It’s finally here, dear reader, and time for all of the prevaricating to stop and the spectating and punting to start.
Hosts South Africa look to have it all to do, and could well end up as the poorest performing host nation since the tournament’s inception in 1930.
There’s lots of interesting sub-plots: the ball (too round, apparently); the altitude changes (the high Veldt is a lot higher than the sea level other matches in the same group will be played at); injuries and strops galore; security worries; and, of course, the paparazzi snapping and England’s Capo di Capi, Fabio Capello, snapping back!
So here are my thoughts on how the tournament might pan out, punctuated with my thoughts on what may constitute a decent portfolio of wagers…
South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay, France
The first match is traditionally where the hosts showcase their talents. This time around, when South Africa take on Mexico, I suspect there is a cracking opportunity to get off the mark with one of the bets of the group stages. Make no mistake about it: South Africa are moderate at best and, even accounting for home support, they’ve a mountain to climb to get something out of this game.
The game will be played in Johannesburg at an altitude of 1,753 metres, but that will hold no fears for the Mexicans, who themselves are accustomed to such rarefied atmospheres (literally).
Mexico to win. 7/4 on Betfair looks more than fair.
Thereafter, this group looks ripe for the Americas to take it to France. France may limp through into the last 16, but quotes of 11/10 to win the section are about as appetising as the majority of banquets served up in I’m A Celebrity bushtucker trials. I can’t make up my mind whether Uruguay or Mexico are better equipped to take advantage, but laying France at short odds may be the play.
Group Winners: Mexico
Group Runners Up: Uruguay
Argentina, Nigeria, Greece, South Korea
Diego Maradona: quite possibly the greatest player and worst manager Argentina have ever had. He’s a nutcase, plain and simple. If Argentina go all the way, it will be despite him, not because of him.
That said, there is such an embarrassment of talent at his disposal that he could probably play the reserve keeper up front, and still expect to qualify.
Players to watch, aside from the obvious duo of Tevez and Messi, are winger di Maria and striker Higuain, who could both be candidates for best player at the tournament… if… Argentina gel.
Nigeria are another moderate African nation this time around. It seems to be a sad truism that at this time the African continent have not really built on some promising signs six to ten years ago.
Greece and South Korea are quite similar: both are old teams, both rely on hard work and disciplined positional sense. In Gekas, Greece have a serious goal threat. His ten goals in twelve qualifying games was the most by anyone in the European sections. He’s bound to find it tougher here though.
Group Winners: Argentina
Group Runners Up: Greece
England, USA, Algeria, Slovenia
England have this group by the fleshy’s, and should progress without too much fuss. In fact, with it being entirely feasible that we score two plus goals in each game, the likes of Rooney and Crouch look interesting bets for top scorer honours.
Slovenia are technically strong, and work hard. Their aerial presence will threaten USA’s path to the last 16, and they might be a decent wager at 2/1 to get out of the group.
But this really should be all about England. Nine points and no injuries/ suspensions may be simplifying things somewhat, but that’s what I’m hoping for.
Group Winners: England
Group Runners Up: Slovenia
Germany, Serbia, Ghana, Australia
The loss of Ballack to injury has had a significant impact on the psyche of the German nation, as well as its squad. However, I suspect they’ll find that – when the footy starts – they don’t miss him that much.
There’s lots of experience and ability in the likes of Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and the free-scoring Polish strike force of Podolski and Miroslav Klose.
The Germans will be as well drilled as any and, God forbid it should come to penalties, they don’t miss too often from the spot.
Serbia are many people’s outside bet for the tournament, and I certainly expect them to qualify from the group. Whether they can get past likely last 16 opposition of England is another question. However, should it come to pass, their physical presence and technical wherewithal will provide The Three Lions with their toughest task thus far in the competition.
Ghana are another African team who are unlikely to cut much ice, and a win over Australia might be the best they can achieve. Losses to South Korea and USA do not augur well for the Socceroos, but their head-to-head against Ghana is impressive: in seven games, they’ve won four, drawn two and lost just once.
