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Thursday, June 10, 2010

World Cup gets ready for kickoff


Staff writer

The World Cup breaks new ground on Friday as the world's top soccer tournament will be held in Africa for the first time. South Africa plays host to the monthlong competition, where 32 teams will compete for a place in the final in Johannesburg on July 11.

News photo
Ready and waiting: Brazil midfielder Kaka will be looking to stamp his name all over the tournament after disappointing in 2006. KYODO PHOTO

Here is a rundown of the eight first-round groups.

GROUP A

France, Mexico,

South Africa, Uruguay

A difficult draw was not what one of the weakest-looking hosts in World Cup history was looking for, but recent results suggest South Africa can avoid the whitewash many fear is inevitable.

Motivation will certainly not be an issue for Carlos Alberto Parreira's team, and the Brazilian has been confident enough to leave star striker Benni McCarthy out of his 23-man squad. Steven Pienaar and Teko Modise are the key men for the Bafana Bafana, who will be looking for a positive result in the opening game against Mexico to get the ball rolling.

The Mexicans will be no pushover, however, and Andres Guardado, Giovani dos Santos and the evergreen Cuauhtemoc Blanco spearhead a bid to reach the quarterfinals after falling in the second round at the last four tournaments.

Uruguay will rely on prolific strikers Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez to compensate for its inconsistent form, while France will be feeling lucky just to be in South Africa at all. The furor that surrounded Thierry Henry's handball against Ireland has not been forgotten, but it soon will be if Henry, Franck Ribery, Yoann Gourcuff and a host of other top names can live up to their enormous potential.

GROUP B

Argentina, Greece,

Nigeria, South Korea

All eyes will be on Argentina to see if world player of the year Lionel Messi can recreate his brilliant Barcelona form for his country, and if Diego Maradona can provide the same inspiration as manager that he did as winning captain in 1986.

With Argentina the clear favorite to win the group, the three other sides should find themselves in a tight battle for the runnerup spot.

Greece will be as well organized as ever with Otto Rehhagel still at the helm after masterminding the country's surprise triumph at the 2004 European Championship.

Nigeria manager Lars Lagerback is less established, having only taken over in February, but he inherits a side with a fine World Cup pedigree and can call on a number of experienced Europe-based players.

Flair and invention are in short supply for both teams, however, and South Korea may be able to take advantage by finally qualifying for the second round for the first time on foreign soil.

Huh Jung Moo's side showed its quality in a recent 2-0 win over Japan, and although an injury to Kwak Tae Hwi has weakened an already suspect defense, the Koreans could make an impression in South Africa.

GROUP C

Algeria, England,

Slovenia, USA

Hopes are high — as ever — that England can finally win the tournament for the first time since 1966, and Fabio Capello's side could hardly have wished for a better draw to begin the campaign.

Wayne Rooney will be looking for goals to erase the memory of his red card against Portugal in Gelsenkirchen four years ago, and Algeria and Slovenia will have trouble stopping the Manchester United striker after a watershed year at club level.

The U.S. should provide sterner opposition, however, and Bob Bradley's team will be out to prove that last year's run to the Confederations Cup final was no fluke. An American side high in athleticism — if slightly lacking in creativity — could do well in South Africa, but Slovenia qualified at Russia's expense and should not be underestimated.

The same goes for Algeria, which eliminated African champion Egypt after a heated playoff in Khartoum, but it should still be the established powers who go through to the next round. England's opening game against the U.S., 60 years after the Americans beat the same opponent 1-0 in one of the World Cup's greatest ever upsets, adds further spice to the mix.

GROUP D

Australia, Germany,

Ghana, Serbia

Germany's knack of hitting tournament form at just the right time is legendary, but Joachim Loew's side faces a tough challenge in one of the first round's strongest groups.

Ghana will be motivated to do well in Africa's first World Cup, but the absence through injury of Michael Essien is a heavy blow. More responsibility now falls on the graduates of last year's World Youth Cup-winning team, although the experienced Sulley Muntari and Stephen Appiah will help them adapt.

Australia takes virtually the same team that reached the second round in Germany four years ago, although an adequate replacement has still not been found for retired striker Mark Viduka.

Serbia's recent friendly results have not been good, but Radomir Antic's side could be the dark horse of the tournament if it gets its act together.

