Group E contains Japan, Cameroon, Netherlands and Denmark and should be a easy path to the knockout stages for Holland. Cameroon and Denmark will battle for second place and I expect Cameroon to edge Denmark out.
A look at Group E Teams
Manager: Bert van Marwijk
Key player: Mark van Bommel
Best: Runners-up (1974, 1978)
World ranking: 3
The Netherlands were the first European side to qualify for South Africa, having won all eight of their games in Group Nine, conceding only twice in the process. A 2-1 away win in Iceland with goals from Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel ultimately confirmed their place at the finals.
The Dutch have often been troubled by a lack of unity within their squad, which has on more than one occasion seemingly scuppered their chances of challenging at major tournaments. However, their run to the last eight at Euro 2008 and the qualification campaign for 2010 has demonstrated, when the whole squad pulls in the same direction they are as capable as any side.
They have plenty to offer in attack through Arsenal’s Robin van Persie, Bayern Munich’s Arjen Robben and midfield craft in Robben’s club teammate van Bommel and Real Madrid’s Rafael van der Vaart. It is strange that a side which only conceded twice in qualifying should have question marks over its defence but many see this as Holland’s Achilles heel, a problem that has been exacerbated by the inability to unearth a genuine replacement for the retired Edwin van der Sar in goal.
Manager: Morten Olsen
Key player: Christian Poulsen
Best: Quarter-finals (1998)
World ranking: 26
In arguably the hardest European qualifying group Denmark came through in first place, beating an admittedly struggling Portugal side into second (having beaten them home and away) and consigning Scandinavian rivals Sweden to a summer on the beach. It was a 1-0 win over the latter in Copenhagen that ultimately sealed their place at their first major tournament since the 2004 European Championship.
After failing to qualify for the 2006 World Cup coach Morten Olsen considered resigning but his decision to remain at the helm has been rewarded. They do not have strength in depth but possess a handful of players with quality and experience such as ever-improving Arsenal striker Nicklas Bendtner, Juventus midfielder Christian Poulsen and former Newcastle forward Jon Dahl Tomasson, now at Feyenoord. Not to be underestimated.
Manager: Takeshi Okada
Key player: Shunsuke Nakamura
Best: Round two (2002)
World ranking: 43
Takeshi Okada’s Japan became the first team to book their place in South Africa after earning a hard-fought 1-0 victory against Uzbekistan in Tashkent. Shunji Okazaki grabbed the only goal of the game after nine minutes to book a fourth successive finals berth. They finished second in their Asian qualifying group, having lost their final game to eventual group-winners Australia, but this should not take away from the ease of their progression.
Japan have shown signs of steady improvement over the four successive World Cup tournaments in which they have participated. As joint hosts in 2002 they reached the second round before losing to eventual third-place finishers Turkey, but they will do well to achieve such a feat again. Much rests on the shoulders of ex-Celtic midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura, now with Espanyol, to provide the spark.
Manager: Paul Le Guen
Key player: Samuel Eto’o
Best: Quarter-finals (1990)
World ranking: 11
Cameroon came close to missing out on South Africa. The Indomitable Lions avoided drama on the last day of qualification as their 2-0 win in Morocco rendered Gabon’s result in Togo meaningless. Goals from Achille Webo and Samuel Eto’o sent the team to the World Cup for the sixth time – a new African record. Cameroon were bottom of their group after two games, before former Rangers boss Paul Le Guen took over as manager from Otto Pfister.
Regardless of their qualification difficulties, Cameroon possess enough talent and experience to worry the best sides in the tournament. In Inter Milan’s Samuel Eto’o they possess a truly world-class striker, and Sebastien Bassong of Tottenham and Arsenal’s Alexandre Song provide quality and strength in defence and midfield respectively. Realistically the side should be aiming to reach the first knockout stage of the competition at least.