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May 24, 2006

Group C Tactics Board

Argentina | Ivory Coast | Serbia & Montenegro | Netherlands
Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group G | Group H

Every World Cup finals features a 'Group of Death' and when the balls came out of the brandy bowl for Group C, there was little doubt about this year's doomed quartet.

With Argentina, Ivory Coast, Serbia and Montenegro and Holland all bringing something to the party in Germany, it may be that one of the giants of world football will be downed at the first hurdle and in the opinion of Serbian boss Ilija Petkovic, his side could be the ones making all the headlines.

After conceding just one goal in a stunningly consistent qualifying campaign, there is little doubt that the outsiders to make a mark in this first round pool will be tough to break down and in the view of their organiser-in-chief, the superstars from Holland and Argentina will struggle to break down his formidable back line.

'When I look at my defenders, I see some of the best in the world,' states coach Petkovic, who will employ his trusty 4-4-2 formation for this opening phase.

'I know people like to see attacking an exciting football, but the true strength of my team is the defensive qualities and we will not hide from it. Still, we are not all about defence, don't worry about that.'

Nicknamed the 'Famous Four', Serbia's defence of Manchester United's Nemanja Vidic, Mladen Krstajic of Schalke, Kyiv Dynamo's Goran Gavrancic and Sevilla's Ivica Dragutinovic are a formidable unit. For a side with such a stunning defensive record, it is interesting to note that Gavrancic is, in fact, a makeshift right-back, but he does a fine job all the same.

Three clean sheets would provide Petkovic with a great platform to launch a push for the knock-out stages and in Mateja Kezman, he has a forward who could score the required goals. The former Chelsea hitman is the type of forward who flourishes when he is given the confidence that an early goal would bring.

It may be that Serbia's fortunes are dictated by their opening performance against Marco van Basten's expectant Netherlands side, who are tipped by many an expert to sparkle in Germany.

Van Basten quickly won over the doubters who suggested his lack of coaching experience would cost the Dutch dear in a qualifying campaign that showed his inventive and clinical qualities as a coach. Ruthless in his treatment of some ageing stars whose international careers may have been extended by a coach with less backbone, his introduction of youthful stars has been both brave and successful.

His policies have garnered a powerful team spirit in the Dutch camp, so this squad has a very different feel about it compared to the talented if combustible set-ups of yesteryear. However, Van Basten throws this observation into the mix; 'Many sides in the competition have an advantage compared to us due to their experience of playing in major competitions,' he says. 'We have other qualities, but this is a tough challenge for us.'

A fan of the old Ajax-patented 4-3-3 formation, Van Basten's reliance on wingers is curious when you consider he only has Chelsea's Arjen Robben as a natural wide man. Yet their qualifying results suggests Holland may yet defy the odds and make it through to the letter stages.

The form of veteran striker Ruud van Nistelrooy could be a key as he has endured tough few months at Manchester United, while the ageing Philip Cocu also has a key role in the middle of the park. Not good enough to win the World Cup, yet more than good enough to create a shock or two, the Dutch would have preferred to be in a more comfortable opening group than this.

If there is to be a surprise side emerging from the African contingent at this World Cup, it is likely to come from Ivory Coast. Runners-up in the recent African Nations Cup, their brand of energetic football is pleasing on the eye and under the guidance of coach Henri Michel, they have a self-belief that makes them a danger for their opponents.

Boasting a host of players plying their trade at top European clubs, Michel has a fluid tactical perspective, with his versatility to switch from a 4-3-3 to a 4-3-1-2 meaning they will have options if they need to search for a win or hold on for a point as this group winds towards a close.

Michel admits he was disappointed at being thrown into this most challenging of groups. 'For a country making their debut in the World Cup, this is not the best situation for us,' he accepts. 'People said from the start that we didn't deserve to be in the World Cup and now we have to beat Argentina and Holland to prove them wrong. We are a young team and we go to Germany with realistic hopes.'

Drogba's attacking partner is likely to be Lens forward Aruna Dindane, while the midfield features some talented performers, including Olympiakos playmaker Yaya Toure, brother of Arsenal defender, Kolo, who will be a key pillar at the back for Ivory Coast.

If they had been given a more favourable draw, this African wild card may just have found a route through to the second round, but their flaws may be exposed early on. Weak in both full-back positions, keeper Jean Jacques Tizie is something of a liability at times and their tendency to lose their head in the heat of the battle is likely to see them run into hot water with World Cup officials.

If Serbia and the Ivory Coast provide the unknown mystique of Group C, then the clash between Holland and Argentina in Frankfurt on June 21st is likely to be the most eagerly anticipated of them all in the first round.

By then, we all should know whether Argentina are the force many in the know expect them to be. It has been curious that Jose Pekerman's side have been well behind some of the traditional favourites in the pre-tournament betting as the 1986 World Champions are blessed with some of the game's finest players just now.

If you had conducted a poll to find a World Cup winner a year ago, Argentina may have been near the top of the tips after a successful qualifying efforts, but recent defeats against Paraguay, Uruguay and England have punctured that bubble.

Often starting with a 3-3-1-3 set-up, Argentina will look to the mastery of Juan Riquelme and Leo Messi, both of whom play their club football in Spain, to spark their attacking threat and after the horrors of their first round exit four years ago, they dare not fail again.

With a mix of sublime talent and unbreakable passion, Argentina are much more than a dark horse in this World Cup. Indeed, if they come through this group with flying colours, they should be battle hardened and ready for the challenges that will lie ahead.


MAN TO WATCH: Leo Messi

A torn thigh muscle kept him out of Barcelona's final games, yet the world's most gifted teenager should be back in time to take centre stage in Germany. If he is at his best, Argentina should find themselves in the final reckoning.

A SAFE BET: Ivory Coast's hot-heads are bound to see red on at least one occasion in their opening three games, so put a few coppers on them ending up with a high card count.

THE DARK HORSE: Serbia and Montenegro round off their Group C effort with a game against the Ivory Coast and as the Africans may be on the way home by then, the European side may have enough to pick up what could be a victory.

COACHES CORNER: Ilija Petkovic's shrewdness may well frustrate his Dutch and Argentine counterparts in Germany. However, this group is wide open and the use of substitutes may be crucial.

VERDICT: Argentina to storm into round two, but the second spot is up for grabs, with the flair of Holland threatened by the solidity of Serbia and the unexpected variety of the Ivory Coast.