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THE WORLD CUP

Separate Paths

World powers Brazil, Italy have different first-round challenges / Defending champions expected to have an easy time in Group F against soccer minnows Croatia, Japan and Australia.

May 21, 2006|Stuart Condie | Associated Press

Most people see Brazil as a certainty to win its group at the World Cup. And so do its opponents.

The defending champions are a firm favorite to win a record sixth title in Germany and, with their attacking style and loaded roster, shouldn't have too many problems winning Group F ahead of Croatia, Japan and Australia.

Japan Coach Zico played at three World Cups for Brazil, and his experience could prove crucial. However, he isn't even thinking of emulating Japan's performance last time, when it topped its group at home.

"Brazil stands out head and shoulders above the rest," Zico said. "With most of their players now plying their trade in Europe, they'll have the strongest squad in the group. So Australia, Croatia and Japan will each have a one-in-three chance of taking the other qualifying slot."

Japan is the highest-ranked team in the group after No. 1 Brazil, but the Asian champions are rated only 18th by FIFA -- even though it was the first team to join host Germany in qualifying for the tournament.

Each team knows it would be one of the World Cup's biggest shocks if it beat Brazil. So the competition is trying to identify where it's going to pick up the crucial points that would send it through to the second round.

Japan opens against Australia on June 12 and plays Croatia on June 18, when Brazil plays Australia. Brazil opens against Croatia on June 13, and plays Japan in the last round of group games on June 22.

"If we play to our potential, we should have as good a chance of any of the others of going through," Zico said. "The first game against Australia is crucial to our chances."

Although Japan doesn't have anyone with the ability of Brazil's world player of the year Ronaldinho, Real Madrid striker Ronaldo, AC Milan playmaker Kaka or Inter Milan forward Adriano, it has players with experience in Europe's top leagues.

Bolton's Hidetoshi Nakata and former Feyenoord player Shinji Ono return after helping Japan reach the second round in 2002. They will be alongside midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura, whose six goals and numerous assists this season helped Celtic cruise to the Scottish Premier League title.

But Japan will have tough competition. Although Australia has little tournament pedigree, its coach does.

The Socceroos are coached by Guus Hiddink, who led the Netherlands to the semifinals at the World Cup in 1998 and repeated the feat with South Korea four years later.

"He likes the Australian attitude," Australia'a John Aloisi said.

Aloisi, who scored the winning penalty kick goal in a shootout to give Australia victory over Uruguay and its first World Cup appearance in 32 years, also is trying to figure out where his team can pick up points.

"The most important game will probably be the first against Japan," Aloisi said. "Croatia are good, but not as good as in 1998 and definitely beatable. We should know all about them because we've got players with a Croatian background."

Striker Mark Viduka, midfielder Josip Skoko and defender Tony Popovic fall into that category and all are with English clubs, making them familiar with the conditions and opposition they are likely to face in Germany.

Sticking with the players who kept Croatia unbeaten through qualifying and took it to first place in its group, Coach Zlatko Kranjcar is confident with his midfielder son Niko Kranjcar and striker Dado Prso, who he feels can qualify his team for the second round.

Brazil is the one team in the group thinking far beyond the first stage, of course. However, there's at least one Brazilian warning against such confidence.

"Football is an unpredictable game, and no one can foresee how things will turn out," Zico said. "The gap between traditional footballing powers and newly emerging nations is narrowing."

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