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Ben Blackmore is deputy editor of ESPN.co.uk

  • World Cup

World Cup Preview

Ben Blackmore June 9, 2010
The current England squad was once labelled the 'golden generation', but this is their last chance to bring home the World Cup for the second time © Getty Images
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Franz Beckenbauer, Cafu, Didier Deschamps, Dunga, Diego Maradona, Lothar Matthaus and Bobby Moore. Legendary names with one crucial thing in common: They have all lifted the World Cup as captain of their countries.

The above list is not the complete roll of honour, but they are the players Steven Gerrard grew up dreaming of joining when the final whistle goes at the Soccer City Stadium on July 11. Elected as England captain as if by destiny after the axing of John Terry and the loss of Rio Ferdinand, Gerrard would love nothing more than to lift the famous solid gold trophy in what might be his final World Cup.

Standing in England's way are the greatest obstacles in world football: European champions Spain begin as favourites, defending champions Italy are chasing their fifth title, Argentina boast the finest footballer the world has to offer, whilst Germany find themselves in an unusual position as dark horses. Below ESPN.co.uk takes a look at the potential battles awaiting Fabio Capello's men, including abnormally high altitude, fall-outs among the WAGs, and the inevitable penalty shoot-out...

Wayne Rooney carries England's hopes © Getty Images
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England
Public love affairs, the late axing of one captain, the 11th-hour loss of another, fitness problems for the team's holding midfielder, no clear first-choice goalkeeper, and not even a lad called Beckham to fall back on; England fans could be forgiven for harbouring one or two concerns going into their opening match against the USA on June 12.

Yet in Wayne Rooney they have a bubbling, spitting volcano of a talisman who, bar the lack of gladiatorial attire, makes Maximus Decimus Meridius look like Clarke Kent. Rooney enters the tournament after the best season of his life with 43 goals to his name, supported by two of the best central midfielders in the world in Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, and a defence that conceded just six goals in qualifying. And at the helm of that enviable ship is the man that inspires an unshakable - dare we say it - Mourinho-like confidence: Signor Capello.

The draw has been kind too; England should breeze through a group containing USA, Slovenia and Algeria, and then the technically-gifted nations that always cause the Three Lions problems - Spain, Portugal and Brazil - do not cross England's path until the semi-finals. By that time the Capello factor may just have developed into an awesome air of invincibility, which would be hugely preferable to the fanciful talk of 'destiny' that usually hinders an England side.

However, there remains the dreaded penalty shootout hoodoo, the greatest psychological obstacle in England's way having previously made villains out of the likes of Waddle, Batty and Southgate in World Cup '90, Euro '96, World Cup '98, Euro 2004 and World Cup 2006. Of the current crop, Frank Lampard has missed his last two, Joe Cole recently missed three out of three in practice if reports are to be believed, which means all signs are pointing to the use of Jamie Carragher as specialist penalty taker once again.
If you're a pessimist, get on Capello's boys to be creating more Pizza Hut adverts upon their return from South Africa at 11/4 with Stan James, while the more optimistic of you can back Gerrard and co. to go all the way at 15/2.

Spain boast the most lethal strike force at the World Cup © Getty Images
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The Favourites
No matter which way you swing it, Spain have as much right to the 'favourites' tag as Cheryl Cole's personal website does on your PC. As reigning European champions they now have experience of winning a major competition, they won all ten of their qualifying ties, scoring 28 and conceding five, and they boast a strike partnership in Fernando Torres and David Villa more deadly than a hit squad featuring Steven Seagal and Jean Claude Van Damme. The Liverpool man may not be fit for the start of the tournament, but Spain should have the luxury of easing him back in during a red-carpet welcome against Switzerland, Honduras and Chile.

In Barcelona's puppeteer, Xavi Hernandez, Spain have the world's best string-puller, a man so good that they often leave Xabi Alonso and Cesc Fabregas on the bench. And therein rests the greatest reason for their 'favourites' tag. While Capello scratches around to find somebody better than Theo Walcott for his squad, Vicente Del Bosque is choosing between caviar and fresh lobster. Quite simply, there would be no debate over England's No. 1 if Jose Reina was English, and there would be no concern over Gareth Barry if Fabregas was a local Peckham lad.

The matadors of European football have played England off the park on each of the last two occasions the nations have met, and they have the ability to run circles around any team on their day. But Spain must overcome the psychological barrier of having never reached the final of a World Cup.
If you fancy Spain to write a new chapter in their history, back them to win the tournament at 4/1 with Stan James.

