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Group C (world ranking in parentheses):
Algeria (30): Alphabetically, they’re first in the list of the 32 teams. On the field…um, did I mention they’re first alphabetically? They arrived out of nowhere to beat Egypt in the playoffs to qualify for their first World Cup since 1986, and, despite a semifinal appearance at this year’s Africa Cup of Nations, they should sink back down fairly quickly. With only three forwards on the roster, look for them to clog the midfield and try to pick up a goal or two on the counterattack. But it’s hard to see them as anything but a very dark horse in this group.
England (8): There are problems with the squad – on the left side, in goal, and a central midfield partnership of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard that has rarely gelled. But whether or not opponents will be able to exploit them depends on how much they’re intimidated by the idea of facing the Mighty England. Still, they could easily find themselves in the semifinals due to their potential opponents in the knockout stages (at least according to my predictions). But that will require them to remain disciplined and relatively mistake-free, which doesn’t always happen, as in their exits from the last three World Cups.
Slovenia (25): My only previous exposure to Slovenia was in the 2002 World Cup, where they tried to bunker in and defend their way to results, which didn’t work. It didn’t help that their best player fought with their coach and was sent home during the tournament. I don’t expect a repeat of the latter situation, but the former will undoubtedly be their tactics again. That was how they qualified, giving up only four goals in ten games, and, as long as nobody’s giving them style points, there’s no reason to change it. But if they want to avoid an early flight back home, they will have to break out of their defensive shell. The rest of this group is too talented.
United States (14): For once, we got a draw that gave us the chance to advance based solely on our abilities without having to rely on better teams screwing up (see Portugal in 2002). But it won’t be easy. This team has the ability to upset England, and it could just as easily lose to Slovenia. The pre-tournament friendlies showed that the defense is vulnerable without a fully fit Oguchi Onyewu, and three of the four strikers have a combined total of 15 international appearances. Still, Tim Howard is a world-class goalkeeper, and the midfield, led by Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, is versatile, experienced, and creative. A second-place finish means that their opponent in the second round will likely be Germany, and a valiant loss to them, as we did in the 2002 quarterfinals, is about all we can reasonably hope for.
Predicted order of finish: England, United States, Slovenia, Algeria
Australia (20): Well, they whined incessantly to FIFA to get moved into the Asian confederation this time around. While that may guarantee that they’ll qualify for every World Cup from here on in, it doesn’t make them a better team. As their friendly against the U.S. last Saturday showed, Tim Cahill only needs one chance a game to score, which is he’s likely to get. The crop of talented Aussies who infused the English Premier League with a burst of energy at the beginning of the last decade are on the downslope of their career, and I haven’t seen anybody capable of stepping into their shoes. And they will always lose points with me for having a nickname of “The Socceroos.”
Germany (6): We won’t know if losing Michael Ballack to injury is a good or bad thing. It’s been years since he’s been a dominant force, and his absence allows a younger and less selfish player to step into his shoes. What we do know is that we’ll see the same things we always see from Germany: clinical and smart play, excellence on set pieces, tough and physical team defense. That should get them as far as the quarterfinals.
Ghana (32): With central midfielder Michael Essien, this team could have been a big surprise. Without their injured leader, however, they’re a team with a lot of quality in attack but lacking the composure necessary to be considered among the world’s elite. They did not look good in their warm-ups, getting blown out by the Netherlands and barely beating unheralded Latvia. Their opening match against Serbia will likely determine whether they can pull it together in time, but I don’t think so.
Serbia (15): The breakup of the Iron Curtain may have been good for democracy, but it’s been horrible for fans of the beautiful game. This tournament has three former Eastern Bloc countries (Serbia, Slovenia, and Slovakia) that grind results through defense, physical play, and little in the way of attacking flair. Serbia, led by Manchester United’s Nemanja Vidic, is the best of them, and they should make it through to the second round. One player of note, 21-year old defender Neven Subotic spent his teenage years in the United States and represented us at the youth levels before declaring his international future with his native Serbia.
Predicted order of finish: Germany, Serbia, Ghana, Australia