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Spain and Brazil set World Cup pace

Jonathan Pearce
By Jonathan Pearce
BBC football commentator

It's been a week of bizarre contrasts in preparing for World Cup commentaries without forgetting the pressing need to keep on top of the Premier league scene.

Michael Owen holds off an Argentina defender in 1998
Owen announced himself on the world stage with a stunning goal in 1998

Michael Owen's latest injury nightmare took me back to a hot evening in St Etienne 12 years ago.

England's penalty shoot-out defeat by Argentina remains one of the most dramatic games I have ever covered. Owen's scintillating goal had the tournament gasping in awe - he had the world at his feet.

It was supposed to be the competition where Juan Sebastian Veron emerged as the best midfielder on the planet. Though his side won that night and Veron scored in the shoot-out, he failed to stamp his authority in the semi-final defeat by Netherlands and flopped in English football.

Twelve years on, Owen's international career is surely finished, but Veron, in the week of his 35th birthday, was an outstanding man-of-the-match in Argentina's 1-0 win in Germany.

In a muddled qualification campaign, he helped galvanise a side cracking up under the eccentricities of coach Diego Maradona.

On Wednesday in Munich, anchoring the midfield with Javier Mascherano, he showed why the twice winners could yet be a force this summer.

Veron should be an automatic pick for Argentina's squad even though he is two months older than David Beckham, who failed to get on in England's patchy warm-up against Egypt and still faces an anxious few weeks before he finds out if he has a ticket to South Africa.

The Football Association will want him there because of the star quality he brings to their World Cup 2018 bid.

I witnessed at close hand at December's draw the effect he has on Fifa dignitaries. He also deserves a place on his ability. There are too many question marks over the pretenders to his right midfield position who haven't made that slot their own.

There were too many concerns about England's performance and current injury woes to be comfortable about our World Cup chances.

David Beckham
Beckham's World Cup place is not yet secure

Burrowing deeper and deeper into homework for the summer I was worried by the way the USA created enough chances to beat the Dutch late on in Amsterdam after slipping weakly to 2-0 down.

Make no mistake - England will need to be at their best to beat last summer's Confederations Cup finalists.

It was one of the surprises of the year when they beat Spain in the semi-final last June but it did the European champions a world of good.

In Wednesday's 2-0 victory over France there was no sign of the complacency that dulled the Spain passing in Bloemfontein.

No strikeforce can compare to David Villa and Fernando Torres (who did not even start against France) and there are plenty of goals to come from elsewhere in this exquisite side.

Only Brazil will match them on current form and given the South Americans' physical strength and set piece aerial threat created by coach Dunga, they could well be more than a match for the Spanish when they meet.

It should be in the final but if the Ivory Coast come out of the traps flying, Brazil might only go through in second place and they'd then meet the Spanish in round two. What a shame that would be.

It will be a major shock if England don't make it through to round two as group winners, despite my reservations about their match against the USA.

Continuing my homework, I wanted to see how Algeria would cope against Serbia without Madjid Bougherra of Rangers. They didn't. The Serbians ignored the clamouring of a raucous Stade 5 Juillet crowd to shred the home defence.

You have to go back nine years for Algeria's last win over European opposition.

Serbia, with the wily Dejan Stankovic playing off the lanky Nikola Zigic, will be tough for England as potential second round opponents. Their win in Algiers was one of the most impressive this week.

It's always thrilling to get down to commentary preparation for a World Cup.

At the moment I don't know my schedule of games but you have to prepare for all 32 countries just in case.

I have been stockpiling DVDs of their games and am now gleaning information from an in-depth statistics website used by managers and scouts.

It will take around three days work per country to get all the sides finished. There are less than 100 days to go so I'll have to get my skates on!

Burnley keeper Brian Jensen
Burnley keeper Jensen hasn't kept a clean sheet since October

One of the major tasks in international week is to discover how many players have been involved in games before your next domestic match so I was keen to see how the Arsenal and Burnley boys got on and if they've all reported back OK ahead of their clash at the Emirates.

That led to me to the work for Saturday's game. Though studying Brian Jensen's current stats wasn't as interesting as watching international action, it reminded me of the job in hand. The game at Arsenal will be as important for Burnley fans as any World Cup match.

They now need to pull off shock away wins to stay up, but Jensen hasn't kept a clean sheet since October and they've lost their last eight away league games so that doesn't augur well.

Of course Arsenal have had 12 players away on international duty and they may tire as the game goes on.

They also lost at Manchester City and Sunderland after international breaks this season but last week I saw a steely resolve in their eyes after the terrible injury to Aaron Ramsey. They want the title for him and they are very much in the reckoning again.

If Arsenal can win the Premier League it could prove to be a year for the underdogs and that will suit England.

On the evidence of this week, we are way off the pace being set by Brazil and Spain.


Jonathan Pearce will commentate on Arsenal v Burnley for Match of the Day on Saturday. The programme will be broadcast on BBC One and online at 2230 GMT and repeated on BBC One and online at 0755 GMT on Sunday.



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see also
Owen ruled out for rest of season
05 Mar 10 |  Man Utd
South Africa ready for Cup - Fifa
02 Mar 10 |  World Cup 2010
England 3-1 Egypt
03 Mar 10 |  Football
New-look Brazil go back to basics
03 Mar 10 |  World Cup 2010
World Cup boot camps
24 Feb 10 |  World Cup 2010
World Cup scouting: left-backs
02 Mar 10 |  World Cup 2010
Guide to the teams at South Africa 2010
05 Dec 09 |  World Cup 2010
Chronological World Cup fixtures
05 Dec 09 |  Football
Moore recalled
26 Feb 10 |  Football


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