Still, odds of 1/3 that Australia don’t qualify looks nailed on. (Sorry Oz readers!)
Group Winners: Germany
Group Runners Up: Serbia
[Side note: should Germany finish second in this group and England win theirs, it will be England – Germany in the round of 16. Oh dear…]
Holland, Denmark, Cameroon, Japan
A number of people have been talking up Holland’s chances of winning the tournament, and also Japan’s chances of getting out of the group. Personally, I don’t agree with either, though I can understand the arguments for both.
Holland are great to watch, packed with technically excellent players, and qualified with eight wins from eight. But… they’re mad. March hares, the lot of ’em. Well, maybe not all of them, but enough for the historical divisions to cause problems for the squad.
Moreover, they have a dodgy defence which means that, although they’ve been winning their friendly prep games, they haven’t kept a clean sheet in their last four matches – against Hungary, Ghana, Mexico and USA.
Denmark are a team I like. A nice mix of youth and experience, robust qualification from a tough section, a goalscorer who looks to be improving all the time (Nicklas Bendtner), and a savvy coach who’s been there and done it.
Although I don’t dismiss Japan or Cameroon as lightly as I have some of the other group ‘also rans’, I do feel that they’ll struggle to overcome Denmark and progress in the tournament.
I think Denmark could get to the quarter-finals and, at that point, who knows? Remember, they were completely unconsidered when they won Euro 92. 6/1 to get eleminated in the quarter-finals, with a very small each way outright bet at 150/1 might at least present a trading opportunity in two weeks time…
Group Winners: Holland
Group Runners Up: Denmark
Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovakia
Oh dear. The Azzurri are all over the shop, and they are a serious Jekyll and Hyde team on the biggest stage. As World Champions, they are entitled to respect. Indeed, it is often when they’ve been written off – as their odds of 16/1 imply – that they’ve responded best. But it’s hard to see this vintage going the distance.
In fact, ‘vintage’ may be the operative word, with 36 year old Fabio Cannavaro assisted by 33 year old Gianluca Zambrotta and, presumably, a zimmer frame and some reading glasses.
There is limited creativity in midfield, despite the presence of names such as Camoranesi (show pony who’s never done much… ever), Pirlo (well past his sell by date), and Gattuso (more of a workhorse, and an injured one at that these days – still worth the entrance fee alone though!).
In Daniele de Rossi, they do have a midfielder of real class, and a lot will rest on his shoulders if Italy are to achieve much here.
Up front, Gilardino and di Natale have goals in their boots. Whether they can eke them out remains to be seen, though, as service might be in short supply.
The good news for Italy is that their group is possibly the weakest in the tournament. New Zealand may be the worst team present, Paraguay will probably flatter to deceive, and Slovakia are able enough but any number one seed would be happy to face them as their toughest group opposition.
Paraguay do possess some fine strikers. Roque Santa Cruz is well known to us Brits, and Nelson Valdez and Oscar Cardozo could introduce themselves in flamboyant fashion here. Or they could fail to show anything.
I’ll miss the brilliant sweeper keeper / free kick and penalty taker / inspirational captain, Jose Luis Chilavert, who is undoubtedly one of my favourite goalkeepers of all time: perhaps even my favourite.
Slovakia, where I have a little apartment and therefore an emotional attachment, may well get out of the group. They saw off the Czech Republic in qualifying, and in Hamsik have a midfielder who will light up the show. The Italians know all about him, as he scored twelve goals in his 37 Serie A appearances last season for Napoli.
13/10 with William Hill for the Slovaks to progress is too big.
New Zealand? Best stick to netball… 😉
Group Winners: Italy (just about)
Group Runners Up: Slovakia (although Paraguay could win this section!!!)
Brazil, Portugal, Ivory Coast, North Korea
The so called ‘Group of Death’. But is it? Well, sure there are three decent sides in the group and one will go home. But given their respective recent form, it won’t be the biggest surprise if either of Portugal or Ivory Coast go home.
