Finally. It is here. I have been waiting for this since Euro '08 ended. Here are some thoughts on what to watch for and what I think will happen:
Group A-Mexico, South Africa, France, Uruguay
I feel this is Mexico's group for the taking. They looked very good toward the end of qualifying, beating the US in Mexico City and taking care of the rest of CONCACAF soon after. The have a great young player in Giovani dos Santos and the new Manchester United player Javier Hernandez. South Africa has the home field advantage which has become a huge factor. Every home team has advanced out of its group since I began watching the World Cup in '94. Having said that, I don't think they can overcome all 3 of these teams. France is very up and down. They won it all in '98, failed to make it out of the group stage in '02, then made the finals in '06. I sense another fall back which is why I think the second team to qualify from here will be Uruguay. Not many people know about them but they have one of the best scoring tandems in the world with Luis Suarez and Diego Forlan. I think Mexico wins the group and Uruguay places second.
Group B-Argentina, South Korea, Greece, Nigeria
This one is all Argentina. They have the best player in the world, Leo Messi, and a ton of other elite players such as Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero, and Angel Di Maria. They have an insane coach in former World Cup superstar Diego Maradona who will be either the best thing to happen to them, or the worst. Not much in between with him. I could see any of the other teams rising up and taking second in this group but I am going with Greece. They won the '04 European Championship with unusual tactics and they will be able to use them again to advance here. South Korea made a great run at home in the '02 World Cup(thanks to some "questionable" officiating) but have otherwise been unimpressive including a 3-0 loss to China. Nigeria has a great player in John Obi Mikel but not much else. They are not the African team I am picking to advance.
Group C-USA, England, Slovenia, Algeria
Let's get his out of the way: England and the US will advance. Slovenia is not bad but too young to contend and Algeria needed a playoff just to qualify. The biggest match of the opening round is this Saturday: England vs. USA. I have been thinking about this since it was announced last December and can't believe it is actually here. It feels like the gold medal hockey game a few months back but ten times more intense. I will be singing every patriotic song I can find, drinking beer from that great English ass-kicker Sam Adams, and wearing my T-shirt that says Don't Tread On Me. Go 'Merica!
Group D-Germany, Serbia, Ghana, Australia
OK, here is where I am going a little off the grid. I like Ghana to be the African team that advances in this group. They have a solid team even without the injured Michael Essian, whose replacement Kwadwo Asamoah, is more then capable to take over. They should be able to handle Australia and I think they can tie the other 2, helping them finish second. Germany should win this group because they always play well at the World Cup but without Ballack it could be a struggle. Klose will not let them miss the knockout stage but I don't see them advancing much past the round of 16. Serbia plays a wide open attack which will come back to bite them when they surrender a few counterattack goals that keep them from advancing. The Socceroos are fun to watch but don't have the skill of discipline to compete with these teams.
Group E-Netherlands, Denmark, Cameroon, Japan
This group looks simple on paper and I think it will be just that. The two European squads are full of stars and the other two teams are not. The Dutch have Robin van Persie, Durk Kyut, and Wesley Sneijder, all elite players. Denmark has a great defensive line led by Simon Kjaer and a great attacking midfielder in Christian Poulson. Cameroon has a great player in Samuel Eto'o but not enough else and Japan is one of the worst teams here. I like a bit of an upset with Denmark finishing above the Dutch but both will advance
Group F-Italy, Paraguay, Slovakia, New Zealand
The defending champs have a pretty easy group and will easily advance. They are a few years older so I don't envision another deep run but qualifying for the knockout stage should be easy with Andrea Pirlo running around and Gianlugi Buffon in goal. For the second spot I am again going with a South American squad over the European one. Paraguay looked great in qualifying and has a solid attacker in Oscar Cardozo. Slovakia hasn't been able to put it all together but has a very exciting midfielder in Marek Hamsik. New Zealand looked great in the Lord of the Rings movie, not sure about their soccer team.
Group G-Brazil, Ivory Coast, Portugal, North Korea
North Korea is the worst team here and will be lucky to score a goal. The round robin between the other three teams will be fascinating. Brazil is the obvious choice but not a slam dunk. Robinho and Kaka are two of the best players in the world and will be a joy to watch. Portugal also has a former player of the year in Christiano Ronaldo although he has yet to excel on the international stage as much as he has on the club stage. This should be his time to do that and take Portugal out of the group stage. Ivory Coast was a sleeper for many until their leader and one of the best strikers in the world, Didier Drogba, broke his arm. He is trying to come back but will not have the same impact as he would have had if healthy. Because of the Drogba injury I will take Brazil and Portugal to move on.
Group H-Spain, Chile, Switzerland, Honduras
Spain has been amazing the past 2 years in international competition. The only game they have lost was last summer in the Confederation Cup to 'Merica. Aside from one bad game, they have been dominant. The only problem is their history. They have never won a World Cup and, frankly, have never really been close. They haven't made a final in a few generations and will need to overcome some major demons to win here. The other three teams seem pretty equal. This time I am taking the Euro team over the South American one. Switzerland made the second round in '06 and returns a few of the players including striker Blaise N'Kufo. Chile has a solid scorer in Humberto Suazo but lacks the experience needed to succeed at the cup. Honduras needed a miracle US goal to qualify and will be hard pressed to do much here.
In the knockout rounds I have Mexico-US in the round of 8 with the US advancing. On the other half of the bracket I have Denmark-Brazil in the Quarters with Brazil advancing. The third spot I have going to Argentina after getting by England in the Quarterfinal. The final team I have is Spain after beating the Dutch. In the final 4, I see Brazil beating the US and Spain beating Argentina setting up one of the greatest finals ever and Spain finally winning their first cup. Have fun and enjoy the games.
3 hours ago