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May 24, 2006

Group F Tactics Board

Brazil | Croatia | Australia | Japan
Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group G | Group H

It's often said that the kit man or tea lady could successfully lead Brazil given the vast array of footballing talent that the South American nation produces, yet they have someone much more respectable in charge in the shape of Carlos Alberto Parreira.

The man who steered Brazil to glory at USA'94 is certainly not one to tinker.

Rotating his first team line-up goes against the grain and he is unlikely to veer from the 4-2-2-2 formation which served him so well in the World Cup qualifiers and the victorious 2005 Confederations Cup campaign.

Brazil's plans for a sixth World title are mainly built on their front-six: two holding midfielders who can also play (Emerson and Ze Roberto), strikers Adriano and Ronaldo combining their time between the box and wide positions and the brilliance of Ronaldinho and Kaka just behind them.

And if the first-stringers are not cutting it, Brazil also have a host of super-subs to call on such as quicksilver frontrunner Robinho, free-kick expert Juninho and the opportunistic Fred.

Parreira, though, insists it will be the team as a whole that takes Brazil forward. 'You can talk about all the different formations you want,' he says. 'What makes the difference is not the system but how quickly and effectively you can get seven, eight men into forward positions and then get the same number back to defend. The team which switches best from defence to attack and vice versa will win.'

Brazil may be hot favourites to defend their global crown but they are definitely not without weakness. Goalkeeper Dida has made a catalogue of errors this season for AC Milan, ageing full-backs Cafu and Roberto Carlos were never the greatest of defenders and can be undone by high balls into their box.

Moreover, neither Adriano or Ronaldo has sparkled much for Inter Milan or Real Madrid over the past few months.

If Brazil are not the force many expect them to be, it may be Croatia who expose their flaws. At the last World Cup and Euro 2004, the gameplans of Croat coaches Mirko Jozic and Otto Baric were very much defence-orientated, based on avoiding defeat and hoping to snatch a win with a rare counter-attack, yet since Zlatko Krancjar took over as national boss in the summer of 2004, the shackles have come off.

Krancjar's preferred 3-4-1-2 system may not seem particularly adventurous, but when the Croats are in possession it is effectively a 3-2-1-4, with two of the midfielders, Darijo Srna on the right and the left-sided Marko Babic operating as genuine wingers.

Other key men when the Croats go for broke are forceful Glasgow Rangers striker Dado Prso and the manager's talented young son Niko, whose touch and vision in the hole makes him the ideal central supply line.

'As a former attacking midfielder or striker, my instincts are to go forward whenever possible, to be enterprising,' says Zlatko Kranjcar. 'I believe it is the Croat way to express ourselves technically.'

Even so, today's Croatia still has some way to go before it can be likened to the free-wheeling, flair-filled Croat side that dazzled en route to third-place at France 98.

The Class of 2006 simply does not have individuals of the calibre of Boban, Prosinecki and Suker.

On the other hand, Krancjar's side is much more compact, has more fighting spirit and has a stronger defensive base - the back-three of Stejpan Tomas, Robert Kovac and Josip Simunic plus midfield enforcers Igor Tudor and Niko Kovac. Look no further for the reasons why Croatia only conceded five goals in the entire qualifying campaign.

Sporting romance will be in the air as legendary Brazil No.10 turned Japan boss Zico takes on his countrymen in Dortmund on June 22nd.

He tends to use a flexible 4-4-2 system, though he has also successfully experimented with a 4-5-1 and 3-4-2-1. Whatever the formation, the defence should be built around centre-backs Yuji Nakazawa and skipper Tsuneyasu Miyamoto, while the Brazilian-born Alex (left) and Akira Kaji (right) offer attacking penetration a plenty as full-backs in a back-four or wing-backs in a five-man midfield.

Despite having much experience as a playmaker, Bolton's Hidetoshi Nakata will probably line-up in a defensive midfield slot alongside stalwart Takashi Fukunishi. The creative duties are the domain of clever Mitsuo Ogasawara and the outstanding Glasgow Celtic left-footer Shunsuke Nakamura, he of the incisive through balls and superb dead-ball delivery. In a 4-4-2, either Ogasawara or Nakamura often advance to make up an attacking trio.

Zico readily admits that the lack of a prolific goal scorer is his greatest concern. The likes of Naohiro Takahara of Hamburg, Takayuki Suzuki of Red Star and Yoshito Okubo (Mallorca) are all busy and determined but tend towards haphazard finishing. The best bet to be the fox in the box could be livewire Masashi Oguro.

Zico says he has never had any fears about his team's technical and tactical ability, but reveals he has been concentrating on building up his charges' self-belief and will to win. 'We've been looking to break the Japanese friendly mentality. I want more aggression. If we can find it, we can reach the semi-final.'

After guiding the unfancied South Koreans to the semi-finals of the last World Cup, the much-travelled Dutch coach Guus Hiddink is now on another footballing mission of mercy with Australia and already seems to be working the oracle, scripting the Aussies' penalty-shoot-out victory over Uruguay in the World Cup 2006 play-offs, the Socceroos' first appearance in the finals for 32 years.

Up until the eve of this summer's main event, Hiddink's full-time job in charge of PSV Eindhoven took priority over his work with Oz. However, in no time at all, he has stamped his mark on the Green and Gold. The role of each player in the 3-5-2 shape has been precisely defined, discipline, teamwork and energy are in, egos are out.

'We are not going to Germany to make up the numbers,' says Hiddink. 'Brazil should win the group but we have a realistic chance of second-place. Football is all about aiming high, making the impossible possible. I've heard the phrase 'No worries' a lot in Australia. I'd go along with that.'

A counter-attacking game could be on the cards and Hiddink will be expecting midfielders Harry Kewell, Tim Cahill and Marco Bresciano, to get forward in support of strikers Mark Viduka and John Aloisi as often as possible.

The big question is whether the Aussies' rather cumbersome rearguard will be able to stand the heat. Brazil will doubtless test its resolve to the full.


MAN TO WATCH - Ronaldinho

Expect the toothy grin to be even wider. At the 2002 World Cup, he was upstaged by Rivaldo and Ronaldo, yet the Barca superstar will headline this time.

THE SAFE BET: A draw in the group curtain-raiser between Australia and Japan. Two evenly-matched sides and too much fear of an early doors mistake.

THE DARK HORSE: The Ashes have gone, but with footballing alchemist Guus Hiddink at the controls, the Australian Socceroos could be in for their finest moment.

COACHES CORNER: The chess match pitting Parreira and Hiddink should be worth the admission money alone. If Zico doesn't know how to foil the Brazilians, no one does.

VERDICT: Brazil are a shoe-in for first-place in Group F, with Australia narrowly pipping Croatia and Japan to the other qualifying spot.