World Cup draw: the strong, the weak, the lucky
Who wound up in difficult groups and who got away easy from Friday's World Cup draw (average world ranking for four teams in parentheses):
GROUP A (24.25) — Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon.
As if the hosts and five-champions needed any help ...
The Brazilians certainly benefited from the draw. This should be a stroll into the second round for the Selecao.
None of the opponents in this group is elite, with Mexico and Cameroon not nearly the best from their continents. Croatia had to beat Iceland in a playoff to get into the tournament. Mexico had to do the same against New Zealand.
Brazil would be a strong favorite against most any combination, and anything less than three victories would be disappointing. There will be plenty of pressure on the Brazilians in a country where soccer is almost religion, but Brazil won't feel it here.
GROUP B (21.00) — Spain, the Netherlands, Chile, Australia.
Never have the two finalists from the previous World Cup met in their opening game of the next tournament. The nasty final in South Africa was not a display of the best Spain and the Netherlands, but hopefully their match in Salvador on June 13 will show the brilliance both countries are capable of.
The Spaniards are on an unprecedented run of two European titles and one world championship. Although aging, they remain the measuring stick, with the deepest roster and a creative, attacking style few opponents can handle.
But the Dutch are one team that could do so, if they don't resort to the brutish tactics of the Johannesburg finale.
Netherlands striker Arjen Robben says a friend told him to avoid Chile, but no such luck. The Chileans were a steady third in the rugged South American qualifying and certainly present a threat to the Spaniards and Dutch. Australia does not.
GROUP C (20.25) — Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan.
A relatively even grouping with no clear favorite because neither Colombia nor Greece has a strong record of World Cup performances.
Colombia finished second in South American qualifying and even tied 0-0 at Argentina, but such impressive performances don't usually translate outside of that continent for the Colombians.
Greece could sneak off with this sector if it really has discovered some scoring. It did so in its qualifying playoff vs. Romania.
Ivory Coast is like many African teams: fun to watch and totally unpredictable. If star Didier Drogba brings his best game, something he couldn't do in 2010 because of injury, he's the most dangerous attacker in this group.
Japan tends to struggle in games away from Asia, but has upgraded its offense and has a chance in this division.
GROUP D (14.25) — Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy.
The Ticos from Costa Rica must be wondering who doesn't like them.
Their chances of getting out of this group are, well, pretty much nil. Even with England on something of a downslide and Uruguay needing to win a playoff with Jordan, the Central Americans are a distant fourth.
Italy, winner of the 2006 World Cup for its fourth crown, should be a solid favorite because it didn't lose in qualifying and it has some dynamic scoring led by mercurial Mario Balotelli to go with its staunch defense.
The English have tons of question marks on defense and at goalkeeper.
GROUP E (22.75) — Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras.
Call this the group of the Fortunate French.
France has been either title quality or awful in recent World Cups, and it need be no more than decent to escape this division.
The Swiss didn't lose in qualifying, albeit in a weak group, and must show they can score when facing elite opponents. Honduras plays well in CONCACAF, not anywhere else. And Ecuador scored only 20 goals in 16 qualifiers, showing a distinct inability to finish.
GROUP F (26.25) — Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria
Hey, Lionel, take the first round off. Your country won't need you.
The Albiceleste not only are ranked third in the world, they have the sport's best player, Lionel Messi. There have been injury issues for Messi, and he rarely performed at his best for Argentina until this cycle of qualifying. His nation can snooze through this group and still win it, though.
Bosnia-Herzegovina looked great in qualifying with strong offense and defense: 30 goals scored, six allowed.
Nigeria, if it bothers to play some defense, could be dangerous for second place.
Iran figures to be an also-ran.
GROUP G (11.25) Germany, Portugal, Ghana, United States.
The Americans say they welcome a challenge. They've got quite a doozy with this bunch, the toughest group of all.
Getting Germany is somewhat ironic considering U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann won a World Cup playing for that country, then coached it to third place in 2006. Klinsmann brought both precision and flair he learned in Germany to the United States.
For the Americans to have any chance to advance, they must beat Ghana in the opener. The Black Stars beat the U.S. in each of the last two World Cups.
Portugal can be nearly as formidable as Germany and has one of the world's top players, Cristiano Ronaldo.
GROUP H (28.25) Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea.
There's not much experience in what is, statistically, the easiest group. South Korea regularly gets in, but apart from 2002 when it made the semifinals as co-host, it has been a World Cup bust.
After a run of six straight World Cups, Belgium missed the last two. It's become a fashionable dark horse for this event after romping through qualifying, yielding only four goals.
Russia was nearly as impressive in a slightly easier European group and should be considered at least an equal favorite here with the Belgians.
Algeria doesn't attack much and that could be costly.