We turn the spotlight on the eight groups and predict who will make the World Cup knockout stages.
Last Updated: 22/06/10 5:26pm
With the World Cup round the corner we turn the spotlight on the Groups which make up the first stage of the tournament.
Here Nick Miller and Sarah Winterburn assess every team's chances and predict who goes through from each of the pools of four - and according to them it's very good news for South Korea....
GROUP A: France, Mexico, Uruguay and South Africa
We all know Raymond Domenech is somewhat unorthodox but he has a rather good set of players at his disposal, who will ignore any bizarre suggestions from their outgoing coach. With the likes of Franck Ribery, Florent Malouda, Yoann Gourcuff, Nicolas Anelka and Thierry Henry (not a bad option off the bench) at his disposal, even Chris Hutchings could lead this French squad into the knock-out stages - especially with the kind of 'luck' that got them past Ireland in the play-off.
Usually, you'd give the hosts a decent chance of getting out of their group - especially when they come into the tournament on the back of an unbeaten run stretching back to November - but this South African side is rotten. The most impressive win from that run was a 1-0 win over Denmark, while draws at home against Jamaica and Namibia hardly suggest France should lose any sleep over facing a team that even failed to qualify for the African Nations tournament this year.
The other qualification spot is a difficult one to predict, especially after Mexico gave England a fright at Wembley. But watch England's first two goals and you'll see exactly why Mexico will not be easing their way through to the group stages in South Africa. Although neat in the attacking third, defensively they're a shambles. Imagine that being exploited by Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez, Uruguay's rather handy pair of strikers. Seven goals in two recent games against Switzerland and Israel would suggest that there's goals in them there hills for the South Americans.
Prediction to qualify: France and Uruguay.
Sky Bet Odds to go through: France 1/3, Mexico 5/6, Uruguay Evens, South Africa 2/1.
GROUP B: Argentina, Nigeria, Greece and South Korea
Thank heavens for Argentina in Group B because this is a nothing group without Diego Maradona's troop of incredibly talented individuals. As with Domenech, we can only assume that Maradona's failings as a coach and human being will not hinder the progress of a team with attacking options like Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, Diego Milito and Martin Palermo. When England were pondering whether to take Emile Heskey or Darren Bent, it's enough to make you feel physically sick. It's probably only the maverick presence of Maradona that makes them anything but outright favourites for the title.
But they are quite rightly massive favourites to get out of a group featuring two of the dullest teams in the World Cup in Nigeria and Greece. Lars Lagerback's Nigerians are a pretty limited bunch - as indicated by Danny Shittu's presence despite not getting a single game for Bolton this season. Greece are Greece - think Euro 2004 but with even less flair.
The South Koreans are rather more interesting, having crept under the radar somewhat because of the absence of a big-name foreign manager and the intriguing presence of North Korea. But this is a South Korean side who were impressive in qualifying from a difficult Asian group and have since recently beaten both the Ivory Coast and Japan - and they didn't need two own goals. Win their opening game against Greece and there might just be a mouthwatering second-round clash with France just around the corner.
Prediction to qualify: Argentina and South Korea.
Odds to go through: Argentina 1/10, Nigeria Evens, Greece 6/5, South Korea 2/1.
GROUP C: England, USA, Algeria and Slovenia
It's not blind patriotism that leads us to predict that England will sail through this group - it's the knowledge that they're playing three teams not exactly blessed with form and flair. The United States have made all the right noises about giving England a game, but in reality they would be happy not to get tonked in that opening clash after recent defeats to European opposition like the Czech Republic, Holland, Denmark and Slovakia. They're - as ever - a limited but athletic side, but with a weakness in defence that Wayne Rooney will be keen to exploit.
Get past the United States and England have one large white boot in the second round, as Algeria and Slovenia are hardly the kind of opposition to strike fear into one of the best sides in the world. Anyone who watched Algerian goalkeeper Faouzi Chauochi in the African Cup of Nations (or in the 3-0 defeat to Ireland) will be urging their Group C opposition to shoot on sight, but that advice may not be heeded by a Slovenian side known for their neatness but not for their spark in the final third.
