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Group C might be toughest in World Cup

| Sunday, May 14, 2006

If you're looking for the toughest group in the World Cup, look no further than Group C.

Most groups have one title contender. This division has two -- Argentina and the Netherlands -- and their final group match on June 21 in Frankfurt may be the most anticipated of the first round.

Also in the group is Serbia-Montenegro, which finished ahead of Spain in European qualifying. Then, there's the Ivory Coast, making its debut in the World Cup after qualifying at the expense of Cameroon, arguably Africa's strongest team.

Two-time champion Argentina has the support of at least one expert, Lothar Matthaeus, the captain of West Germany's 1990 World Cup champions.

"I think Brazil has defensive problems to sort out, and my tip to win the World Cup is Argentina," Matthaeus said.

Argentina is deep and talented everywhere.

If he recovers quickly from a right thigh injury, FC Barcelona's 18-year-old midfielder Lionel Messi -- often compared to Diego Maradona -- is sure to be a star. He will line up with other attacking talents, such as Hernan Crespo, Carlos Tevez, Javier Saviola and Juan Roman Riquelme.

Argentina's defense has been hurt by injuries but, if healthy, is led by Juan Pablo Sorin, Roberto Ayala, Walter Samuel, Javier Zanetti and Gabriel Heinze.

"We have a few problems, but we'll overcome them," Ayala said. "I think we're going to play very well."

The South Americans have something to prove. They were ignominiously ousted from the group stage in the 2002 World Cup and took a painful 4-1 loss against Brazil in last year's Confederations Cup final.

Argentina coach Jose Pekerman is also under pressure to pick 17-year-old Sergio "Kun" Aguero, a compact, low-slung forward being compared to Romario, the star of Brazil's 1994 World Cup winner.

Messi wants Aguero on the team. The two played together last year when Argentina won the World Youth Championship.

"Sergio is a great player," Messi said. "He's powerful, he can shake off opponents, he's quick, strong, scores goals and is a team player. With him alongside me, I feel ready for anything."

The Dutch team is always an enigma, saddled with the tag of the best nation never to win the World Cup.

The Dutch have dazzling technical ability and self-confidence, but they usually fail to play well as a team. Netherlands coach Marco van Basten seems to have changed that impression since taking over for Dick Advocaat following the 2004 European Championship.

They were unbeaten in European qualifying -- 10 wins and two draws -- and twice beat the No. 2-ranked Czech Republic.

Manchester United's Edwin van der Sar is the uncontested starting goalkeeper. The anchor at midfield is Phillip Cocu, and the target man up front is Ruud van Nistelrooy. He's been benched on and off this season in England for Manchester United and will be eager to prove himself.

Van Basten has worked hard to create team spirit and has left veteran midfielder Clarence Seedorf off the team. Instead, he's going with young players Dirk Kuyt and Hedwiges Maduro.

"If you start out with a tough group, you immediately know what you are worth," Van Basten said. "We know it isn't going to be an easy job."

Serbia-Montenegro could be a spoiler, and coach Ilija Petkovic doesn't lack confidence. The country qualified seven times for the World Cup as Yugoslavia, and this will be the first as Serbia-Montenegro.

"If we play the way we did in qualification, we can stay unbeaten against the Netherlands and Argentina," Petkovic said. "I know that we would have to play our best. But the favorites sometimes freeze in their opening games at the World Cups, and that is our chance. We are capable of upsetting any team in the world."

Relying on defense, the club had seven shutouts in qualifying and pushed Spain to second in the group. The defense will be led by Nemanja Vidic, with the attack focused on Mateja Kezman.

Also up front is 6-foot-8 Nikola Zigic of Red Star Belgrade.

"We are known for our attacking style of play, but if we get the results with a strong defense," Petkovic said, "I won't change anything."

No one holds much hope for Ivory Coast, although the west Africans are looking to surprise opponents like Senegal did in 2002, reaching the quarterfinals.

Ivory Coast brings a handful of high-profile players to its first World Cup, led by two who play in the English Premier League: Chelsea striker Didier Drogba and Arsenal defender Kolo Toure.

The other key scorer is Aruna Dindane, who plays for French club Lens.

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