Germany, Australia, Serbia, Ghana
This group is going to be exciting and unpredictable. Every game should be worth watching (I’m going to try and sneak away from my graduation ceremony just to watch Germany-Australia). Germany took third place as the host in 2006, but the current squad has some notable changes from the last tournament. With no clear-cut starter in goal and strikers who hate each other (Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski), all the evidence points to Germany imploding early in the tournament. To ice the cake, the team’s captain and most talented midfielder, Chelsea’s Michael Ballack, sustained an ankle injury that will keep him out of the tournament. Still, Germany’s individual talent should see the squad through group D. However, progress after this stage seems unlikely. Much will depend on the young emerging stars like Bayern Munich’s Thomas Müller.
The rest of the group is a mix of good and bad players; Ghana and Serbia both have decent squads full of European talent (namely Chelsea’s Michael Essien and Manchester United’s Nemanja Vidić) and play entertaining soccer, although a recent injury to the Ghana captain has left his World Cup possibilities in doubt. Australia shocked everyone at the last tournament by making it out of the group, and this time around the Sockeroos (as they are affectionately known by their fans) have a similarly interesting squad. Everton’s Tim Cahill is the undisputed talent of Australia, and the rest of the team is rounded out by a group of talented (but unknown outside of Australia) youth. This group is very hard to predict, so avoid making any high-stake bets. The games should be close. Expect accusations of bribery if things get close toward the end.
Predictions: (1) Germany, (2) Serbia, (3) Ghana, (4) Australia
Netherlands, Denmark, Cameroon, Japan
The Netherlands should win this group. Boasting one of the most talented squads in the tournament, the perennially disappointing Netherlands will win the group if it can manage to play cohesively as a team. Its midfield, consisting of such talents as Bayern Munich’sArjen Robben and Inter Milan’s Wesley Sneijder, is among the best in the world, but the Oranje have a habit of faltering on the world stage. The team will look to these midfielders, along with forwards such as Arsenal’s Robin Van Persie, for goals.
Denmark is a dark-horse team. Their matchup against Cameroon (which boasts star striker Samuel Eto’o from Inter Milan and the excellent Espanyol goalie Idriss Kameni) should be a battle for second. Both Denmark and Cameroon have the talent to make it to the next round. Their match will likely decide who takes second place in the group. Japan, not to waste words, is garbage. Despite creating arguably the most successful domestic league in Asia, the Japanese team is devoid of internationally recognized stars (save Shunsuke Nakamura, who just returned home following a disappointing spell in the Spanish league). Netherlands-Japan could well be the highest scoring game of the group stages. Expect a goal-fest.
Predictions: (1) Netherlands, (2) Cameroon, (3) Denmark, (4) Japan
Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovakia
World champion Italy, who won the previous tournament in 2006, should make easy work of its group draw. Paraguay is the only team that looks capable of putting up a fight against the Italians, and it, too, should do away with New Zealand and Slovakia with little trouble.
The most interesting story out of this group is the bizarre shooting and ongoing recovery of Paraguayan striker Salvador Cabaña. The star striker for Mexico City’s América was shot in the head at a bar in January, but has been making what doctors describe as a remarkable recovery. His father claims that Cabañas still has his heart set on a World Cup appearance, but that outcome seems doubtful for the time being. Paraguay’s hopes of advancing depend on his recovery. At the lower end of the group, little New Zealand, a country more accustomed to Rugby World Cup appearances, hopes to enjoy itself and not be embarrassed. Slovakia boasts little talent, despite seeing off some of Europe’s best in the qualifying campaign. The notable exception is Napoli’s rising star in midfield Marek Hamsík, who could make Slovakia worth watching.
Predictions: (1) Italy, (2) Paraguay, (3) Slovakia, (4) New Zealand