Group A: This is a strong group actually, with everyone but the host nation considered a viable 2nd round candidate. I think France will top it, despite their troubles qualifying (needing a little help from Henry’s “Hand of Gaul”). This is a team that is still transitioning some with old-guard strikers like Anelka and Henry, while younger guys like Yonan Gourcuff and all-action Franck Ribery patrol the midfield. France of course performed quite well in WC 2006, not as well in Euro 2008. But they should be able to see off threats from Mexico and Uruguay, which while decent sides, don’t have the overall experience or talent of the French. Mexico struggled at times to qualify out of the relatively easy CONCACAF group, while Uruguay would seem to be overly dependent on the striking talents of aging vets Diego Forlan and Sebastian Abreu, although Luis Suarez seems a good young talent. Which leaves…South Africa. I’m picking them second here in an upset special. While they are among the lowest ranked sides in the WC according to FIFA, history is squarely on their side. There has never been a host nation which did not advance out of the first round in the WC, and that includes some pretty weak teams such as the USA in ’94 and Japan and South Korea in 2002. So I’m going with Bafana Bafana. Also it’s not as though they have no weapons. Watch out for veteran striker Benni McCarthy, the country’s all-time leading scorer, as well as midfielder Steven Pienaar, Everton’s 2010 player of the season. With a frenzied home crowd roaring them on, I think the South Africans will also probably get the benefit of any dodgy refereeing decisions, and as Angelo knows (Italy 2002!) every WC seems to have them. So they can make it into the 2nd round, against all odds.
Group B seems like Argentina and three also-rans, but it’s a little tougher than that. I do believe the Argies will top the table there. Despite Maradona’s sometimes-erratic selection policies (he has used a staggering 84 players in the last year of qualifying matches!) and Argentina’s needing a last-minute win over Uruguay to qualify, the talent level on this team is amazing. A Lionel Messi-Carlos Tevez pairing upfront is just the start. There are eterans like Juan Sebastian Veron in midfield and Gabriel Heinze and Walter Samuel in defense. And don’t forget the explosive Maxi Rodriguez in midfield. With teams of this talent level you can almost throw qualification results out the window. If they can begin to click during the tournament, the depth is there to go all the way. So what about 2nd place? Tough call, I was torn between NIgeria and Greece, whereas South Korea has simply not demonstrated that they can do anything outside of a home world cup (2002) in which they benefited from some outrageously biased refereeing. Nigeria has some undeniable talent and has had success in past World Cups. Plus with this tournament being hosted by South Africa, I’m really looking to see some African sides make big runs. However they don’t quite have that star player on the level of other African sides like Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o or Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba. Defensively they could be lax as well, plus there has been some coaching turmoil with a new manager being installed in February. So I’m going with Greece in the first of my European upset specials. The Greeks of course stunned everyone by winning Euro 2004, and by contrast to Nigeria they have been managed by German Otto Rehhagel since 2001. Greece has yet to really make an impact in the World Cup, having failed badly in their only other appearance in 1994. I believe they can this time around, behind a stingy defense, and riding the abilities of goal-poacher Theofanis Gekas, who netted 10 in qualifiers.
From Group C, it was easy enough to determine that England and the USA would qualify over relative lightweights Algeria and Slovenia. Most will probably pick England to top the group, but I’m going with the US, and not merely for patriotic reasons. Both nations looked strong in qualifying, and obviously England has more star power with the likes of Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, and others. But Fabio Capello still has not found a consistently reliable man up front to pair with Rooney. Could it be the awkward but effective Peter Crouch, the aging and usually disappointing Emile Heskey, or a younger man such as Darren Bent or Jermain Defoe? Also England traditionally start slowly in group play, and the Americans may thrive on playing the underdog role in this opening match. Plus they have some players such as Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, and the up-and-coming Jozy Altidore that can strike fear into any defense. The US will also have the advantage over England when it comes to goal-keeping, as Tim Howard is better than anyone the Three Lions can put in front of the net, certainly more reliable than David “Calamity” James. Another important factor is international experience. All of the above named players have played for English clubs. America will not be intimidated facing the likes of Rooney and his mates, and I think they can spring the upset.
