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Friday, December 4, 2009
World Cup live draw instant analysis

By Ravi Ubha
Special to

The wait is over. After the thrills and spills of qualifying around the globe, we find out the draw for the world's biggest party, the World Cup.

Wherever there's soccer glitterati, there's sure to be David Beckham, and the iconic England veteran was on hand in Cape Town to help with the festivities along with Oscar winner Charlize Theron. Beckham is hoping he'll be in South Africa next summer, which isn't assured.

Ravi Ubha's instant analysis of the eight four-nation groups, throwing in his picks to advance to the second round.

GROUP A (FIFA ranking)

South Africa (86)

Mexico (15)

Uruguay (19)

France (7)

If you're Irish, you would have hoped for France to land in a tougher section. No such luck. Raymond Domenech's underachievers will be the heavy favorites. For all their lack of punch against Ireland in the European playoffs, Les Bleus don't concede much and can turn it on at will, evidenced by their surprising sprint to the 2006 final. France downed South Africa 3-0 en route to the title at home in 1998.

Who gets second? Hosts South Africa will need every bit of crowd support, given they're the lowest-ranked side in the showpiece. Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar must control the midfield, and towering defender Matthew Booth needs to be fit. Mexico, in the round of 16 in the last four World Cups, turned it around in qualifying once stoic Swede Sven-Goran Eriksson departed and inspirational playmaker Cuauhtemoc Blanco returned. France and Mexico are no strangers, having squared off in 1930, 1954 and 1966.

Uruguay, winners in 1930, needed the playoffs to advance but possess a lethal strike force in Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez. To boot, Uruguay has lost just once to France in five matches.

Advancing: France, Mexico


Argentina (8)

South Korea (52)

Nigeria (22)

Greece (12)

Watching the likes of Argentine trio Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero should be fun. However, monitoring unpredictable coach Diego Maradona might take the cake. Argentina squeaked into the World Cup possessing some of the top firepower around, but only a major collapse won't see them reach the round of 16. Given Maradona is at the helm …

South Korea, appearing at a seventh straight World Cup and semifinalists on home soil in 2002, is, as always, technically adept. The linchpin in midfield is Manchester United's workhorse Park Ji-Sung. Nigeria needed to score two late goals on the final day of African qualifying and lacks of the depth of past years. Further, there's growing speculation coach Shaibu Amodu might be replaced by Italian Roberto Mancini. Not good.

Greece, the unlikely European champs in 2004, got outscored by a combined 10-0 making its other appearance at a World Cup, in 1994. That won't happen here. Still led by "King" Otto Rehhagel, Greece possesses the top scorer in European qualifying, Theo Gekas, to go along with midfield steel.

Advancing: Argentina, Greece


England (9)

U.S. (14)

Algeria (28)

Slovenia (33)

Will this be the year England finally wins a second World Cup, and a first on the road? The Three Lions looked almost invincible in qualifying under Italian boss Fabio Capello, scoring the most goals and appearing pretty tight at the back. Striker Wayne Rooney is the type of player that can change games -- for good or bad.

The U.S., though, won't be intimidated. For one thing, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Jozy Altidore, among others, ply their trade in the competitive Premier League. Bob Bradley's side also reached the final of last summer's Confederations Cup, knocking off powerhouse Spain in the process, so don't read too much into a 2-0 friendly loss at Wembley in May 2008.

The bad news is vital central defender Oguchi Onyewu might not be back from a knee injury and speedster Charlie Davies won't feature as he recovers from injuries sustained in a car accident.

Slovenia deserves plenty of respect for just getting here, since the nation's population is about a paltry two million. Slovenia, which upset Russia in the playoffs, picks up points by virtue of a stingy defense that allowed four goals in 10 games.

Algeria's tense playoff win over Egypt, after a contentious loss days earlier, got it into the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

Advancing: England, Slovenia


Germany (6)

Australia (21)

Ghana (37)

Serbia (20)

This will be a challenger for the "group of death."

Germany won't be panicking one bit, though. What the Germans lack in star names, Chelsea midfielder Michael Ballack aside, they make up for with tenaciousness and an ability to get goals from different sources. Runners-up in 2002 and semifinalists at home in 2006 prove their recent class.

Australia, released from Oceania, cruised in Asian qualifying, adopting a more defensive approach under another Dutchman, Pim Verbeek. The Aussies, led by the aerial threat of Tim Cahill and stellar keeper Mark Schwarzer, gave eventual champions Italy a scare in the second round in 2006. And at the 2005 Confederations Cup, Australia played Germany tough, losing 4-3.

Ballack's club teammate, Michael Essien, is arguably one of the top two-way midfielders around. Essien led debutants Ghana to the second round in 2006 -- that, too, in a difficult group that featured Italy, the U.S. and the Czech Republic. Without a suspended Essien, Ghana subsequently fell to Brazil 3-0.

It was downright ugly when Ghana and Germany met for the only time in 1993, mind you, the Germans prevailing 6-1.

Radi Antic, who worked wonders at Atletico Madrid, steered Serbia ahead of France in qualifying and features gritty Manchester United defender Nemanja Vidic.

