Tuesday, March 30, 2010
From friends to foes
By Michael Griffin Special to ESPN.com
Chelsea teammates Michael Ballack and Michael Essien will meet when Germany faces Ghana.
When the draw for this year's World Cup was held back in December and the eight groups of teams were determined for first-round play, much of the media focus centered on the United States and England drawing the same group and facing each other on the tournament's opening weekend.
The exciting matchup would have provided the chance for soccer superstars David Beckham and Landon Donovan -- professional teammates on the L.A. Galaxy -- to play against each other in their respective national team jerseys. Unfortunately, Beckham's recent injury will cause the England midfielder to miss the World Cup and deprive fans of seeing the two club teammates oppose each other in South Africa. But the draw has set up a number of other group-stage games that will involve players from the same professional team battling each other.
Since official national team rosters for the World Cup are not due to FIFA until June 1, we can't yet be definite that the matchups between players highlighted below will occur. But there are enough near-certainties -- barring further injuries, of course -- to ensure plenty of interesting encounters involving club teammates on opposite sides of the ball.
United States versus England, June 12
Tim Howard won't be hugging Leighton Baines on June 12.
While his torn Achilles' tendon may have denied Beckham the chance to face fellow Galaxy star Donovan, another injury could mean that two different professional teammates line up against each other when the United States plays England in Rustenberg. With Ashley Cole out with a broken ankle and usual backup Wayne Bridge turning down a call-up because of personal issues, the England left back position in a March friendly was manned by Everton's Leighton Baines, who turned in an assured performance on his national team debut. The 25-year-old is used to supporting American goalkeeper Tim Howard in the Everton defense the past few seasons. Howard's experience playing against current England internationals in the Premier League could be an advantage for the U.S. in Group B's opening match.
Ivory Coast versus Portugal, June 15
Portugal's opening match against the Ivory Coast might seem a bit like a club team practice for Ricardo Carvalho, since he'll be defending against two Chelsea FC teammates that he sees each session at the Blues' training ground -- Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou. The 31-year-old Carvalho has long been a stalwart in defense for Chelsea and Portugal, yet he'll be tested by a formidable Ivory Coast squad fronted by Drogba, the 2009 African Footballer of the Year who has scored 30 goals in all competitions for Chelsea this season. Kalou will provide depth in attack for the Elephants, drawn into the "Group of Death" for a second straight World Cup. With Brazil also in Group G, the Portugal-Ivory Coast result will go a long way in determining which countries advance to the knockout rounds.
France versus Mexico, June 17
The two highest-profile countries from Group A each feature a veteran national team leader who plays professionally at FC Barcelona. Thierry Henry, the talented French striker looking to overcome the negative effects related to his unpunished handball in his country's World Cup playoff victory over Ireland, will be aiming to outduel Barca teammate Rafa Marquez in the match in Polokwane. National team captain Marquez can helm Mexico's defense or play a holding midfield role, and his experience will be key when El Tri meet the favored French side. This World Cup will probably be the last for both Henry and Marquez.
Henry's former club, Arsenal FC, should also be represented well when France takes on Mexico. Both William Gallas and Bacary Sagna are regulars in defense for the Gunners as well as for Les Bleus, and the pair should be spending some time marking club teammate Carlos Vela. While Vela may not yet be a regular starter in the Arsenal first team, the young Mexican forward is being tipped as a future star by manager Arsene Wenger. The 21-year-old Vela proved his ability in last summer's CONCACAF Gold Cup final, coming on as a halftime sub of a scoreless game to spark the Mexico attack and contribute a goal and two assists in a 5-0 win over the United States.
Chile versus Switzerland, June 21
One first-round game pitting two younger stars from the same club against each other will be the Group H encounter between Switzerland and Chile -- when Udinese's Gokhan Inler and Alexis Sanchez line up on opposite sides. Swiss central midfielder Inler has been coveted by a number of bigger European clubs, and the combative 25-year-old could see his stock rise further with strong performances in South Africa. Chile's attack will include the creative Sanchez, a winger who has impressed in Serie A and the UEFA Cup the past couple of seasons. Known as "El Nino Maravilla" (the Wonder Boy) in his homeland, Sanchez helped lead Chile to the semifinals of FIFA's Under-20 World Cup in 2007 and is ready to shine on a bigger stage. With Spain the favorite to top Group H, this match could decide which country advances alongside the reigning European champions.