Slovenia and Algeria played and won their World Cup finals with play-off victories over Russia and Egypt, and it's difficult to see them in South Africa as anything more than making up the numbers. The best Algeria can hope for is a warm afternoon in Pretoria on the day they might have to beat the United States to advance.
Prediction to qualify: England and USA.
Sky Bet odds to go through: England 1/16, USA 4/6, Algeria 7/4, Slovenia 100/30
GROUP D: Germany, Australia, Ghana and Serbia
"Germany are not one of the favourites," said Diego Maradona after watching his Argentina side beat Germany 1-0. But this is Germany and despite having a side most of you would struggle to pick out of a line-up, only a fool would back them to falter at the group stages. In fact, that defeat to Diego's men was their only loss in 14 matches which included the back end of a convincing qualifying campaign. This is not a team of superstars but neither is it a team that will flounder on the big stage. It's simply not the German way.
Group D's other contenders will certainly have a problem breaking down Germany as all struggle for goals, with all three teams likely to field a lone striker in South Africa. That that lone striker is likely to be Asamoah Gyan, Nikola Zigic or Josh Kennedy will strike little fear into Joachim Low's side. The dogged Australia are in better form than Ghana - who scored only one goal in 180 recent minutes against Burkina Faso and desperately miss Michael Essien - but Serbia are still the best of the rest.
What they lack in goals, they more than make up for in being hard as nails at the back. Take Nemanja Vidic and Branislav Ivanovic and then add two other defenders (one of which is a reported target for Jose Mourinho, and he knows a thing or two about defending) and you get a recipe for 0-0 draws. Turn a couple into 1-0s and they could well get out of Group D for Deathly Dull.
Prediction to qualify: Germany and SerbiaSky Bet odds to go through: Germany 1/5, Serbia 5/6, Ghana 6/5, Australia 5/2.
GROUP E: Holland, Denmark, Cameroon and Japan
Odd how few people are really mentioning Holland this time around. They have always had the talent, but in previous years the egos and the petty sniping got in the way. But they seem like a great big happy family this time, possibly due to the absence of the equine ego of Ruud van Nistelrooy. While it's not always a reliable indicator of tournament performance, the Dutch qualified at a rare-old pace, winning eight from eight (although they did have the significant advantage of playing Scotland twice), and their solid if unspectacular defence provides a cracking base for some of the brightest, most in-form attacking players in Europe. And Dirk Kuyt.
The Dutch should top the group, but second spot is up for grabs. The Danes are a handy unit, although it might startle some to discover Dennis Rommedahl, Jesper Gronkjaer and Jon Dahl Tomasson are still being rolled out. Cameroon should be decent so long as Samuel Eto'o doesn't throw a hissy fit (he hilariously threatened to withdraw from the competition the other week after champion arse-wiggler Roger Milla said some sort-of mean things about him), while as we saw the Japanese can play when they want to. Look for the game between Cameroon and Denmark on June 19 to be a potential decider.
Prediction to qualify: Holland and Cameroon.
Odds to go through: Holland 1/6, Denmark 10/11, Cameroon 10/11, Japan 13/5.
GROUP F: Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovakia
It's not that defending champions Italy are a bunch of chumps who don't have a chance, but have you ever seen such a big side look so...uninspiring? In 2006 they had Totti, Perrotta, Luca Toni and Cannavaro at their peak, with Del Piero to come off the bench. Now it's Pazzini, Claudio Marchisio, Palombo. All fine players we're sure, but nothing to get too excited about. Perhaps this will be a plus for Marcelo Lippi's men. They don't have a collection of dazzling individuals (although Antonio Di Natale is an outside bet for top scorer after his season in Serie A), but Lippi might just mould them into something special.