Group E should be a real treat to watch, and presented a tough pick. While Japan is coming along as one of the better Asian footballing nations, it was clear they probably were not yet in the class of the Netherlands, Cameroon, or Denmark. They just don’t yet have the number of players in key European leagues to bring the national team up to a consistently competitive level. I think the Dutch will be the class of the group, and one of the best teams in the tournament. They blitzed through qualifying, winning all eight of their matches, albeit from a relatively easy group. Still the squad oozes talent, especially in midfield and up front. Wesley Sneijder and Marc van Bommel are two to watch in the middle, along with Rafael van der Vaart. All of them are capable of scoring too. Up front despite the retirement of Ruud Van Nistelrooy, the Dutch can turn to Arsenal’s Robin van Persie, Liverpool’s Dirk Kuyt, and emerging star Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. The “Hunter” has netted 15 goals in 30 appearances for the Orange. I’m high on Holland and to finish second I’m springing my second European upset special, taking Denmark over Cameroon. The Indomitable Lions will be fun to watch, led by the goal-hungry Samuel Eto’o and they could well go far. But Denmark made it through to South Africa topping a group that included the more favored Swedish and Portuguese. I like the squad’s mix. There are experienced veterans like Martin Jorgensen, Jon Dahl Tomasson, Dennis Rommedahl, and Christian Poulsen. There are also some promising youngsters such as Arsenal’s striker Nicklas Bendtner, and young defender Simon Kjaer. Denmark historically performs above expectations on the big stage–in each of their three previous cup appearances they advanced out of the group stage. Finally, there is solid continuity from the coaching end. Morten Olsen has been in charge since 2000. This will be a stable and quietly confident side, with little expectations from the outside world, and I think they will be dangerous.
Group F would appear to be Italy and the three dwarves, but not quite. Yes, the Azzurri should take first. However defending champs should beware, no one has lifted the Cup twice in succession since Brazil did it in 1958 and 1962. Thus many good defending world champions have fallen by the wayside in the next World Cup. However in fairness to Italy, gone are the days when winning meant automatic qualification for the next tournament, so the Azzurri had to earn their place in South Africa, which they did so emphatically. Plenty of key veterans from ’06 will return including keeper Gianluigi Buffon, defenders Fabio Cannavaro and Fabio Grosso, and Gianluca Zambrotta, Andrea Pirlo and Mauro Camoranesi in midfield…Question marks remain upfront where there will be no Luca Toni or veteran talisman like Francesco Totti. So Italy will be solid in defense, but perhaps not be scoring goals in bunches. Of course Italy didn’t need a potent striker to win it in ’06 and this may not be an issue in South Africa either. For second place, it seems that New Zealand is out. The Kiwis had a laughably easy route to South Africa, and will find out that beating the likes of Fiji and Vanuatu simply doesn’t compare to facing Italy or Paraguay. Paraguay has historically punched above their weight, and should be strong defensively, they just don’t seem to have enough firepower, other than target man Roque Santa Cruz (especially now with leading forward Salvador Cabanas likely out due to a gunshot wound). That leaves Slovakia, my third European upset special to take second. South Africa 2010 will see three relatively unheralded East European nations involved (Serbia, Slovenia, Slovakia), and the Slovaks have the most favorable draw. They impressed in the WC run-up, qualifying ahead of more heralded rivals such as Poland and arch-rivals Czech Republic. There are few big names on this team, but take note of young midfielder Marek Hamsik and Liverpool-based defender Martin Skrtel. An ultimate dark-horse team, I think they will slip into the 2nd round.
Group G is the vaunted “Group of Death” featuring Brazil, Portugal, Ivory Coast, and North Korea. I think we can safely write off Kim Jong-Il’s boys, but resist the temptation to mechanically pencil in Brazil at number 1. Yes they had a strong qualifying campaign, but this is also a side the USA had on the ropes at 2-0 last summer in the Confederations Cup. With Kaka now the leading creative force and Luis Fabiano knocking in goals at an astounding rate (25 in 36 caps) it would seem Brazil should be a favorite as usual. And no doubt they will play some entertaining football. But the Samba Kings as always will also be under enormous pressure from home to win it all. They are one of the four or five best teams in the tournament, but not clearly the best, and as my second round picks will reveal, the draw might not favor them later in the tournament. There always seems to be at least one group or two which doesn’t go according to plan. Even if the favored teams advance, they don’t go in the suspected order. So I’m picking Brazil to finish second in the group of death. Taking first place will be Ivory Coast. Here I like the home continent factor. Picking both South Africa and Ghana to advance, I figured at least one other African team would make some noise in this tournament. Who better than the Elephants who have much to prove after their disappointing first round exit in 2006. Led by striker Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou and midfielder Yaya Toure, I think the Ivorians can make a strong showing in this World Cup. Portugal could easily go too, however, and this is why Group G was so tough to pick. Portugal has enjoyed unprecedented success the last several years, finishing as runners up in Euro 2004, fourth in the 2006 World Cup, and as quarterfinalists in Euro 2008. If proven commodities such as Deco and of course Cristiano Ronaldo get help, they could be dangerous.