Nigeria versus South Korea, June 22
Like Udinese in Italy's Serie A, England's Bolton Wanderers are also struggling in the bottom half of their domestic league table. Yet Bolton could be represented by a number of players at this year's World Cup, including Nigerian defender Danny Shittu and South Korea's Chung-yong Lee, whose national teams will meet in a Group B clash in Durban. Shittu will turn 30 later this summer and has seen limited action for his club side, but he remains an experienced option at the back for Nigeria. In contrast, Lee has played in more than 30 games for Bolton since arriving last August and is one of the brighter young talents for his country. The 21-year-old winger has scored four Premier League goals in his first season in England, and impressed during South Korea's qualifying campaign for South Africa 2010.
Argentina versus Greece, June 22
The other Group B match that same day will pair an attacking Argentina team against defensive-minded Greece -- and the Liverpool players that should be involved on either side will reflect their respective national team styles. Maxi Rodriguez signed with Liverpool in January to add some offensive punch to the club's attack. He joined fellow Argentine Javier Mascherano in the Reds' lineup, and the two midfielders have helped the Anfield club advance to the quarterfinals of the Europa League competition. In the June 22 match at Polokwane, Rodriguez and Mascherano will face a Greek defense that includes Liverpool teammate Sotirios Kyrgiakos. Used mainly as a reserve to fill in for Liverpool's first-choice defenders, Kyrgiakos will add some strength to Greece's back four.
Ghana versus Germany, June 23
The final day of Group D play will see Ghana face Germany at Johannesburg's Soccer City, where Chelsea stars Michael Essien and Michael Ballack will do battle in midfield. Premier League fans used to seeing Ballack and Essien in the same side should be treated to an intriguing affair between two veterans looking to lead their countries out of a tough group. Essien, 2005 Player of the Year in France's Ligue 1, is nearing a return from injury to boost Chelsea's late-season efforts and should be fully fit come June. South Africa may represent the final chance at World Cup glory for German captain Ballack, who led his country to the final in 2002 but missed the championship match with Brazil due to suspension.
Cameroon versus Netherlands, June 24
Another final-day group encounter that could have major implications is the Cameroon versus Netherlands match, when two of Europe's top club teams will be represented by participants on both sides. Samuel Eto'o and Wesley Sneijder -- teammates at Inter Milan since last summer -- will be wearing different national team jerseys at Cape Town's Green Point Stadium. Eto'o remains one of the most feared strikers in world football and bagged the winning goal in Inter's recent defeat of Chelsea in Champions League action. Cameroon will be counting on his prowess in front of goal to overcome a strong Dutch side that includes midfielder Sneijder, whose creative influence has contributed to Inter's run to the top of the Serie A table.
The game will also feature two Arsenal players squaring off against each other. Young Cameroonian Alex Song has assumed the defensive midfield position for Arsenal, as the north London club remains in contention for league and European titles. His task in the June 24 match against the Netherlands will be to shut down a fellow Gunner, Robin van Persie. While injuries have limited van Persie's time on the pitch, his supreme skills have produced some brilliant goals for Arsene Wenger's side. The 26-year-old forward is one of the top attacking threats for the Netherlands, group favorites who may need a result against Cameroon to reach the second round of the World Cup.
Italy versus Slovakia, June 24
Defending World Cup champion Italy will finish its group stage against Slovakia in a match that should pit Napoli teammates Andrea Dossena and Marek Hamsik against each other. Hamsik, a driving force for Slovakia's attack who has enjoyed a fine season in Italy's Serie A, will have his chance to impress on a global stage in South Africa. Club teammate Dossena joined Napoli in January, and the dependable fullback has helped the club move up the league table and into Champions League contention. A strong performance against Slovakia in the game at Ellis Park would help Dossena make the left back position his own, and help Italy to potentially avoid a date with the Netherlands in the second round.
Brazil versus Portugal, June 25
One of the glamour matchups in the opening stage involves Brazil and Portugal in a Group G clash that will see Real Madrid teammates Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka on opposite sides of the ball. The two stars have each been named as FIFA World Player of the Year within the past three years, and both joined Real Madrid in record-breaking transfer deals last summer. The new club teammates have combined talents to help take Real to the top of La Liga standings, but they'll be looking to outduel each other in the match at Durban, as Brazil and Portugal each foster hopes of topping the "Group of Death."
When national team rosters are finalized prior to the World Cup, we may have an indication of even more potential group matches involving professional teammates. And once the World Cup progresses past the group stage, we'll certainly see players advance to the knockout rounds who will have to play against club teammates with much more at stake.
Michael Griffin is an editor for ESPN.com.