Friday, December 4, 2009

Draw: Winners, Losers, Instant Analysis

The Finals Draw for South Africa 2010 is over. The singing and dancing and overly complicated processes and illegible names on the main board and bad graphics and silly celebrities and outwardly emotionless coaches in the seats ... and one horrible David Beckham haircut. It's done.

We now have eight groups of four.

First, let's nominate some winners and losers.

Winners: France, Mexico, Argentina, England, United States, Italy, Spain, Paraguay, Cameroon, Netherlands.

Losers: Australia, Brazil, Cote d'Ivoire, Portugal, Germany, Denmark.

Now let's look at all eight groups, each given its own name, and how the eight groups ought to shake out.

Group A (Group Charmin): South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay, France. Finish: Mexico, France, South Africa, Uruguay. Comment: The second-softest group in the tournament. Unless South Africa catches fire, playing at home. It seems unlikely, but we should keep in mind that no host nation ever has failed to gain the second round. Mexico has pulled itself together and should get out of this group and maybe win it, especially if it fights off the Bafana Bafana in the first match of the tournament, June 11. Uruguay is solid but modestly talented. That leaves France, which is the team much of the world wants to see lose immediately because of the whole "hand ball vs. Ireland" thing. But France as we have known it ... the France that would be tres formidable if its whole ever equalled the sum of its parts ... hasn't been seen for more than a year. I see the French getting out of the group, barely. But they are the wild card here and coach Raymond Domenech probably is the joker.

Group B (Group Diego): Argentina, Nigeria, South Korea, Greece. Finish: Greece, Nigeria, Argentina, South Korea. Comment: Argentina ought to win the group, but it still has that bloated idiot, Diego Maradona, coaching, and we have great faith in his ability to screw this up so badly that Argentina goes home after group play. That leaves tremendous opportunities for the other three, and I see the mechanical but massively disciplined Greeks and the massively talented but often erratic Nigerians taking advantage. South Korea will do well to get a point.

Group C (Group Rule Britannia): England, United States, Algeria, Slovenia. Finish: England, U.S., Algeria, Slovenia. Comment: England has been gifted a very direct route into the semifinals. The question: Can the often under-achieving English take advantage? They really ought to win the group, which would give them a beatable Serbia in the Round of 16 and a beatable Mexico or France in the quarters ... before they could possibly face Brazil or the Netherlands in the semis. Also, if Mario Capello's crew wins the group, it can't possibly see Spain, Italy or Germany until the championship. If England is going to win ... this is the time. The U.S. ended the year badly, losing some key players to major injury, but this is a group it could escape. Which is probably exactly what Algeria and Slovenia are thinking, too. Though neither of those two has much athleticism or World Cup experience, and the U.S. is in it for the sixth straight time.

Group D (Group Deutschland Uber Alles): Germany, Australia, Serbia, Ghana. Finish: Germany, Serbia, Ghana, Australia. Comment: This is almost a Group of Death, but Australia isn't quite there, Serbia is in the WC as its own country for the first time and Ghana is coming on but lacks big-game experience against coldly efficient sides like the Germans. We see Deutschland grinding through the group (and it will be a grind) and then the Serbs finishing second. Though Ghana could be there, especially playing in Africa. Australia ... better than most people realize, but not good enough to hang with the other three.

Group E (Group Dutch Treat): Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, Cameroon. Finish: Netherlands, Cameroon, Denmark, Japan. Comment: The Dutch are the most unpredictable side in Europe. Capable of greatness on any given day, capable of meltdown on any other given day. They caught a break by getting a group with no one that should give them real trouble, aside, maybe from Cameroon, the most successful African team in World Cup history. Japan is gritty and Denmark is clever and well-organized, but neither can match the Dutch skill and flair, and both will have real issues with Cameroon's speed and attacking style.

Group F (Group Buongiorno!): Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovakia. Finish: Italy, Paraguay, Slovakia, New Zealand. Comment: Happy birthday, Italia! Must be the country's birthday, because the Azzuri sit atop the weakest group in the tournament. New Zealand is an automatic three points, Paraguay isn't nearly crafty enough to deal with Italy, and neither is Slovakia. Italy should get nine points out of this. The Kiwis' goal should be a goal. Scoring one, that is. Because they won't win or tie. That leaves Paraguay and Slovakia, and we see the South Americans beating out the first-timers from Central Europe.

Group G (Group of Death, Kinda): Brazil, North Korea, Cote d'Ivoire, Portugal. Finish: Brazil, Cote d'Ivoire, Portugal, North Korea. Comment: Three-fourths of a Group of Death. North Korea messes things up, because all four Asian teams are weak and they appear to be the weakest. But the other three here ... Brazil is Brazil. It ought to win this group. But Portugal and Cote D'Ivoire are serious, serious sides. Portugal will have back Cristiano Ronaldo in June, and he's only the best player on the planet. And Portugal is ranked No. 5 in the world at this minute, and it's no accident. Ivory Coast has Didier Drogba and Saloman Kalou and a bunch of other Europe-based stars. Brazil wins, but is pushed, and the former Ivory Coast begins its run to the semis by edging Portugal for second place.

Group H (Group Viva Espana): Spain, Switzerland, Honduras, Chile. Finish: Spain, Chile, Switzerland, Honduras. Comment: Aside from Italy, Spain has the best draw in the tournament. Well, the best group-play draw, anyway. It really ought to win all three matches against the talent-starved Swiss, the unsophisticated Hondurans and South American also-ran Chile. After that ... we're thinking Chile dumps Switzerland and finishes second.

A couple more thoughts:

--The lower half of the bracket is far tougher than the top half. Group winners in the upper half can't possibly meet Spain, Brazil, the Netherlands or Italy before the semis, and those four are the top-ranked teams in the world and Italy is the defending champion.

--Ivory Coast probably is the strongest African team, and I'm on record as predicting an African team will reach the semifinals, but they caught no breaks here. They have to beat Portugal to get out of the group, then get Spain in the Round of 16 and Italy in the quarters. Do-able, but that's a rough go.

--Cameroon is probably the second-best African team (Samuel Eto'o, etc.), but the Indomitable Lions also are in the lower bracket, and they would face Italy in the Round of 16 and Spain in the quarters.

--So maybe Ghana (England in the second round, Mexico in the quarters) is the best hope for Africa. Or Nigeria (Mexico in the second round, England in the quarters).

Anyway, we're set. Let's see what everyone else has to say, and go from there. The next week should be full of prognosticating by players, coaches and pundits.
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