December 4th, 2009
09:32 PM ET

Countdown to 2010 begins in earnest

So, battle lines have been drawn, and each team now knows the immediate task ahead.

For some there'll be joy as they see a clear way through to the knock-out phase, while for others there'll be gloom with the realization that, short of a miracle, their World Cup may well last just three games.

The draw for the 2010 World Cup finals means the countdown to South African begins in earnest.
The draw for the 2010 World Cup finals means the countdown to South African begins in earnest.

No coach worth his salt will admit to either feeling though, as over-confidence piles on the pressure and sets you up for a fall, while a lack of confidence can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Instead, they'll head home, diplomatic and purposeful, to plan their strategies.

Ahead lies months of looking at tapes of the opposition; examining statistics; listening to scouting reports on this player and that; mulling over your squad selection; team formations; training schedule; accommodation etc.

The list is endless, but no detail can be overlooked, because 99 per cent preparation tends to equal 100 per cent failure.

So let's take a quick look at the groups. No doubt about the group of death, that's Group G.

Brazil, the five-times champions, are an obvious force; Portugal, who were semifinalists at the last World Cup, did not qualify well, but they have more than they showed; the Ivory Coast, African Cup of Nations runner-up, did not lose in the qualifiers, and have quality throughout; and North Korea, are an unknown quantity, who should be the whipping boys, but you never know.

The Netherlands are the best footballing nation never to win a World Cup, but nobody's talking about the Dutch threat. They won their European group by a landslide, and their World Cup group with Denmark, Japan and Cameroon should afford them a comfortable passage to the knock-out phase.

Germany and Ghana will not have things their own way in Group D. Serbia didn't stroll through the qualifiers, but won their group. And then there's Australia, who have quietly built into a real force. They dominated in the Asian qualifiers, and you'll remember how close they ran Italy in 2006. So this group could produce some drama.

Argentina can't breathe that easily either. Former European champions Greece have, in Otto Rehagel, the anti Maradona - a seasoned methodical coach as opposed to the inexperienced Diego who manages by instinct. South Korea have a decent world cup pedigree, and then there's Nigeria, a nation that didn't qualify that impressively, but has proved capable of rising to the World Cup challenge in the past. If not the group of death, it's no cake walk either.

South Africa will face a job to get out of their group, as we suspected. Unseeded France are clearly the favorites. Then it's a case of duking it out for second place between Mexico and Uruguay, with Mexico my tip to pull it off. Bafana Bafana will need to really dig deep to avoid being the first host not to make it to the knock-out phase. Carlos Alberto Parreira you have a tough few months ahead.

My home team, England, should make the second phase with some comfort. The USA will raise their game against the mother country, but I don't believe they have the weapons to hurt the English unduly. Algeria and Slovenia should not trouble Fabio Capello's men, though, if there is a banana skin, it could be the gutsy Algerians.

Finally, Italy and Spain can rejoice, because they are far and away the favorites to advance from their groups, with Paraguay and Chile respectively, my choice to join them in the last 16.

And that's my take on the draw. Though, as we all discovered when most of the big guns underperformed at the 2002 World Cup in Asia, when teams travel to unfamiliar territory, strange things can happen.

And let's face it, whether you do this for a living like me, believe yourself to be an armchair expert, or are just a casual fan, we all know varying degrees of nothing until it all kicks off in June. Let the games begin.

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December 4th, 2009
12:44 PM ET

No easy games in World Cup draw

Thirty-two teams, eight seeds, four pots from which eight groups of four will be drawn. No two teams from the same qualifying region may be drawn together, with the exception of Europe, which may have two representatives in each group. Those are the facts for Friday’s World Cup draw in Cape Town, South Africa.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter ahead of the World Cup draw in Cape Town.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter ahead of the World Cup draw in Cape Town.

The prelude to the greatest show on Earth always reminds me of election night, when you sit round the TV watching the political landscape develop one result at a time. And just like in the political arena, the outcome will set the tone for what is to come when the real business begins next June.

Of course, the process will be meticulous, to avoid any accusation of unfair “stage management”.  But if I were coach of any of the seeds - which include hosts South Africa, reigning champions Italy, Argentina, Brazil, England, Germany, the Netherlands and reigning European champions Spain - there are several teams I’d certainly hope to avoid.

Top of my list would be France. Unseeded but ranked seventh in the world, the French have their pride at stake. After an embarrassingly early exit from last year’s European Championship, they struggled through the World Cup qualifiers, drew the wrath of the world with a controversial play-off victory against Ireland, and have, in Raymond Domenech, a coach under siege.

In short, Les Bleus, who let’s remember have made two of the last three finals, winning in 1998, are a wounded tiger. So beware.

As we all know, this is Africa’s first World Cup. And, though Africa is a continent not a country, I believe that most Africans, regardless of nationality, see this tournament as theirs, and will back every African team against all-comers. So, home advantage will go to all six African teams not just South Africa.

And the two teams tipped to make home-advantage count are the Ivory Coast and Ghana. The Elephants, as the Ivory Coast are known, qualified impressively without losing a match. They boast a squad drawn substantially from the cream of European football, and are spearheaded by one of the most feared strikers in the game - Didier Drogba. They also want to atone for 2006, when they went out in the first round. So, my expectation is that the Elephants will charge.

Ghana might also be a team best avoided by the big guns early on. The Black Stars were the first team to qualify for the finals; are defensively sound, (belying the hoary old criticism that African teams lack defensive discipline); and are riding the crest of a wave after winning the Under-20 World Cup. What’s more, despite having made the finals for only the second time, Ghana is regarded as a sleeping giant of African football, which may be about to awaken.

Chile and Paraguay would also be on my by-pass list. In the unusually tight South American qualifiers, they finished second and third respectively, each with only one less point than five-time World Champions, Brazil. Chile is a quality side that scores a lot of goals. And, as the youngest team to make it from South America, tend to play without inhibition. Meantime, Paraguay is a well balanced team, strong in defense with a new found potency in attack.

Mind you, looking through the field there are few teams I’d consider pushovers. Would you fancy taking on Australia in the first-phase after they ran eventual champions, Italy, so close in 2006? They also dominated their group in the 2010 qualifiers despite switching regions from Oceania to a tougher Asian section.

And what about the unpredictable USA? While their only World Cup of note was in 2002 when they made the quarter-finals, they proved in this year’s Confederations Cup Final against Brazil that they can test the best on their day.

As the cliché goes, there are no easy games in international football, and I can’t wait to see who meets who in 2010.

If you’d like to follow the draw along with analysis via Skype from CNN's expert panel, make sure to visit the Connect the World Web page later today and click on "join the chat." All you need to get involved is a Skype username. We look forward to hearing your opinions as each country discovers its fate.

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