The 2010 FIFA World Cup finals draw has just been made in South Africa and as ever it makes for interesting reading.
Starting with England first; we were drawn in Group C and got quite lucky. The opening match on June 12th against the USA is no gimmie, considering their exploits in the Confederations Cup over the summer, but ties against Algeria and Slovenia were about as good as we could have been hoped for from pots three and four.
The Three Lions have never played the former French colony, who booked their place at the finals by winning a play-off in the neutral venue of the Sudan against Egypt after both teams finished with identical records in African Qualifying Group C. With a 100% record over Slovenia, albeit having played them only once in the 2-1 friendly win at Wembley in September, and seven wins out of nine against the United States we do have reason to be confident about safe passage to the knockout stages. My picks to progress would be the Americans, with England winning the group.
The same cannot be said for Carlos Queiroz’s Portugal. Drawn alongside Brazil, the Ivory Coast and an unknown quantity that is North Korea in Group G, the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Deco and Simão Sabrosa may struggle to negotiate their way into the last 16. The absence of a top quality centre forward may prove costly as the Portuguese defence will have to contend with two of the best in Luís Fabiano and Didier Drogba in opposition ranks. Dealing with the pace of Nilmar, scorer against England in Qatar last month, will also prove troublesome.
Naturally this is all injury permitting, but another concern for England’s conquerors in the 2006 quarter final shootout is the absence of defensive fullbacks. José Bosingwa loves to get forward for both club and country, something that Brazil can exploit. The Elephants are not just a one man team either with Emmanuel Eboué, Kolo Touré and Salomon Kalou playing alongside Drogba in the Premier League, Yaya Touré and Didier Zokora plying their trade in La Liga and a whole host of others in the Dutch, French and German top flights. I’m going for the Ivoirians and Brazilians to advance here.
Next what about the hosts South Africa? The standards of excellence Nelson Mandela hopes from his fellow countrymen may be a bridge too far in Group A against France, Mexico and Uruguay. Benni McCarthy’s return to the national fold is timely with returning coach Carlos Alberto Parreira now in charge for his second spell, but even with home advantage I am not optimistic for Bafana Bafana. There just isn’t enough quality about them for progression past the group stage to be viable, so finishing third would be an achievement.
Yes, the French struggled in qualifying and only made their way to the finals in controversial circumstances, but with the influential Franck Ribéry to return this will be the last hurrah for an aging squad much like our own. Mexico have a fantastic coach in Javier Aguirre who did an outstanding job at both Osasuna and Atletico Madrid and I am hopeful they will make it to the knockout stages.
Uruguay have a number of great individual players, especially going forward, but their defence may be a problem. Diego Forlán, though a flop at Manchester United, has been a revelation in Spain both for Villarreal and Atletico and Luis Suárez of Ajax has been linked with moves to a top European league, reflecting his outstanding form. Service to these frontmen will be crucial if the first world cup winners are to go forward though my picks are France and Mexico.
Argentina, drawn in Group B, will face Nigeria, South Korea and 2004 European champions Greece. This is a tough one to call as the Diego Maradona factor is a wildcard. With a José Pekerman or Alfio Basile in charge you would expect them to qualify as group winners. Their success will hinge on exploiting the weaknesses of their opponents. Argentina will need to outclass the Nigerian central midfield and test their defence and the same with the Koreans.
The Greeks have based their success on defensive displays but have a real partnership in Fanis Gekas and Angelos Charisteas up front. I am inclined to say getting a goalless draw against them is not a bad result, but the one area where there might be some joy for Maradona’s men is in wide areas. Ángel Di Maria has impressed in Europa League displays for Benfica, but there is a wealth of talented width at their disposal with Maxi and Lionel Messi in Spain and the up and coming left-sided player Jesús Dátolo at Napoli. Despite my reservations about the man in charge, I’m going to back Argentina to make it, but the other place in the knockout stages is wide open.
Germany, for me, has the most difficult group. Games against Australia, Serbia and Ghana await the three time world champions. Anything could happen in Group D, but of the four I think Australia are least likely to qualify. The lack of a striker will hurt their chances, with the current best options being Celtic’s Scott McDonald who has failed to net in fifteen appearances for the Socceroos or AZ Alkmaar’s Bret Holman with a solitary goal to his name in twenty-nine.
I really fancy Serbia to get far in this competition; the majority of the squad are playing in Europe’s top leagues now and dealing with Nikola Žigić’s height will be a stern test for even the top defenders. They have good players in every position and I expect them to do better than their last outing in 2006 when they finished bottom of their group with no points. Ghana have a solid midfield with Sulley Muntari, Michael Essien and Stephen Appiah, who is hoping to put his injury nightmare behind him at Bologna. Playing one up front suits them and they have a great chance of making the last 16.
Returning to the Germans I feel they are weaker than before and there are question marks over the strength and depth of their squad. I fear for them if Miroslav Klose or Lukas Podolski gets injured and their central defence is an issue. This seems like a group of death, but if pushed I’d pick two from those three to progress.
Group E sees Holland up against Denmark, Japan and Cameroon. I see no problems for the Dutch negotiating their way to the knockout stages. Even if the opposition scores against them, none of these sides will be able to contend with the rich attack the clockwork orange has at its disposal. It’s more a question of who joins them in advancing; again its one from two. The Japanese may well have been the first nation besides the hosts to qualify but their defence won’t be able to contain Samuel Eto’o or pick up Jon Dahl Tomasson when he drops deep and I hope he breaks Nielsen’s goalscoring record! I’d have to toss a coin to determine whether the European or African nation progresses. That may well hinge on their match against one another.
Reigning world champions Italy have an easy draw in Group F, pitting them against Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia. I can quite easily foresee Marcelo Lippi’s side qualifying with maximum points and the Kiwis finishing rock bottom with nothing. My heart says Slovakia to finish second but my head says Paraguay. The South Americans have the advantage of major tournament experience over the first time qualifiers, but the Slovaks have a strong midfield, with Marek Hamšík the pick of bunch for his guile and creativity.
Lastly Euro 2008 winners Spain are in Group H alongside Chile, Honduras and Switzerland. On paper this should be no problem for Vicente Del Bosque as I just can’t see their opponents being able to contend with Fernando Torres and David Villa. The playmaking of Xavi and Andrés Iniestia is a further headache for the other three teams so I expect them to qualify as group winners. Based on experience alone I would go with the Swiss to complete the last 16 line-up. Honduras has one or two players, the likes of Wilson Palacios and David Suazo of Internazionale that catch the eye but that won’t be enough. As for Chile they have Matias Fernández, South American footballer of the year in 2006, to provide flair and Roma midfield stalwart David Pizarro. Again two quality players don’t make a team and I doubt that either side will be able to keep the Swiss strike force out.