and of course, Samuel Et0’o, the marvelous, speedy striker. I’m going to imagine they pair him with Pierre Webo who plays for Mallorca. I can get excited about African teams as I have in the past once play starts: Cameroon in 1990, Nigeria in 1994 and 1998 and Senegal in 2002. I can’t get excited about Cameroon this time.
Japan’s players play largely in Japan’s J-League and I don’t see much of them. I have seen them in friendlies recently, including one game in which they lost to England 2-1, but have the distinction of scoring all three goals. I really can’t see them winning a game against any of their opponents.
Cross-posted at Beautiful Horizons.