Saturday, December 05, 2009

World Cup Draw 2010

The dust has finally settled on FIFA's World Cup 2010 draw and we now know which teams will play in which groups during the First Round of next year's competition. And it was quite some draw – all of the groups had an interesting angle or a talking point to ignite the excitement and anticipation.

Let's explore that fevered expectancy now as we take a whistle-stop review of the eight groups that will demand our undivided attention in 2010...

Group A
South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay, France

This has all the makings of a classic World Cup group – in fact it has a very familiar look to it. Why? Because three of the four teams in this group were in England's First Round group in 1966. On that occasion, Uruguay came a close second to England with Mexico finishing third and France fourth.

It's anyone's guess how they'll finish in 2010 because essentially these are four teams whose star has fallen in recent times. South Africa have failed to qualify for next year's African Cup of Nations and can only realistically hope that home support will spur them onto greatness next year. Mexico were hampered by Sven's hapless leadership and ignorance of the many issues that complicate the game there. Uruguay were inconsistent and very average during qualification and France laboured for most of their campaign as Raymond Domenech struggled to organise his talented squad into a genuine force to be reckoned with.

Group A is therefore very open which makes it a great one to keep an eye on in the First Round. For my money, though, only France and Mexico have the players, the potential and the pedigree to qualify. For the sake of the home fans, however, we hope South Africa can score some goals and maybe win a game so they have something to cheer about.

Group B
Argentina, Nigeria, South Korea, Greece Here's another group that the World Cup aficionados amongst you will think looks familiar. Back in 1994, Argentina, Nigeria and Greece faced each other in what turned out to be a very close Group D (along with Bulgaria) that had more than its fair share of surprises. Chief amongst these was Argentina's third-placed finish which allowed them to scrape through to Round Two where they were knocked out 3-2 at the hands of Romania anyway.

Back then, Greece finished bottom of the group but this time around they should be good enough to at least finish third. The only team that beat them in qualifying was Switzerland and largely thanks to Bayer Leverkusen striker Theofanis Gekas, scoring goals wasn't a problem either.

South Korea may have problems where that's concerned though, but a good defence will be their key trump card. Nigeria have consistency issues but should be good enough to avoid bottom spot too, while Argentina... well where do you start with Argentina?

Some say Maradona won't be in charge by the time the Finals start, but we say he will and indeed should be, if only for the entertainment value he brings to an event like this. As for his management of the Argentinean national team, his tactical shortcomings could bring about a similar group placing to the one they had in 1994. Luckily the two-month ban he's currently enduring for a post-match potty-mouthed tirade will give him some time to bone up on the finer points of football coaching.

Group C
England, USA, Algeria, Slovenia
From an England fan's perspective, this is a great draw as it features only one team that they'd have rather avoided (i.e. the United States) thereby making the group entirely winnable. It's also an interesting group as all three opponents are rarely encountered (indeed England have never played Algeria before under any circumstances) just to add an element of the unknown to the proceedings.

The English press are today virtually unanimous in their agreement that the draw was a good one for Fabio Capello's team, The Sun (as usual) expressing their views in their predictably silly way (see right). They will, however, have to exercise some caution over Slovenia, Algeria and the US as all three teams have the ability to fight tooth and nail to great effect.

Algeria will be regarded as the weak link, but the way they dealt with a very talented Egyptian side in the African qualifiers will give something for Rooney and Co. to think about. Slovenia earned great credit for containing Guus Hiddink's Russia in the European play-offs (mind you, they're not so hot away from home) and the US will long dine out on being the team that ended Spain's record-equalling run of 35 games unbeaten in the Confederations Cup this year.

As for England themselves, they've proved that under Capello they're perfectly capable of beating all but the very best teams in the world – a fact that's led many people to start calculating potential opponents in later rounds. As long as they treat their Group C opponents with the respect they deserve, they should progress easily into the knockout stages.

Group D
Germany, Australia, Serbia, Ghana
As soon as anyone sees Germany in a group, they automatically place them as one of the favourites to progress, but many betting companies across the UK think they're less likely to win the competition outright than Argentina. That's largely on the back of Germany's placement in a tricky group against Australia and Ghana, two countries that represent the best their respective continents can offer. Serbia topped France's group in European qualifying, so they'll hardly be a pushover either.

Australia have faced German opposition in the World Cup before, the Western half of the country playing the Socceroos in 1974, but they've come on leaps and bounds (sorry) since then in no uncertain terms. Pim Verbeek's team cruised through their final qualifying group unbeaten, even against fellow Asian giants Japan, so they'll have arguably their strongest team to date when they arrive in South Africa next year.

Ghana benefitted from an easy group at the end of their qualifying campaign, but didn't disappoint by winning their first four games to make it through at a canter. Serbia were impressive in topping Europe's Group 7 but some eyebrows might be raised by their inability to beat France in both meetings. Given France's stumbling qualification, that may cause some to question Serbia's high standing.