Advancing: Germany, Australia


Netherlands (3)

Japan (43)

Cameroon (11)

Denmark (26)

The Netherlands and Arsenal have one thing in common -- they play pretty but can't win trophies. Remember what happened to the Oranje at Euro 2008? The Dutch dazzled in the group stages, only to be ripped apart by Russia in the quarterfinals. Even allowing just two goals in qualifying was misleading. The Netherlands had an easy group, snuggled alongside Norway, Scotland, Macedonia and Iceland. The two-time finalists escaped the group of death in 2006, only to exit in the second round to Portugal.

Few expected Denmark, under longstanding coach Morten Olsen, to qualify for South Africa. But the Danes topped Portugal and Sweden for an automatic ticket and have avoided defeat against the Netherlands in five of their last six head-to-heads.

Japanese coach Takeshi Okada has lofty ambitions -- he wants his squad to venture to the semifinals. Dead-ball specialist Shunsuke Nakamura must provide a bit of magic if that's to happen -- but it didn't in September, when Japan meekly fell to the Netherlands 3-0 in a friendly.

Cameroon labored in qualifying until Frenchman Paul Le Guen, who excelled at Lyon, took charge. Striker Samuel Eto'o shows no sign of diminishing his goal tally. Cameroon, like Denmark, missed out on the World Cup in 2006.

Advancing: Netherlands, Denmark


Italy (4)

New Zealand (77)

Paraguay (30)

Slovakia (34)

Cigar-smoking boss Marcello Lippi achieved deity status in Italy after guiding the Azzurri to an unexpected World Cup title in Germany. Three years later it's a different story. Lippi is under pressure thanks to Italy's shocking display at the Confederations Cup and some less-than-convincing performances in qualifying. Italy continues to own the best keeper in world soccer, Gianluigi Buffon, but inspirational defender Fabio Cannavaro is getting up there and goals are hard to come by.

Still, Italy tops this group, having gone 3-0 against New Zealand, Paraguay and Slovakia in their most recent meetings and outscoring them a combined 10-4.

The battle for second lies between Paraguay and Slovakia, who've never met. Paraguayan government officials declared a national holiday when the team qualified for South Africa, and the Slovaks were probably no less jubilant, qualifying for the first time. Paraguay finished a highly respectable third in South American qualifying, counting on strikers Roque Santa Cruz, Salvador Cabanas and Nelson Valdez. Call the Slovaks well organized.

As for New Zealand, well, it's a case of "happy to be here." Three losses and perhaps no goals scored for the 77th-ranked Kiwis, who can at least take heart from a 4-3 friendly loss to an understrength Italy heading into the Confederations Cup.

Advancing: Italy, Paraguay


Brazil (2)

North Korea (84)

Ivory Coast (16)

Portugal (5)

Fans of the beautiful game must be licking their lips at the prospect of Brazil facing Portugal. Let's hope it's more competitive than when they last battled, though. Brazil, the record five-time World Cup winners, thumped Portugal 6-2 in a friendly in November 2008 thanks to a Luis Fabiano hat trick.

Sturdy Brazilian coach Dunga, who won the Cup as a player, was under pressure back then. That's subsided. Brazil topped South American qualifying and won the Confederations Cup. He'll want to take Brazil past the quarterfinals, where the Samba Boys fell tamely to France in 2006. Kaka and Ronaldinho failed to jell in midfield in Germany.

Portugal boss Carlos Queiroz was almost out of a job, too. Portugal won one of its first five in qualifying, leaving the team on the verge of elimination. The defense (yes, the defense) got the semifinalist out of it. Portugal hasn't conceded in its last five matches, with reigning world player of the year Ronaldo bizarrely not netting in qualifying.

By no means is this a two-team group. The Ivory Coast, armed with behemoth striker Didier Drogba, is Africa's top threat. They must be cursing their luck again, given their draw in 2006.

North Korea makes its first appearance since 1966 but knows Portugal well, falling in a 5-3 quarterfinal thriller in England largely courtesy of Eusebio.

Advancing: Brazil, Portugal


Spain (1)

Honduras (38)

Chile (17)

Switzerland (18)

Spain got rid of the underachiever tag at Euro 2008, easing to the title. There hasn't been a letdown. (Well, OK, you can mention the Confederations Cup.)

Now guided by veteran Vicente del Bosque, Spain won all 10 of its qualifiers, scored 28 goals and conceded five times. In Fernando Torres and David Villa, del Bosque has the best strike partnership in international soccer. Iker Casillas is right up there in keepers, while Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Marcos Senna comprise a glittering midfield. Spain is 6-0-1 versus Chile and unbeaten in 18 against Switzerland, including an encounter at the 1994 World Cup.

Chile, back for the first time since 1998, surprised in South American qualifying, finishing second with the region's second-youngest side. Humberto Suazo outdid Messi, Tevez and Santa Cruz, delivering an impressive 10 goals. Marcelo Bielsa, embarrassed in 2002 as Argentina's coach, molded the team together.

Honduras has the U.S. to thank for automatically qualifying, with another Suazo, Inter Milan striker David Suazo, figuring to be vital along with 36-year-old forward Carlos Pavon. Honduras' only other World Cup appearance came in 1982. Guess what? They tied Spain 1-1.

Solid but unspectacular, Switzerland's turning point in qualifying came when it lost -- at home -- to minnows Luxembourg. Ottmar Hitzfeld's men hardly put a foot wrong thereafter.

Advancing: Spain, Chile

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for