Both have key players missing: Nani for Portugal, Drogba quite possibly for Cotes d’Ivoire. Brazil are not at their imperious best coming into this tournament, but coach Dunga (cow-a-Dunga!) has built his house of foundations of rock, specifically in a no-nonsense defence and perhaps a less fluid line up than we’re used to.
They should top the group, though won’t have it all their own way.
In the race for second, I slightly favour Portugal.Â They are solid defensively too, but they just can’t score. Ronaldo seems somewhat more muted when playing for his national side (for all the rubbish spouted about him having a poor club season, he scored 26 goals… in 29 appearances!… but he failed to score in any of the seven qualifying games in which he featured).
North Korea are likely to be the worst team at the finals. It will be a group of death for them!
Group Winners: Brazil
Group Runners Up: Portugal
Spain, Switzerland, Honduras, Chile
Spain are THE best team in the world right now. But that doesn’t always translate into being World Cup winners. Their ten game 100% record in qualifying, topped off by friendly wins against South Korea and France, maintains the momentum they began generating in the lead up to winning Euro 2008, and they are still a team in their prime.
As far as the group stage goes, it is difficult to see anyone getting too close. They had fourteen different scorers in qualifying and, remarkably, Fernando Torres was not one of them, despite playing seven games!
The race for second is between Switzerland and Chile. Plenty of fine judges have plumped for the Chileans, citing exciting players like Matias Fernandez and Humberto Suazo. But an injury scare to the latter gives a slight preference in my book for the Swiss, who have been quietly impressive in qualifying from a relatively tough section.
Their friendly games have been less promising, which just goes to offer a more generous price on them escaping the group. 13/8 with Paddy Power seems reasonable if not generous.
Group Winners: Spain
Group Runners Up: Switzerland
Round of 16
All of the above leads us to a last sixteen line up something like this:
Mexico vs Greece
England vs Serbia
Germany vs Slovenia
Argentina vs Uruguay
Holland vs Slovakia
Brazil vs Switzerland
Italy vs Denmark
Spain vs Portugal
I wouldn’t expect too many surprises at this stage, but there are generally one or two which you likely wouldn’t predict.
I do feel that Italy will struggle to get past Denmark, and I have the Danes taking a shock quarter-final berth.
Argentina – Uruguay could be a blood bath, and will make for compelling viewing!
Spain – Portugal is the Iberian derby, and may also not be as cut and dried as first meets the eye. Indeed, this might be Spain’s toughest match before the semi-final.
Down to eight, and my calculations have the following:
Holland vs Brazil
Mexico vs England
Germany vs Argentina
Denmark vs Spain
If this comes to pass, there are a couple of absolute bobby dazzlers here, with Holland – Brazil one for the purists, and Argentina – Germany one for the cards market players!
I’ve plumped for Holland and Germany, which leaves no South American teams in the last four. I wonder what price you’d get on that?!
England, recent comfortable conquerors of Mexico, would be well fancied to progress; and Spain should also see the gallant run of the Danish ended at the last eight stage.
England vs Holland
Germany vs Spain
Squeaky bum time all round now.
Only first rate sides left and, in truth, any two of the quartet could progress.
England are one of the sides that the Dutch would fear playing. Our team knows well enough the key threats in the Oranje, and I’m plumping for England making the final. This may be somewhat blind optimism/patriotism/stupidity, but if the cards fall as I’ve indicated, they should come to the semi’s a far fresher side than their opponents (be they Holland or Brazil).
Germany will make life very difficult for Spain. Spain have the class and a decent engine to boot. Germany have the discipline and are a far stronger unit than their individuals would imply. Nevertheless, I’m taking class to rise to the top here, although it might require the dreaded shoot-out to separate them…
ENGLAND vs SPAIN
A dream final for many Englishmen – a nightmare scenario for pom-bashers everywhere!
The two pre-eminent teams in European Champions League football share the biggest soccer stage of them all. Logic dictates that Spain will prevail, but by this stage punting is for non-English/Spanish citizens, as there is far more on the line than mere shekels.
Sir Fabio Capello; Wayne Rooney, CBE; Lord Lampard… could it really happen? Let’s dream for a few days longer!
p.s. you can get all the outright betting odds from here.