Sat 12 June, 19.30, Rustenburg
Publicly, the England camp is reading little into the 4-2 defeat of an under-strength United States by the Czech Republic on Tuesday evening. Privately, they have been mildly encouraged.
Close observers of the US national team have been worried for some time about whether defender Oguchi Onyewu would be fit for South Africa after seven months out with damage to knee ligaments, and his performance against a side that did not even qualify for the finals pretty much confirmed it. The Milan squad player, who had a spell with Newcastle United in 2007 and is universally known as "Gooch" in his home country, was static in a defeat which will give Capello and Co grounds to believe that if they play Peter Crouch with Wayne Rooney in Rustenburg on 12 June, then there is an aerial weakness there to be exploited.
Coach Bob Bradley is carrying on regardless, confident that the US's performance in reaching the final of the Confederations Cup last year was a harbinger of what is to follow and there has certainly been some good old American razzmatazz to speed his men on their way in the past few days. After the defeat by the Czechs, Bradley's final squad of 23 lined up on a field and was officially announced man-by-man in a live TV broadcast, the camera panning from player to player as ESPN broadcaster Bob Ley reeled off the names. The Czech match was helpfully staged near their headquarters at Bristol, Connecticut. Mercifully, the seven who missed the cut had been told and had slipped away, avoiding the cheesy ceremony descending into the realms of a reality TV show.
"We are confident that this is a group of players that will work together and be committed to doing whatever it takes to be successful," Bradley said. "We feel the roster has a good balance of players who have been a part of previous World Cups, those who have gained great experience in qualifying and Confederations Cup and some newer faces that have proved they belong."
Next up is an engagement at the White House tomorrow before another friendly in Philadelphia against Turkey – and then the flight to South Africa. There has been little dispute in the US this week about Bradley's choice of players, with the omission of the Hawaiian striker Brian Ching perhaps the one surprise – though he, on his own admission, has not been fully fit.
There is a general mood of confidence that Stuart Holden, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Ricardo Clark have the power to send the side beyond Group C – perhaps the kindest draw the US have ever experienced at a World Cup. On paper, they remain comfortably England's toughest group opposition. They are also a youthful side: the probable starting XI to face England will have an average age of 26, maybe four years younger than Capello's men. But the defeat to the Czechs reinforces the long-held notion that the US are not good at winning the big games – and do lack a playmaker.
This is the tournament when they will be looking to demonstrate that they can rid themselves of a habit of leaking bad goals and show the winning mentality that managers are so fond of talking about. If they do progress as runners-up to England, as the form book suggests, they will probably face Germany in the round of 16. The evidence of this week suggests they have their work cut out.
Algeria: Saadane lacks quality of old
Fri 18 June, 19.30, Cape Town
coach rabah Saadane always felt the fitness of his players would be a problem and so it has come to pass. Saadane was tearful and had to stop to compose himself last week when he revealed that his prime creative asset, the Lazio midfielder Mourad Meghni, would be ruled out of the finals with a knee injury. Meghni is not the only individual to have caused the remarkable coach – now in his fifth stint at the national helm and the man who last took his nation to the finals in 1986 – some grief. Rangers' Madjid Bougherra, Antar Yahia, Carl Medjani and Hassan Yebda, are all nursing knocks and will miss a warm-up match against the Republic of Ireland in Dublin tonight.
The side can't hold a candle to Saadane's class of '82 and '86, which included the legendary Lakhdar Beloumi, but those who have observed preparations in the Swiss resort of Crans-Montana have certainly seen spirit – which is to be expected in a squad which came through the fire and tempest of last year's qualifiers and a play-off against bitter rivals Egypt. Some of them were left nursing cuts after Egyptian fans stoned the windows of their team coach in Cairo.
A side which was beaten 3-0 by the minnows of Malawi in an embarrassing 3-5-2 formation, after qualifying for the finals, and was thumped 4-0 by Egypt in the African Nations Cup semi-finals are a cause for alarm to their coach, whose preparations included the declaration that "the principal objective is to not be ridiculous, to perform honourably and to play football at a high level. We're going to do our maximum to get to the second round but it's going to depend on a lot of parameters."
Les Fennecs, "The Desert Foxes", England's second opponents, certainly look the weakest of the group opposition, with so many of the squad having played too little football for overseas clubs in recent months, but Saadane is seeking imaginative solutions. The Algerian federation's preparations have included funding a trip to a fitness clinic in Qatar for four players.
The 63-year-old's deference for "Mr Capello" seems to know no bounds but he has also been employing his own equivalent of ProZone to track England, as well as poring over videos and data in Switzerland over the last few days. "We have consulted Algerian specialists outside the country who have sophisticated software to produce summaries about the team's strengths and weaknesses," Saadane said.
The players to watch tonight – Algeria's match in Dublin is screened on Sky Sports 1 – is Wolfsburg's Karim Ziani, who has played in all of the qualifiers and is arguably the star of the team despite an indifferent season in the Bundesliga after moving from Marseilles. The small right-winger is clever, if sometimes over elaborate, and much of the play is built around him. Siena's Abdelkader Ghezzal is a player Saadane said this week he is looking to for goals, though the France-born striker's key goal against Egypt in the qualifiers has been an exception to the rule. England's back four ought not to be losing sleep.
Slovenia: Kek puts faith in the system
Wed 23 June, 15.00, Port Elizabeth
it's been a slightly bumpy ride since Slovenia became the smallest country to qualify for two World Cup finals. A row over bonuses coloured the aftermath of qualification against Russia in a tense play-off. The Slovenian FA have now settled the very public dispute with manager Mataz Kek's players but journeys to World Cup finals have brought rows before. The striker Zlato Zahovic was sent home after arguing with manager Srecko Katanec in the dressing room after Slovenia's defeat by Spain in 2002.
Kek, a former Slovenia Under-16 coach, seems to have a more disciplined set-up than last time, though. The 4-4-2 system that took them through qualifying will remain intact in South Africa and few starting XIs are more assured than this one: Kek has not deviated it from it in five successive competitive matches and soundings from the Slovenian camp this week suggest it is likely that the same personnel will be lining up to face Algeria in Polokwane on 12 June.
Star names there may not be but everyone knows the system. Kek knows he will look to Zlatko Dedic, a national hero after scoring the critical goal against Russia, to do the running for his strike partner Milivoje Novakovic, a less mobile striker but a potentially deadly one. There's only one winner in Slovenia's club v country rows: Novakovic was stripped of the captaincy at his German club, Cologne, when he refused to return immediately after Slovenia had qualified. The 6ft 4in striker, who has scored four times in 37 internationals, has not trained this week due to a groin problem but he is expected to be in action at the club's training base in Brunico, Italy, by the weekend.
Kek, one of the most understated managers in the finals, places defensive organisation above all – they conceded only four goals in qualifying. He also said yesterday that his side's fine display in the 2-1 friendly defeat at Wembley last September "meant a great deal for our self-confidence". But more relevant to Fabio Capello were Kek's observations at Wembley after England's win – a game in which Slovenia should have taken greater advantage of Glen Johnson's vulnerabilities. "We watched videos of England playing and we saw space behind Johnson," Kek said that day, reflecting on how winger Nejc Pecnik had beaten the Liverpool player and crossed for Zlatan Ljubijankic to score. Kek was also impressed at Wembley by Jermain Defoe, whose role in South Africa might be limited. Slovenia believe they have reason to hope.