Germany, however, remains the favorite even without Michael Ballack. Sami Khedira has shown signs of filling the injured captain's boots as playmaker, while attacking midfielder Mesut Oezil has the potential to make a big name for himself in South Africa. Add in established stars such as Miroslav Klose and Philipp Lahm, and Germany once again looks capable of going a long way.

GROUP E

Cameroon, Denmark,

Japan, Netherlands

Japan's chances of progressing through a difficult group have been undermined by poor recent results, but its Group E opponents have had their problems too.

Samuel Eto'o, far and away Cameroon's best player, was so piqued by criticism from former great Roger Milla that he threatened to walk out on the eve of the tournament, while the Netherlands and Denmark have been hit by injuries to key men Arjen Robben and Simon Kjaer, respectively.

That, however, cannot disguise the fact that Takeshi Okada's side is the group's underdog, with the Dutch in clear pole position to finish top of the pile. The Netherlands have never won the world's biggest prize, but with Robben, Wesley Sneijder and many other top stars to call on, this year offers a real chance to do so.

Cameroon and Denmark may not be able to aim so high, but both are capable of making it through the first round. Physical strength is the hallmark of both sides, but Kjaer and Daniel Agger give the Danes class in defense while Eto'o's skills need no introduction.

Can Japan find the discipline, tenacity and good fortune to beat them to a place in the knockout phase?

The head says no, but then when did a World Cup ever follow the path it was supposed to?

GROUP F

Italy, New Zealand,

Paraguay, Slovakia

Concerns over an aging side have restricted talk of Italy successfully defending its title, but the Azzurri should certainly have few problems getting past the group stage.

Manager Marcello Lippi has retained nine members of the squad that beat France on penalties in the final four years ago, although newcomers Claudio Marchisio and Salvatore Bocchetti ensure there is youth in the ranks as well.

With Italy looking likely to take one of the top two places, Slovakia, Paraguay and New Zealand will have to scrap it out for the other.

Slovakia is taking part in its first World Cup since independence, but manager Vladimir Weiss can call upon established names such as Napoli's Marek Hamsik and Liverpool's Martin Skrtel, as well as up-and-coming youngsters including his son, Vladimir Jr.

Slovakia's clash with Paraguay on June 20 should decide who goes through, but New Zealand's recent friendly win over Serbia has stoked hopes of an upset in the All Whites camp. A place in the second round is not impossible for a side ranked 78th in the world, but avoiding defeat in all three games would be an achievement in itself.

GROUP G

Brazil, Cote d'Ivoire,

North Korea, Portugal

Brazil has a history of avoiding difficult first-round opponents, but manager Dunga cannot call upon that luxury this time. Fortunately for him, he is in charge of an excellent group of players and is firmly among the front-runners to lift the trophy on July 11.

Dunga's Brazil may not be as easy on the eye as previous versions, but the former captain has molded his side in his own formidable image — athletic, indefatigable, and born winners. Kaka and Robinho will, however, be on hand to provide skill to complement the steel.

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo will be looking to re-establish himself as the world's best player, and he captains a side which struggled in qualifying but has enough quality to be considered a serious contender.

Sven-Goran Eriksson's Cote d'Ivoire has also been tipped to make an impact, and if Didier Drogba can recover from injury in time, anything is possible.

That leaves North Korea with a daunting task in its first World Cup since 1966, and the hermit state's chances of repeating its heroics of 44 years ago look slim. Star player Chong Tese will be hoping to catch the eye, however, and a strong showing could land the Kawasaki Frontale striker a move to Europe.

GROUP H

Chile, Honduras,

Spain, Switzerland

After winning the 2008 European Championship and putting together an astonishing record of 44 wins in its last 48 games, Spain travels to South Africa having traded in the dark horse tag for one that reads "favorite."

Vicente del Bosque's side lost to the U.S. in the semifinals of last year's Confederation Cup, but that is the only time Spain has been beaten since November 2006. The mental weakness that blighted previous campaigns has been replaced with consistency, aggression and versatility, and a reasonable first-round draw adds credence to the notion that this could be Spain's year.

Chile has also drawn praise for its attacking style, and manager Marcelo Bielsa will be keen to atone for failing to take his native Argentina past the group stage in 2002.

Switzerland also has designs on the second round, but recent form has not been good and veteran strikers Alex Frei and Blaise Nkufo are not as mobile as they once were.

That leaves Honduras as the group's outsider, but Tottenham's Wilson Palacios is one of several players with European experience, and Reinaldo Rueda's side may yet be able to spring a surprise.



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