Italy should get through this group without too many problems, despite their sketchy friendly form in the lead-up to the tournament. New Zealand might turn out to be the worst team to play at a finals for some time, so the second qualification spot will be between Paraguay and Slovakia. The South Americans qualified quite easily despite a late stutter, and are strong at both ends of the pitch, with Roque Santa Cruz and Nelson Vasquez providing the attacking threat. Slovakia are in their first tournament as an independent nation, and qualifying was a success for them. They'll be relying on the sought-after Marek Hamsik for their creativity, but this might be a step too far for them.
Prediction to qualify: Italy and Paraguay.
Odds to go through: Italy 1/14, Paraguay 1/2, Slovakia 5/4, New Zealand 10/1.
GROUP G: Brazil, Ivory Coast, Portugal and North Korea
While Brazil have hardly been the jogo bonito side of the seventies for a few years, the extent of their switch to 'the dark side' might surprise a few. Well-drilled by water-carrier Dunga, this is the most functional Brazil team in a while, with Gilberto and Felipe Melo screening the best defence in the South American qualification group. However, Luis Fabiano will probably start up top on his own, with support from Kaka, Robinho and Benfica winger Ramires. It will be interesting to see how their creative unit fares after sketchy seasons for Robinho and Kaka, but they're hardly a team of hoofers. Remember, this is a side so good they can leave Dani Alves on the bench in favour of the defensively-stronger Maicon.
It was looking pretty good for Ivory Coast until last week. We were wailing and gnashing our teeth about the loss of Rio Ferdinand, but that was nothing compared to the woe in Abidjan about Didier Drogba's broken arm. Drogba's status back home is almost messianic, and while at the time of writing he hasn't been ruled out of the tournament, Sven Goran Eriksson will need his top man to be on top form from the first game against Portugal.
The Portuguese are an interesting lot. Carlos Queiroz hardly convinced in the qualifiers and made some curious decisions, such as playing hulking centre-half Pepe in midfield. They still haven't managed to find a decent centre-forward (Liedson and Hugo Almeida only scored 20 goals between them last season), but that matters less when you have Cristiano Ronaldo on the wing. Nevertheless, they strike one as an accident waiting to happen, so even without Drogba, the Ivorians could just sneak through.
The only thing interesting about the North Koreans is how their inevitable thrashings will be reported back home. Hail the Dear Leader.
Prediction to qualify: Brazil and Ivory Coast.
Odds to go through: Brazil 1/9, Portugal 4/6, Ivory Coast evens, North Korea 10/1.
GROUP H: Spain, Chile, Switzerland and Honduras
Boy, Spain are good. Can you spot a weakness? It's flipping tricky. The most impressive/scary thing about Vicente del Bosque's squad is the adaptability. If the tippy-tappy stuff doesn't quite work they have wingers like Jesus Navas and Juan Mata and target man Fernando Llorente to mix things up a bit. Need a beefier midfield? Send for Sergio Busquets or Javi Martinez. Iker Casillas having a brainstorm? Pepe Reina and Victor Valdes are pretty decent. The question for Spain is 'Who can stop them winning the thing?' rather than 'Who can stop them qualifying?' So who will join them in the last 16?
The rest of the group is pretty open. Chile are favourites to take second spot, and probably rightly so after finishing only behind Brazil in qualifying. They have some belting talent in attack, in the shape of Huberto Suazo, Alexis Sanchez and Matias Fernandez, but might be a little ropey at the back. Although you'll be delighted to learn they do still have the phenomenally-named Waldo Ponce in their ranks. Switzerland's biggest asset is probably manager Ottmar Hitzfeld, and not a lot should be read into their success in qualifying - they were in an absolutely rancid group, and still drew with Israel. Twice.
Honduras might be worth a dabble for the adventurous gambler. As well as the Premier League trio (Maynor Figueroa, Hendry Thomas and Wilson Palacios), they have a couple of elderly but still handy strikers in David Suazo and Carlos Pavon, and there's a bit to be said for the lack of expectation. Of course, one could equally argue their lack of experience will cost. We'll see.
Prediction to qualify: Spain and Chile.
Sky Bet odds to go through: Spain 1/20, Chile 8/13, Switzerland 6/4, Honduras 9/2.