Mesut Ozil could be one of the stars of the tournament © Getty Images
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The Dark Horses
It may seem strange to hand the label of 'dark horses' to a country that has won the World Cup on three previous occasions, and a country that treats penalties with the disdain of Ronnie Biggs (even their 'keeper takes them), but few would expect Germany to go all the way in South Africa, particularly after losing captain Michael Ballack to injury.

However, Germany remain a side who rifled through their 10-game qualifying campaign without tasting defeat, and their domestic league is also on the up after Bayern Munich became the first Bundesliga side to feature in a Champions League final for eight years. The Germans have also come second and third in the last two World Cups.

In Miroslav Klose they have a man who, despite scoring only three league goals all season, has 48 international goals to his name and five in each of the last two World Cups. However, the key player is likely to be Mesut Ozil. Once likened to Diego Maradona, Ozil scored nine and created 12 for Werder Bremen this season, he is one of the most underrated footballers in Europe, which could make him a serious weapon in South Africa.
If you fancy Germany to add to their World Cup collection, back them at 14/1 with Stan James.

Diego Milito was the match-winner in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich © Getty Images
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In Form
All the talk will be of Lionel Messi when Diego Maradona's men take on Nigeria in their opening encounter, but World Cups have a habit of making heroes out of goal-poaching strikers, and Diego Milito fits that bill. Gary Lineker, Toto Schilacci, Paolo Rossi and Gerd Muller are just some of the names to have hit the goal trail on world football's biggest stage, and Milito enters the 2010 tournament full of confidence.

Two superb finishes in the Champions League final topped off a wonderful season that yielded 32 goals in all competitions for the Inter Milan striker, who is now tracked by Real Madrid. He only has four international goals for his country but, provided he recovers from an ankle injury, he looks set to be installed as Argentina's leading man in South Africa.

With the likes of Messi, Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero providing the supply line, it will only take for the Argentina forward line to click for Milito to rattle in the goals. Of course, the little lad Messi is worth watching out for as well.
Get on Milito to finish the tournament as top goalscorer at hugely tempting odds of 28/1 with Stan James.

Fabio Cannavaro looked far from his best in Italy's 2-1 defeat to Mexico © Getty Images
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Out of Form
The last man to lift the World Cup as captain, a lot has changed for Fabio Cannavaro in the past four years. Back then, the diminutive centre back was on his way to winning the World Footballer of the Year award and a new career at Real Madrid.

Now, at the age of 36, Cannavaro has to take his share of the blame for Juventus' appalling season, which saw the Old Lady concede 56 goals, 22 more than champions Inter Milan. What once was the best reader of the game in European football, now appears to be an ageing centre back who makes Mike Tyson look like he retired early. Cannavaro is expected to line up for Al-Ahli Dubai after the World Cup, but the Azzurri will hope he has one last big effort left in him.
Italy have an easy group boasting New Zealand, Slovakia and Paraguay, but back them for an early exit in the last 16 at 11/5 with Stan James.

Eljero Elia scored a superb solo effort against Hungary © Getty Images
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Players to Watch
In the same way Diana Ross springs to mind when the World Cup's worst penalty takers are mentioned, the category of 'Players to Watch' instantly conjures up the names of Messi, Ronaldo, Rooney, Torres, Xavi, Gerrard, Villa, Ribery and Robben.

But who are the lesser-known talents with the potential to carve up the 2010 competition?

Eljero Elia for instance. A Dutch winger with pace to burn, the 23-year-old may only start as an impact substitute at the World Cup, but what an impact he can make. The recent friendly against Hungary provides the perfect example. Brought on as a second-half substitute, Elia tore strips off three defenders before cutting inside to slam the ball home.

Humbero Suazo of Chile is one man who most definitely won't be a substitute in South Africa, after he finished as top scorer in the South American qualifying section. If you want a cheap striker for your dream team, you can do no better than Suazo, who outscored Brazil's Luis Fabiano with 10 goals to drag Chile into the World Cup. In 2006 he was officially the world's top scorer, and the Real Zaragoza loanee may just be the man to see Chile finish above Honduras and Switzerland in Spain's group.

Lucas Barrios of Paraguay is challenging Suazo for his South American goalscoring crown, having only qualified to play for his adopted nation in March 2010. Three games later, Barrios has three goals to his name, scoring in each match, making Paraguay an interesting factor in a group featuring Italy, New Zealand and Slovakia.
Back Lucas Barrios to finish as Paraguay's top scorer at the World Cup at a generous 4/1 with Stan James.