Finally we have Group H. Defending Euro 2008 champs Spain are the clear choice to win the group. David Villa, Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso, Xavi, Carlos Puyol, Iker Casillas, need I say more? They can score, and defend and do so with flair. Having never won the World Cup and not having advanced past the quarterfinals since 1950 Spain is way overdue to make a deep run. 2010 will be the year for them to do just that. As for the others, Honduras will find that CONCACAF qualification standards still aren’t quite at a European or South American level yet (something the USA and Mexico might face too). Which leaves us Chile and Switzerland for 2nd place. Now The Swiss made it into the 2nd round at the 2006 World Cup but even as hosts could not advance in Euro 2008. There are some talented names on this squad including Philippe Senderos on defense, and Hakan Yakin and all-time Swiss scoring leader Alexander Frei up front. Chile are a lesser known quantity, appearing in their first cup since 1998. But Humberto Suazo can score, and Marco Bielsa’s side finished second only to Brazil from a tough South American qualifying group. This tells me that they can find a way to see off the likes of Switzerland and Honduras, to take second in group H.
So we go into the second round, and I will break down the matchups that would occur assuming my first round picks were accurate. France-Greece, I have to pick France in this one. The Greeks can get out of the first round with discipline and defense, but France will have too many offensive weapons for them. South Africa-Argentina: the host nation will feel they have accomplished their goal in merely advancing out of the group stage. Argentina however could probably win this game even with their second team. No amount of home field advantage will help Bafana Bafana in this one. USA-Ghana: I hate to pick against the Americans, but I’m going with the Black Stars, to beat us for the second cup in a row. They’re going to present a level of raw athleticism that the Americans will find difficult to contain. In other words they can throw three or four guys at us that have the explosiveness and creativity of a Landon Donovan. Plus the advantage of playing on their home continent could prove decisive. Still, if they beat England as I predict, the US will be battle-tested and confident, and this should be a close match that could be decided by the odd goal. England-Germany is a classic historical grudge match. And since the fateful date of July 30, 1966, when they beat West Germany to win their only World Cup, England has gone 0-2-1 against the Germans in World Cup play, Both sides will be very motivated for this clash, and although Germany matches them favorably in all facets of the game, and probably has superior strikers, I’m picking England. I’ve a hunch that a historic occasion like this might could pull out a clutch performance from Wayne Rooney, or Frank Lampard. I hope so….Next up is Netherlands-Slovakia. The Slovaks are a darkhorse squad that will feel happy to be in the 2nd round, and will be equally happy if they can keep the Dutch from scoring less than 3 here. Expect an Orange onslaught. Denmark-Italy could be an intriguing clash. I don’t view the Danes as a cinderella team since they’re used to advancing out of WC group stages. Arguably they even feature more reliable strikers than the Italians right now, with Jon Dahl Tomasson and Nicklas Bendtner. However the Azzurri are the defending world champions and one reasons they will probably outlast Denmark defensively should things go into extra time. Ivory Coast-Chile will be a very entertaining fixture between two teams that should possess a similar attack-minded philosophy. That being said, Chile does not have a striker the caliber of Didier Drogba or Salomon Kalou; advantage to the Elephants. Brazil-Spain would be a sensational second round clash. The Spaniards are among the few teams who actually match up very well with Brazil. They will both play aggressive, attacking football, and Spain is one of the only European sides that can offer up inspirational and highly creative midfield play and ball distribution that is usually a South American hallmark, with the likes of Xavi and Xabi Alonso, and Andres Iniesta. Plus Spain has the slight advantage in goal with the peerless Iker Casillas, and arguably a better striking duo in David Villa and Fernando Torres. It would be something to see Brazil crash out in the 2nd round, but Spain has the goods to do it.
