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Monday, May 17, 2010
Defending champs draw soft group

By Nate Silver
Special to


No group in the World Cup is easy. But if Group G, which we'll tackle next week, is the Group of Death, Group F might be as well be the Group of Life.

Indeed, as far as SPI is concerned, this is about the weakest possible permutation of teams that might have been drawn into competition together. Save for the hosts, Italy has the worst SPI rating among the eight seeded teams that were drawn out of Pot 1 in December. New Zealand had the worst SPI rating in Pot 2 (just a few notches behind North Korea). Slovakia had the worst SPI in Pot 4. This is also one of just two groups that avoided drawing an African team, while the South American representative, Paraguay, is the lowest-ranked from among the five World Cup-bound teams from that continent.

All of this will work to the principal benefit of the Italians, a team that might otherwise have been prone to an upset. Paraguay will also have significantly better odds at advancing than many teams ranked ahead of it.

Italy (83 percent to advance, 49 percent to win group). Italy's SPI ranking -- we have the defending champions only 11th -- is sure to be the subject of some controversy. But since their triumph in Germany in 2006, the Italians have not always performed well when matched against elite competition. Since the previous World Cup, in fact, Italy is 1-5-1 against teams ranked in the SPI top 10 and was shut out in all but one of those matches. (Against teams ranked 11 through 20, they are 2-3-1, with six goals scored and seven conceded.) Were this any other team, we'd say that Italy is capable of playing with anyone on its best day but cannot be depended upon to do so consistently.

Of course, this is Italy, and its track record at the World Cup speaks for itself. SPI is an algorithm that looks mostly at recent form; it is not sentimental and does not have a long memory. And from a talent standpoint, the Italians still look just fine -- even if their lineup is aging and even if the quality of competition in Serie A (where all members of the roster but Giuseppe Rossi perform) has conceded a bit to Spain and England.

But the best news for the Italians, again, is their comparatively easy group. In fact, with its toughest match (against Paraguay) coming first, Italy should have the potential to enter the knockout stage playing very relaxed soccer should it win the opener. From there, the key match figures to be the quarterfinal, where Italy is likely to face Brazil or Spain and will have to rely heavily on keeper Gianluigi Buffon.

Paraguay (77 percent chance to advance, 40 percent to win group). Paraguay is not truly a dark horse, having qualified for its fourth consecutive World Cup, and having accumulated only one fewer point than Brazil in CONMEBOL qualifying (although with a much worse goal differential). Its strength is in playing careful, defensive football, as the striking talent is a bit thin after Roque Santa Cruz. But in this fairly weak group, that is liable to be enough to advance.

Slovakia (32 percent chance to advance, 10 percent to win group). Slovakia's performance in World Cup qualifying was impressive, with seven wins in 10 matches. But apart from that, Slovakia has little on its résumé. Since divorcing from the Czech Republic in 1990, Slovakia has never qualified for the European Championship, nor had it ever before qualified for the World Cup. To the extent that anything can be gleaned from friendlies, its performance has not been impressive, as Slovakia has gone 3-9-1 in its last 13 friendly contests, including losses to Iceland and Cyprus. And most of the roster plays for second- or third-tier clubs in Europe. But Slovakia plays wide-open football, and it may take only one upset to advance out of this group.

New Zealand (7 percent chance to advance, 1 percent to win group). I doubt I'll have to spend much time defending the Kiwis' low ranking; this is a team that, over the course of the past 18 months, has lost matches to Tanzania, Fiji and Thailand. Still, they'll be sentimental favorites, and they'll at least be used to the rhythms of the Southern Hemisphere.

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 election and created baseball's popular predictive system, PECOTA.