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Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Updated: April 27, 3:42 PM ET
Argentina big favorite in Group B

By Nate Silver
Special to ESPN.com

 

On paper, this is one of the less compelling groups. There is little in the way of natural rivalries. The group did not draw one of the elite European sides. There is a clear front-runner in Argentina and a clear No. 2 in Nigeria, which isn't necessarily better than Greece or South Korea (the latter three squads are bunched closely together between No. 32 and No. 38 in the SPI rankings). But the Nigerians will benefit from playing on their home continent.

Still, with a series of teams that have a well-earned reputation for inconsistent play, a broad array of outcomes -- from wild and erratically played shootouts to conservative 0-0 draws -- are liable to be observed. And if Argentina were to drop its opening match against Nigeria, the group would open up substantially.

Argentina (77 percent chance to advance, 49 percent to win group). SPI is not designed to punish or reward teams based on past performance; rather, its goal is to predict how effectively they'll perform going forward. So the system is somewhat willing to excuse Argentina's bumpy road in CONMEBOL qualifying. It does have some good excuses: With the emergence of teams like Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay, South American qualifying is now brutally tough. The Argentines were not always fielding their best lineups as Diego Maradona overmanaged the team toward the end of qualifying. And the talent on Argentina rivals that of any side in the world, with stars like Lionel Messi excelling in club play. It may be a hit-or-miss World Cup for the Argentines -- their toughest match, against Nigeria, is their first one, and if they were to drop it, one can imagine Maradona panicking and giving away what should be relatively easy points against South Korea and Greece. But one can just as easily imagine them going 3-0 and cruising into the semifinals without much trouble. A 1-0 road friendly win against Germany in March may have helped to settle their stomachs.

Nigeria (57 percent chance to advance, 28 percent to win group). In contrast to the usual stereotype of the running-and-gunning African team, Nigeria actually plays at a rather slow pace: It played five 0-0 draws in the span of less than a year between February and January, and the last time it scored more than a single goal against another World Cup qualifier was in June 2008 (a 2-0 home win against South Africa). Thus, the Nigerians may try to play for the draw against Argentina, figuring they can pick up at least four points in their matches against South Korea and Greece. It isn't a bad bet -- our research shows that playing on one's home continent is a significant advantage in the World Cup -- but after a somewhat flat performance in the African Nations Cup, Nigeria would have to take more chances to advance past the round of 16.

South Korea (33 percent chance to advance, 12 percent to win group). Unusually for an Asian team, the South Koreans have some star power in the form of Manchester United's Park Ji-Sung, who has contributed a couple of big goals for the Red Devils this season. Nevertheless, the South Koreans lack striking talent and will have to play smart football to advance. Having secured their place in the World Cup way back in June 2009, the South Koreans have been inconsistent since then, defeating Paraguay, Australia and Ivory Coast in friendly matches but losing badly to China in the East Asian Championship and dropping a friendly to Zambia.

Greece (33 percent chance to advance, 12 percent to win group). SPI is somewhat down on the Greeks, who qualified (after a playoff against Ukraine) out of a very weak European bracket and lost all three matches in Euro 2008 after having unexpectedly won the tournament four years earlier. Meanwhile, only five players from among their current 22-man roster play in one of the big four European leagues. When their defense and goalkeeping is cohesive, as it was in 180 minutes of shutout football against Ukraine, the Greeks can be a resolute opponent. But their track record over the past several years suggests they're underdogs to play the mistake-free football they'll likely need to advance.

Nate Silver is a renowned statistical analyst who was named one of "The World's 100 Most Influential People" by Time Magazine in 2009. He gained acclaim for outperforming the polls in the 2008 U.S. presidential elections and created baseball's popular predictive system, PECOTA.