Quarterfinals….France-Ghana will be a clash of European savvy and experience with the energy and enthusiasm of an African squad seeking to go where no other has before–to the World Cup semis. Ghana has plenty of its squad members playing in European leagues, although not always on the top teams, so they will not be intimidated by the French. They will also be fielding a younger team that could have an extra step on Les Bleus, a step that will make all the difference when combined with the momentum carrying them while cheered on a by friendly crowd. It’s a stretch, but they’re my cinderella squad for this cup, so I’m sticking to them. Netherlands-Ivory Coast should be an outstanding match; the Dutch beat them 2-1 in the 2006 WC. And they will win again, it comes down to having a little more firepower at their disposal. The Ivorians have Drogba and Kalou, but the Orange can offer Van Persie, Kuyt, Huntelaar, Arjen Robben, and that’s just up front. With the deeper bench, and all other things being near equal, give a slight edge to the Dutch. England-Argentina is another classic grudge match that has produced some memorable World Cup clashes over the years. England won the most recent rendition 1-0 back in the 2002 Cup. This time around, as much as it pains me to say, I have to give the Argies the nod. England will probably be more robust in defense, and certainly Wayne Rooney, supported by the duo of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, can put fear into any defense in the world. But England don’t have the depth of Argentina. For goal-scorers they can turn to Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain, or recent champions-league hero Diego Milito. Don’t forget about midfield threats like Maxi Rodriguez and the grizzled vet Juan Sebastian Veron plus Javier Mascherano, a favorite of coach Diego Maradona. That’s not even to mention Lionel Messi, the Barcelona striker who’s the reigning FIFA world player of the year. Argentina has more weapons than England and traditionally plays a more attacking style. Still there is always the chance that a relatively inexperienced coach like Maradona might get outfoxed by Fabio Capello. But until England have another player like Paul Gascoigne, that could turn a game with a sudden creative impulse, or at least find a dependable striker to partner with Rooney, I think they will not be able to consistently beat the best teams in the world. On the other hand, Italy won the last world cup with a squad that did not feature as many of the “flair” players as they had in the past. They proved that good defense and sound counter-attacking can compensate for lack of strikers, so who knows…But I have to make a choice, and unfortunately I have England falling at the quarterfinal hurdle for the third consecutive WC. However they will look much better than they did in 2006 I predict. Finally we have Spain-Italy. This could be a clash for the ages…but I think that Italy by this point will be running into difficulty. Their defense won’t be able to cope with all of the attacking threats Spain can pose, while the Spaniards going forward will still be able to offer a solid defense of their own starting with a back four led by veteran Carlos Puyol and ending with the sure-handed Casillas. Advantage to La Furia Roja,
Now to the semis. Ghana will have done admirably to get this far but now the Dutch will be too potent for them. Cinderella teams can make the semis (witness Turkey and South Korea in WC 02, Croatia in 98, Bulgaria and Sweden in 94, etc) but they rarely make it all the way to the final. Argentina-Spain may well be the match of the tournament if it occurs. Here all things appear to be equal but, I give Spain a slight edge. They have a better keeper which can be decisive in close matches that may have to be decided on penalties. Plus in the war of tactics and substitutions I will go with the more experienced manager Vicente del Bosque over loose cannon Maradona. The 3rd place match will see Ghana win and represent African pride over the disappointed Argentines.
World Cup Final–Spain vs. Netherlands. I will root for the Dutch, but Spain is slightly stronger in defense and midfield creativity. The Dutch are deep and talented but I don’t think they can beat Spain if the Spanish are fully on form. This will be a close match for a half and then Spain will pull away 2-1. As for the Golden Boot, it’s notoriously difficult to predict who might get hot, but if Spain makes it as far as I predict, it’s reasonable to assume that David Villa is as good a bet as any to take the honor.
Ok well have fun reading about my picks, and let me hear from you about yours as we get closer to tournament time. As this goes to press, I just saw where the US got beat 4-2 by the Czech Republic, a team which didn’t even qualify for South Africa, and which as you will remember clobbered us 3-0 in WC 2006 and beat us in Italia ’90. I hope this isn’t a bad omen…