And then there's Germany, of course. Dropping only four points from a possible 30, they were clinically efficient as ever and even beat Russia home and away. With names like Klose, Ballack and Podolski all showing their goalscoring prowess, they'll undoubtedly have top billing in this group and that's without taking their resolute defence into consideration. Something tells us the bookies of Britain have missed a trick with their prices for Germany to win the cup, but we're not going to tell them – not until we've placed our own bet at least...

Group E
Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, Cameroon
A great group, this – full of interest and excitement. The Dutch were the first to qualify from Europe, albeit in an easy group, but don't let that take anything away from their achievements. Their fast, effective, attacking style of play and their brilliant defence justifiably makes them the favourites to win this group, and that really leaves only the runners-up spot to be decided.

As we've already mentioned in an earlier article, Denmark rarely fail to reach the knockout stages once they've actually done the qualifying bit. Finishing top of a tough group that included Portugal and Sweden, they have what it takes to do so again but they'll be up against it when they enter arguably their most important match in South Africa against Cameroon.

Perpetually one of the greatest threats from Africa, Cameroon (lead ably led by former Lyon and Rangers coach Paul Le Guen) finally settled down after a poor start to qualify with a flourish. No-one, not even the Dutch, will dismiss their chances of going through to the Second Round – not while players like Samuel Eto'o, Geremi and Rigobert Song remain in their ranks.

Japan, however, look set for an uncomfortable ride in the Finals. Still one of the big teams from the Asian continent, they dropped far too many points in qualification to be taken too seriously and will do well to take a point off anybody in their three games next year.

Group F
Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovakia
Whichever way you look at it, this looks like an absolute shoe-in for Italy. Having qualified convincingly ahead of Ireland in European Group 8, they now have little to worry them before they make their inevitable passage through to the knockout stages in South Africa.

Paraguay might be their biggest challengers in 2010, but their flying start to qualifying went belly-up at the mid-way stage, after which their form was rather inconsistent. In the end they were caught by Chile in the group table and had to make do with third place, and even then you got the feeling they only got that thanks to Argentina's dilly-dallying throughout the contest.

Slovakia are considered by some to be the dark horses of this group and indeed the entire World Cup next year, but they dropped ten points in qualifying (including two defeats against Slovenia) and won't have gained everyone's admiration by the time the Finals begin in earnest.

As for the All Whites of New Zealand, they need to concentrate on their defence – undoubtedly their greatest asset – if they're to gain even a single point in this group. With little in attack to trouble even a semi-awake Slovakian or Paraguayan side, damage limitation will be the order of the day for Ricki Herbert and his brave band of men. It'll be great to see them though, that's for sure.

Group G
Brazil, North Korea, Ivory Coast, Portugal
The 'Group of Death', as many have already labelled it, but paradoxically Brazil should progress from it without too much trouble as long as they show the quality football and professionalism they've displayed throughout qualifying and beyond.

Brazil aside, the deathly overtones will be all too apparent for the other three teams in the group, particularly North Korea who made it through to South Africa largely on the back of their ultra-defensive style of play. They'll face an altogether sterner test than the likes of Iran and Saudi Arabia here, but as they proved in 1966 there's always room for an upset or two if the opposition aren't 100% focused on the job.

Portugal, as many will recall, almost didn't make it through qualifying but ironically it was two Brazilians who chipped in to save the day for Carlos Queiroz. Sporting Lisbon's Liédson was drafted in to good effect when Portugal needed goals the most and Chelsea's Deco was often the engine of the team supplying him with goalscoring opportunities as Portugal ground out the 19 points they needed to go through.

They did need a play-off to reach South Africa, however, and that alone will give heart to the likes of Ivory Coast who, as arguably the number 1 team in Africa, could stop them progressing from Group G. Undoubtedly their key strength is in attack, and when you've got someone like Didier Drogba scoring goals for fun, it's hard not to see why.

He topped the goalscoring charts in African qualifying and with backup from Barcelona's Yaya Toure and Marseille's Bakari Koné, The Elephants will be sure to make the World Cup altogether more exciting and entertaining when the action starts next June.

Group H

Spain, Switzerland, Honduras, Chile
As co-favourites, there were few permutations that would have left Spain unsure of their chances at the Finals next year, and the draw they got didn't disappoint.

They'll face a reunion with Honduras, the team that tripped up Spain in a 1-1 draw during the 1982 World Cup, but few will expect history to repeat itself in 2010. Though exciting and difficult to beat at home during qualifying, Honduras were poor on their travels and may end up propping up Group H by the time matters draw to a close on June 25th next year.

Chile finished second only to Brazil in South American qualifying – an impressive feat, but on closer inspection much of their success can be put down to the points gained by beating the weaker teams in the group. Yes, they won 1-0 against Argentina and 2-0 against Paraguay, but in general they found the big guns difficult to handle – something that Spain will find all too pleasing to know.

Finally there's Switzerland, a team that topped its qualifying group by being efficient at the expense of being exciting against the likes of Greece, Latvia and Luxembourg – the last of which actually beat the Swiss 2-1 along the way, curiously. They have some decent players such as Philippe Senderos, Alexander Frei, Hakan Yakin and Blaise N'Kufo, and with Ottmar Hitzfeld at the helm, they stand a very good chance indeed of reaching Round Two.

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