World Cup weak links
One of the interesting things about international football is the way sides can encounter a severe weakness in one particular position. At club level, a manager would simply purchase an adequate player to plug the gap, but at international level that's obviously not possible.
Instead, an international coach must either adapt his tactical system, play someone out of position, or simply persevere with a player out of his depth. Peculiarly, many of the favourites for this summer's World Cup appear to be struggling in the same positions -- with three particular roles causing concern...
Looking across the 32 World Cup teams overall, you wouldn't say the standard of goalkeepers was particularly poor.
Indeed, there are three excellent shotstoppers amongst the four favourites. Manuel Neuer has established himself as the world's greatest since moving to Bayern Munich, while Thibaut Courtois was probably Europe's best this season at Atletico Madrid. Italy's Gianluigi Buffon, meanwhile, turned in another consistent, title-winning season with Juventus. There are also some decent goalkeepers amongst outsiders -- Costa Rica's Keylor Navas will have opportunities to shine, while Bosnia's Asmir Begovic is also a tremendous keeper.
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But there are big questions about the favourites in this department -- the raw quality of the individual isn't a problem, but their lack of playing time is. Brazil, for example, are depending upon Julio Cesar, an unquestionably world-class goalkeeper at his peak, but one who has played just eight club games in the last year. One was an FA Cup defeat for QPR, the other seven have been spent on loan at Toronto FC. Goalkeepers require less football than outfielders, because match sharpness isn't such an issue, but it's hardly ideal preparation.
Luckily, two of Brazil's major rivals face a similar situation. Spain's Iker Casillas has spent the past season as a back-up for Diego Lopez at club level, although he's played a decent number of matches in cup competitions. Still, Casillas' error in the European Cup final was uncharacteristic -- and very nearly costly -- and Vicente del Bosque might be nervous about his decision-making.
Argentina's Sergio Romero is an even bigger worry. Casillas and Julio Cesar are established top-class performers, but Romero has never really convinced, and would be considered one of Argentina's weak links even if he'd experienced a full club season. But he hasn't -- he's played just two and a half games at Monaco, although at least they've been in the last couple of months. Romero is prone to needless errors and poor decisions, and it's surprising Alejandro Sabella hasn't given Mariano Andujar more of an opportunity, considering he performed well for Sabella's Copa Libertadores-winning Estudiantes side of 2009.
There are also minor question marks about Joe Hart and Hugo Lloris. Both are still considered fine goalkeepers, but both had underwhelming campaigns. Hart made a series of errors in the autumn and was dropped from the Manchester City side. Lloris, meanwhile, seemed to be affected by the head injury he suffered at Everton in November. Both have recovered, and ended the season well, but were in better form this time last year.
Left-back appears to be the major outfield problem for various sides. Whereas Marcelo, Jordi Alba and Fabio Coentrao ensure Brazil, Spain and Portugal have no problems in this department, the likes of Argentina, Germany, Belgium, France and Italy are struggling.
Frankly, there's simply a shortage of quality. Argentina will probably persist with Marcos Rojo, more accustomed to playing as a centre-back for Sporting Lisbon, and widely viewed as Argentina's major barrier to success. Clumsy on the ball and awkward defending one-on-one situations out wide, opponents will look to attack him, rather than right-back Pablo Zabaleta.
Germany have options, but none that are entirely convincing. Bayern pair Philipp Lahm and Jerome Boateng have played left-back for Germany previously, but are required in other defensive positions, which means it's a battle between Dortmund duo Marcel Schmelzer and Erik Durm. The fomer has more experience and will be first choice, but has often underwhelmed at international level, and Durm has proved a capable deputy at club level. Either way, Jogi Loew will wish he could play Lahm on both flanks simultaneously -- and perhaps in midfield, too.
Belgium have a complete absence of full-backs on either flank, which means Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen will play out wide, effectively forming a quartet of central defenders across the back line. Both were trained at Ajax and are comfortable bringing the ball forward, but don't expect many off-the-ball runs down the touchline, which means the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard will find it more difficult to cut inside.
Italy's options are no more appealing. Mattia De Sciglio seems the best bet, but is naturally right-sided and prefers the other flank. Matteo Darmian is a similar case, while Giorgio Chiellini prefers the middle. The most natural option is Manuel Pasqual, one of Cesare Prandelli's old Fiorentina favourites, but he's limited technically, wouldn't have a chance of getting into the squad on the opposite side, and might not make the final 23-man squad anyway.
The final struggler in this respect is France. Patrice Evra remains the favourite to start but endured a difficult campaign at Manchester United, and Didier Deschamps' side offered more attacking thrust in Tuesday's 4-0 win over Norway when Lucas Digne was introduced at halftime. Could the PSG youngster get the nod?
There's not a lack of outright quality upfront, but certainly a shortage of genuinely promising goalscoring number nines. For sides like Argentina and Portugal, the major goal threat comes from deeper positions -- Lionel Messi starts in an inside-right position, Cristiano Ronaldo will cut inside powerfully from the left. Brazil's Fred does his job excellently and scored five at last summer's Confederations Cup, but he's primarily a hold-up man rather than a poacher.
Germany and Spain, the greatest hopes for a first-ever European success in South America, could play false number nines that link with midfield runners -- with the latter particularly likely to play this way if Diego Costa doesn't make it. Luis Suarez is another a snarling, battling striker fresh from a tremendous club campaign, but also might not be 100-percent fit due to injury.
It's making the Golden Boot race extremely difficult to predict. Romelu Lukaku and Daniel Sturridge had fine Premier League campaigns but aren't yet proven for their national sides, while Mario Balotelli remains gloriously unpredictable.
When it comes to predicting the top goalscorer, the man who ticks all the boxses is France's Karim Benzema. He enjoyed a fine campaign at Real Madrid, is fielded alongside playmakers who will provide him with service rather than seeking to grab goals themselves, and is in an easy group. But Olivier Giroud managed two fine goals against Norway on Monday, and is a threat to his place.
It's difficult to imagine anyone will score eight goals at this tournament, as Ronaldo managed for Brazil in 2002. It's becoming a trend: at World Cup 2006 and Euro 2008, only one player in each tournament -- Miroslav Klose and David Villa -- scored more than three goals. At World Cup 2010 five players were tied for the Golden Boot on five goals, while at Euro 2012 six players were tied on three. These days, goalscoring is shared around across a greater number of players, and old-school poachers are difficult to find.