Kaka needs to put an average season at Real Madrid behind him to inspire the boys from Brazil © Getty Images
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Team to Watch
Very rarely do Brazil enter a World Cup without the expectation of the globe on their shoulders, which makes them a hugely exciting prospect in South Africa. So often crippled by the demands for magical football as well as success, Carlos Dunga's men can for once play with a degree of freedom in their football.

Not that Dunga encourages freedom, which is what makes Brazil such an intriguing proposition. His decision to exclude Ronaldinho (who said Brazil would never have overlooked Hoddle?) sums up Dunga's managerial style, which is to build a sound defensive base upon which to allow Kaka, Robinho and co. to attack. So often defence has cost Brazil in the past (cast your minds back to Roberto Carlos tying his boot laces as Thierry Henry knocked them out of the 2006 World Cup), but Dunga is determined to bring a more balanced squad to Africa.

Placed in the "Group of Death" alongside Portugal, Ivory Coast and North Korea, the Brazilians will either sink or swim. As winners of the competition five times in the past, they have produced arguably the best international side to ever grace the World Cup, but can Kaka and Luis Fabiano emulate the likes of Jairzinho and Pele?
Brazil v Spain would be something of a dream final for the neutral, put money on that scenario coming true at 10/1 with Stan James.

Will Lionel Messi's genius bring the trophy home for Argentina? © Getty Images
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Group To Provide Winner
With three such big teams in one group, Brazil's Group G is unsurprisingly rated as the most likely to provide the World Cup winner at 10/3. But is that the best basket in which to place all your eggs?

For instance, if Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray were all bunched in one side of the Wimbledon draw, would it not make sense to back Rafael Nadal with a clean run to the final? Spain have been handed something of a stroll into the knockout rounds, so maybe Group H is the more tempting money at 7/2?

Or what about Argentina at 7/1 to build momentum in Group B against Nigeria, South Korea and Greece? Alternatively get on Capello's boys, who face USA, Algeria and Slovenia before potential knockout matches against a poor Serbia side and an even poorer France outfit on their way to the semi-finals. Group C is 5/1.

Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres will both be expected to restore some pride in the Liverpool jersey © Getty Images
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Premier League Club To Shine
Liverpool may have had the kind of season that left them casting a nostalgic look back to the glory days of Djimi Traore and Igor Biscan, but they do still have the chance to stamp their impact on the World Cup.

Represented by Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard, Dirk Kuyt and Ryan Babel among others, the Reds are favourites to provide more goals than any other Premier League side in South Africa. Chelsea's effort may or may not be spearheaded by the crocked Dider Drogba, not to mention Frank Lampard, Arsenal's best hopes come in the shape of Robin Van Persie and Cesc Fabregas, while Manchester United are heavily relying on Wayne Rooney.
To back Liverpool to leave the biggest impact on the World Cup, leap on odds of 5/2 with Stan James.

Quotes
"I play to win, even against my brother - or my father or mother, for that matter." Kevin-Prince Boateng shows little remorse after his tackle ruled Michael Ballack out of the World Cup

"It is curious that a few weeks before the World Cup they decide to destroy the house." Ghana coach Milovan Rajevac senses a conspiracy after learning that property in his home country of Serbia, who the Black Stars will face in South Africa, is due to be demolished prior to the finals

"If somebody makes an error like that in a school team, then you would tell him to find a different sport." Franz Beckenbauer fills Germany goalkeeper Rene Adler with confidence after a big mistake for Hamburg

Trivia

  • Diego Maradona's last game at the World Cup as a player was against Nigeria, a match that later saw him caught out for drug abuse. It was Maradona's 21st World Cup game, equalling a then-record held by Uwe Seeler and Wladislav Zmuda (now beaten by Lothar Matthaus). Maradona's first World Cup game as a coach will also be against Nigeria on June 12.

    Diego Maradona scored arguably the greatest goal in World Cup history © Getty Images
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  • Fabio Capello's first World Cup game in charge of England will come against USA, a nation he once beat 10-0 as an Italy player in an unofficial international match at the Stadio Olimpico in 1975.

  • Switzerland return to the world stage four years on from their group stage exit in Germany, when they became the first team to be knocked out of a World Cup without conceding a single goal.

  • Ivory Coast may be the best bet for entertainment value over the next month. Of all the countries to have ever taken part in a World Cup Finals, only the Elephants have never failed to score in a World Cup match. During the 2006 World Cup, they scored in all three of their games against Argentina, the Netherlands and Serbia and Montenegro.
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Ben Blackmore is deputy editor of ESPN.co.uk