Group B originally looked like one of the toughest in the World Cup Draw. However in the past few weeks, arguably the most important player for each of the three serious contenders from this group has fallen with a serious injury. This makes prognostication of this group particularly risky, but certain variables will remain the same regardless of the who is healthy and who is not. While England looked solid in Tuesday's 3-1 win over Hungary, they still look uncomfortable without Rooney up front.
Sven Goran Eriksson's rocky but successful tenure as manager of England will come to and end at the end of the World Cup. Eriksson's has restored English confidence and pride in its national Football squad, but he has not advanced the squad past the final eight at either the European Championships or the World Cup. This cup was supposed to be different, until Wayne Rooney, possibly the best young Footballer in the world was injured in a match versus Chelsea in April. The rise of Rooney who is destined to be mentioned among the all time greats of English Football (alongside Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore, Gordon Banks, Gary Linekar, etc.) had done so much to revive the sagging hopes of a Football mad nation. Now it appears, England will have to wait four more years to make a run at the ultimate prize.The English squad has some major deficiencies that probably would have prevented a world title even with a healthy Rooney.
Now those come into open view in Rooney's absence. The team has excess of talented center backs, such as Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Sol Campbell, and Jamie Carragher. However, Eriksson doesn't have a particularly strong stable of outside defenders which are critical in England's long ball attack. Gary Neville and Ashley Cole are likely to start outside but neither inspires a whole lot of confidence.The midfield is outstanding, being led by Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. Oh and England also has some guy named Beckham. Keep an eye on speedy Aaron Lennon, a youngster who showed great skill this past season with Totenham, and was a controversial selection of Eriksson's. Jermaine Jenas, who also plays for Spurs, and the versatile Joe Cole could contribute as well. England is absolutely loaded in the midfield. Gerrard had to play a little bit of a withdrawn striker in the Hungary friendly and despite scoring a goal, he looked uncomfortable.
The Forwards beyond Wayne Rooney whose health as mentioned above is in serious doubt, are average at best for a squad with England's expectations. Michael Owen has seemingly regressed over the past few years and had a disastrous time with Real Madrid before returning home to play for Newcastle. Owen has a foot injury that has been nagging him all year and tends to fall asleep during games, although he is still capable of the spectacular. Peter Crouch provides a tall target at 6'7,'' and is much liked by his manager. However, Crouch is a poor finisher and probably will not be an adequate replacement for Rooney. Young Theo Wolcott, only 17 years old could get some time up front as a late game sub. Wolcott is destined to be one of the brightest stars in the world a few years down the road, but is still very inexperienced at the highest levels of club and international football. Wolcott's selection that evidently came at the expense ofEngland is a solid side, despite some obvious problems. While they will win this group, they will not win the World Cup, and that is the ultimate goal in a nation as Football crazy and as commercially vital to the sport's worldwide appeal as England.
Paraguay has reached the second round in each of the past two World Cups and looked poised for more in 2006 until Roque Santa Cruz revealed last week that he is still suffering the affects of a knee injury he suffered during the Bundeslegia Season with Bayern Munich. With Santa Cruz still not fully fit, Nelson Haedo Valdez who plays his club football for Werder Bremen may be forced to pick up the slack. A concern for Paraguay is the lack of height and size at the back that could be exposed by both England and Sweeden. Julio Dos Santos is a skillful wingman who pushes the ball forward with allegiance and ease. Dos Santos like Santa Cruz plays his club football for German powerhouse Bayern Munich, so adjusting to German conditions should not be a problem. Roberto Acuna who is among the world's best holding midfielders returns for his 3rd world cup. Acuna combines solid positioning with some of the best pinpoint passing anywhere in the football world. Paraguay has much offensive firepower, and that should be enough to overcome a somewhat shaky backline and goalkeeping situation.
Sweden got perhaps the biggest injury blow of any nation in the World Cup when Fredrik Ljungberg, one of the great players in the recent history of the storied Arsenal Football club suffered a foot injury that team doctors feel should keep him out of the group stage matches. Ljungberg, however seems intent on playing through his intense pain, but how effective the speedy midfielder who sparks the Swedish attack will be is up for debate. Sweden is a disciplined and defensive oriented side that holds their defensive shape even under intense attacking pressure. Henrik Larsson and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are two of the best attackers in Europe, but an hobbled Ljungberg will adversely affect the type of service the forwards receive and probably sinks the Sweds chances. Anders Svensson who is a classy wing player will likely have to move to a more attacking oriented role in Ljungberg's absence.
Trinidad and Tobago qualified for its first World Cup thanks to two of the great attacking players in recent years of English club football, former MLS superstar Stern John and former Man U goal scorer extrodinaire and Champions League winner Dwight Yorke. Stern John is a particularly great story because it was Brian McBride's trip to France 1998 with the USA, that moved John into the Columbus Crew starting lineup, and the rest is history as they say. John averaged almost a goal a game as a starter with the Crew in 1998 and 1999 and was sold for a then MLS record $4 million to EPL side Nottingham Forest. Dwight Yorke made his T&T debut in 1989 and sixteen years later he will make his World Cup debut at age 35.
The Soco Warriors have the aformentioned two great attacking players but little else that indicates they can be competitive in the World Cup, especially when drawn in a group with three quality sides. Both the midfield and defense are filled with players who do not regularly play for their clubs or toil in the obscurity of England's lower divisions. T&T's qualification however should be enough to make the island nation proud of their national team.
WHO ADVANCES: ENGLAND, PARAGUAY
BEST PLAYER IN GROUP: WAYNE ROONEY, ENGLAND (INJURED)
BEST HEALTHY CO-PLAYERs IN GROUP: ROBERTO ACUNA, PARAGUAY, STEVEN GERRARD, ENGLAND
BEST YOUNG PLAYER IN THE GROUP: THEO WOLCOTT, ENGLAND