If the stream of car flags hasn’t tipped you off yet, it’s World Cup time again, so get ready for some late night honking. Yep, one of the world’s greatest sporting events is only days away, but fear not, you don’t need to be a nationalist, psycho or diehard soccer fan to enjoy the tournament. You just need to catch up on a few basics and accept that pretty much anything can happen. Here is a preview of each World Cup group.
Group A: France, Mexico, South Africa, Uruguay
After the ‘hand of Gaul’ knocked Ireland out of the World Cup, France was uncharacteristically painted as a villain. More troubling, however, is the criticism of coach Raymond Domenech and the French Football Federation for, among other things, the exclusion of Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema, the lack of “real French players” (according to certain right-wing politicians) and the use of an unnecessarily ritzy hotel for the team’s training base. At his players’ urging, Domenech has played a more attacking 4-3-3 formation, however, last week’s 1-0 loss to China was not very convincing. Still, you can’t count France out, even if Group A could prove difficult for Les Bleus. Mexico and Uruguay don’t often strike fear in the hearts of football fans, but either could cause serious damage if taken lightly. Mexico, in particular, is perennially underrated and coming off a string of strong performances against European nations. El Tri may prove to be a dark horse.
Group B: Argentina, Greece, Nigeria, South Korea
Clearly, Argentina is the biggie here, but given their struggle to qualify (they finished fourth) and Diego Maradona’s decision to leave behind the eternally classy Javier Zanetti and the incredible dickhead Esteban Cambiasso (he just has one of those faces), there are questions surrounding the Argentineans. Still, if any nation can overcome wonky team selections and tactics, it’s Argentina. With Leo Messi, Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, and Javier Mascherano (among others), they have one of the deadliest attacks in the world. Greece, South Korea and Nigeria all have enough to put the Argies to the test, though it would be a massive upset if La Albiceleste did not progress. The battle for second place, however, should be hard fought, and like other African teams, the setting may give Nigeria that extra edge.
Group C: Algeria, England, Slovenia, USA
The England team that failed to qualify for the Euro 2008 was criticized for being tactically shit and seriously overrated. It’ll be hard to say either this time. New coach Fabio Capello has whipped the team into shape, and in striker Wayne Rooney the English have possibly the hardest working “superstar” in the world. There are, however, some problems. Captain Rio Ferdinand is out with an injury, and the fuss over serial philanderer John Terry may be a bit of a distraction. The litmus test for this group will be when the English play the plucky Americans, who are hoping to improve on a solid Confederation Cup performance. Should the US get a result against England, anything can happen (even if Algeria is missing crafty midfielder Mourad Meghni). If the Yanks lose though, expect smooth sailing for the English.
Group D: Australia, Germany, Ghana, Serbia
Germany are obviously the favorites, but if they let their guard down at all in this group, they will suffer for it. They won’t have Chelsea man Michael Ballack, but the Germans still have the depth to contend for the cup, with players like Miroslav Klose, Philip Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Playing on African soil, the ever-improving Ghana could be a good pick for second place, but an injury to the tireless Michael Essien has made things more difficult for them, particularly since Australia and Serbia are far from being pushovers. In fact, Serbia finished first in a qualification group that included France and Romania, and has a very solid back line in defenders Nemanja Vidic, Neven Subotic and Branislav Ivanovic. Basically, every single point will count in this group, and anyone can progress.
Group E: Cameroon, Denmark, Netherlands, Japan
Another difficult group to predict, the in-form Netherlands are certainly favorites, but an injury to uber-influential Arjen Robben (who is only 26 but looks like a 45-year old accountant) has definitely put a dent in their confidence going in. They can, however, still count on Wesley Schneider, Robin van Persie and Mark van Bommel, a lineup that is nothing to sneeze at. Denmark, meanwhile, looks very strong coming in (they finished first in qualifications ahead of Portugal and Sweden), with 18-year old wunderkind Christian Eriksen the creative sparkplug to watch. As always though, any group with an African team has to deal with the home continent x-factor. Cameroon, led by the defensive hard work of Marseilles midfielder Stephane Mbia, may prove to be a major stumbling block.
Group F: Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovakia
Easy for Italy, right? Not quite. Coach Marcello Lippi’s team is heavy on players who are passed it (Cannavaro, Zambrotta, Gattuso), injured (Camoranesi, Pirlo) or just plain terrible (Pepe, Iaquinta), all of which is made worse by the exclusion of the bat shit crazy but insanely talented duo of Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli. Gli Azzurri tend to thrive when no one expects them to, but it’s hard to see much success in what may be the weakest Italy team in three decades. This group, suffice to say, is wide open. Paraguay (inspired by striker Lucas Barrios) has already beaten Brazil and Argentina this year, while New Zealand gave Italy a game last year (they ended up losing 4-3). Slovakia, meanwhile, is led by Napoli hero Marek Hamsik, who will certainly be out for Italian blood.
Group G: Brazil, Ivory Coast, North Korea, Portugal
After Ronaldinho’s strong season for A.C. Milan, many were surprised to see him (and teammate Pato) left off this edition of the Selecao. Considering what Dinho can bring, even off the bench, it’s a bit baffling (especially with Julio Baptista included instead), but it’s hard to argue with coach Dunga, who’s crafted a supremely balanced Brazil team that is – gasp – defensively strong first and foremost and still capable of scoring a shitload of goals. Ivory Coast could have proven to be a challenger, but Didier Drogba’s injury puts a serious dent in their aspirations. The Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal then, who struggled mightily in qualification, should be the main challenger for the second spot. As for North Korea, it can be fun guessing which players will try to defect.
Group H: Chile, Honduras, Spain, Switzerland
On paper, Spain should be able to progress from this group playing with 9 men. However, Liverpool striker Fernando Torres, Arsenal superman Cesc Fabregas and Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta all missed the end of their respective club seasons, and may not be healthy for the group stage. The Spanish team is quite deep, but losing three players of that caliber would make things difficult for just about any nation. That said, it would be a rather massive upset to see Honduras or Chile beating Spain, particularly since Chile has their own injury trouble, with dangerous striker Humberto Suazo a doubt. The compact Swiss team then may prove to be their strongest opponents, after all, they have the distinction of being the only team knocked out of the 2006 world cup without allowing a goal (they lost on penalties).
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