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Tuesday, May 4, 2010
Germany heads tough, deep group

By Nate Silver
Special to


From top to bottom, this is probably the most competitive group in the tournament. Group G -- with Brazil, Ivory Coast and Portugal -- has better talent at the top, but also North Korea for comic relief. Here, on the other hand, there can be no letting up. Germany, of course, is always tough; the Serbians have an underrated roster; Ghana is playing on its home continent, and Australia -- though the riskiest bet of the four -- can shut down opponents on its better days and is capable of one or more upsets. Nothing should be taken for granted, particularly the position of Germany, which is about 60 percent to advance against this competition.

Germany (61 percent to advance, 34 percent to win group). Reversing the pattern exhibited by some of its best World Cup teams of the past, this is a German squad whose defense somewhat lags its attack after the retirement of longtime goalkeeper Oliver Kahn. The Germans have conceded two or more goals seven times in their past 23 matches -- hardly a catastrophic record but one, in a group that will permit little margin for error, that could cost them their ability to advance if they concede a soft goal against a team like Australia. The attack, of course, led by Lukas Podolksi and Miroslov Klose as well as Michael Ballack from midfield, should be terrific, as few teams have as many scoring threats. Bear in mind that SPI is not especially down on the Germans -- it has them ranked sixth in the world, the same as FIFA -- but it does think they've drawn a very tough group.

Serbia (55 percent chance to advance, 28 percent to win group). While Serbia hasn't always played like an elite team -- failing, for instance, to qualify for Euro 2008 -- the Serbian roster certainly looks like the sort that should be one of Europe's best, as it boasts 16 players who play in one of the Big Four club leagues. Because SPI explicitly takes club league performance into account, it gives the Serbians a bit more credit than other systems. Certainly, however, Serbia's consistent performance during World Cup qualifying should also provide a confidence boost (it did suffer a late loss to Lithuania, but only after already clinching a berth). The caveat is that Serbia -- then playing as Serbia and Montenegro -- had a bit of trouble deciding what pace to play at in 2006, which could be problematic in a group featuring teams that will come at them with a variety of styles.

Ghana (47 percent chance to advance, 22 percent to win group). Although it was the first African team to qualify (save for the hosts), Ghana is probably not the best team on the continent, an honor that would go to Ivory Coast or perhaps Cameroon (or even Egypt, which didn't make the tournament but won the African Nations Cup). In particular, Ghana lacks the striking talent of some of the other African clubs. But the Ghanese have played mature soccer when it's mattered -- including a very solid run in Germany in 2006 -- and with home-continent advantage, they are only barely behind Germany and Serbia in their odds of advancement.

Australia (37 percent to advance, 16 percent to win group). The Socceroos are tough to get a handle on. In spite of having transferred to the relatively more competitive Asian Football Confederation, Australia rarely encounters elite opponents except in friendlies, from which only so much can be gleaned. Moreover, with more and more of their talent playing literally on the other side of the world in the club leagues of Europe, it isn't always easy for the Aussies to get their full roster together. The case for Australia rests in its strong performance in Germany in 2006, and the presence of star goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer, who has excelled for Fulham. Australia starts out as the nominal underdogs in a tough group, but should Schwarzer pull off a clean sheet against Germany or Serbia, that may be all it will 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.