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Tuesday, May 25, 2010
Portugal-Ivory Coast game looms as key

By Nate Silver
Special to


Many commentators instantly labeled Group G as the "Group of Death," and indeed it contains three teams that would be heavy favorites to advance out of any other group. Still, there's a bit more separation among the sides than the label might imply. Brazil, although it will receive a vigorous challenge from Portugal and Ivory Coast, is so strong that it has 87 percent odds of advancement. And North Korea, of course, has almost no chance. That leaves Portugal and Ivory Coast vying for what will likely be second position.

Brazil (87 percent to advance, 60 percent to win group). Few will be surprised by Brazil's high ranking, but it comes because the Brazilians are at their best when they're playing their best. They're 10-0-0 in their last 10 contests against other World Cup qualifiers, and 23-3-3 overall against them since the last World Cup in Germany. These are critical numbers to look at, since Brazil sometimes does not field its best lineups against second- and third-tier opponents. Brazil will be looking for an unblemished path through the group, since a second-place finish will mean a date with the Group H winner in the round of 16 -- which is liable to be Spain.

Portugal (59 percent chance to advance, 22 percent to win group). Struggles early in a tricky World Cup qualifying now look like an aberration for the 2006 semifinalists, and with Cristiano Ronaldo apparently healthy, expectations for the Portuguese will be high. Then again, there is sometimes the sense that this team is underachieving despite its considerable individual talent -- an inexplicable 0-0 draw against Cape Verde on Monday (in which Portugal actually fielded close to a regular lineup) being the latest example. Look for Portugal to attack the rival Brazilians; in four matches against them since 2002 (all friendlies), Portugal has made out relatively well, winning twice and drawing another.

Ivory Coast (49 percent chance to advance, 16 percent to win group). Ivory Coast is very dangerous and has perhaps the best chance of any African team in history of winning the Cup. But its star has dimmed some after an uninspired performance in the African Nations Cup and inconsistent play in recent friendlies. Part of the reason may be that Ivory Coast is imbalanced. Behind Didier Drogba, Ivory Coast has the fifth-ranked offense in the world, according to SPI. But the defense ranks just 45th. It will make for wild, thrilling soccer -- particularly in front of home-continent crowds -- but this group is too tough to permit for very many defensive lapses.

North Korea (5 percent chance to advance, 1 percent to win group). About as unsympathetic an underdog as there might be, the North Koreans play dull, defensive soccer and were fortunate to qualify. Their upside is probably limited to a draw against Ivory Coast or Portugal.

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.