After an agonizingly long draw last Friday -- highlighted by Gary Lineker's comment on the BBC that "The sight of Heidi Klum looking after our balls should fill us all with anticipation" --we now know who's playing where in Germany next summer. That means we can look into the crystal ball.
Keep in mind we're 176 days away from the first game. These picks are going to change along the way. But here's my first forecast:
Germany (16th in the FIFA world rankings), Costa Rica (21), Ecuador (37), Poland (23)
Outlook: Germany could hardly have asked for a better draw. The Ticos, Ecuador and the Poles are solid teams, but none should be too much trouble for the hosts, who have dipped to 16th in the latest world rankings. The Germans were bounced from Euro 2004 in the group stages and didn't have to go through qualifying since they're the hosts, so it's tough to get a handle on their form. (Friendlies aren't always the most reliable gauge.) They got what they needed from the draw: three winnable games to find their feet, get the rust off, buckle down and whatever other cliché you can think of.
This ought to be an entertaining group, though -- the battle for the second spot should to be quite tight. Costa Rica looked like it might miss out on qualifying, but the Ticos rebounded when they brought back head coach Alexandre Guimaraes, who led them to Korea/Japan 2002 -- where they narrowly missed advancing from a very tough group that included the eventual champs (Brazil) and third-place team (Turkey). The Poles aren't flashy, but they have a knack for grinding out results. Ecuador, which was ranked 71st in the world when Cup qualifying started, raised eyebrows by beating Brazil and Argentina in qualifying, jumping to 37th in the process. The big question: How will they perform at sea level? (Quito is at 9,350 feet.)
Upset Special: If things go according to form (and they rarely do), Germany will win its first two games, against Costa Rica and Poland. The Germans are obviously better than Ecuador, too, but if the hosts already have six points and their passage to the knockout stages booked, they could slip up against the South Americans.
Best Game: June 18, Ecuador vs. Costa Rica. A couple of potent offenses face off, with a spot in the round of 16 most likely on the line.
Man of the Group: All eyes are going to be on Germany's Michael Ballack, who will be in the news a lot in the months leading up to the Cup due to his uncertain club status. (He's on his way out of Bayern Munich, with all the usual suspects casting come-hither looks in his direction.) We'll see if he's worth it.
Who's Going Through: Germany should coast. Poland will be tough, as always, but I don't see it shutting down all three of its foes. I think it comes down to the aforementioned Ecuador-Costa Rica game, which could be a barnburner. I want to pick Ecuador, but I'm going with Costa Rica -- however, I reserve the right to change my mind frequently over the next six months.
England (9), Paraguay (30), Trinidad and Tobago (51), Sweden (14)
Outlook: The story here is England-Sweden. The English haven't beaten the Swedes in 37 years, and there's the whole Sven saga (England's head coach, Sven-Göran Eriksson is a Swede). That game is going to be a circus. Trinidad and Tobago fall into the "Happy to Be Here" category. They eked through against Bahrain in a playoff that was pretty ugly. Paraguay is intriguing -- it made it out of the group stages in the past two Cups, and it has developed an interesting habit of flummoxing Argentina. (The Paraguayans beat them 1-0 in qualifying and drew their other matchup.)
Upset Special: Paraguay has a chance to pull the first big shocker in the tourney. It plays England on the second day, and based on England's erratic form of late, the Paraguayans have a really good shot at taking them down.
Best Game: June 20, England-Sweden. England is going to have a few good days and a few bad ones. I think Paraguay's going to beat them, then I think they're going to turn around and beat the Swedes. Few teams in the world win games they should lose and lose games they should win like the English. (They lost to Northern Ireland in qualifying, then beat Argentina in a hotly contested friendly.)
Man of the Group: Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Sweden's skillful striker bagged a couple of goals in Euro 2004 and his form for Juventus has been impressive. He is a bit temperamental, though -- if he can keep his emotions in check, the 24-year-old could be one of the tournament's breakout stars.
Who's Going Through: It's entirely possible that T&T will go 0-3 and the other three sides will finish 2-1. If it comes down to goal difference, you've got to like the Swedes, who are loaded in attack with Ibrahimovic, Henrik Larsson and Freddy Ljungberg. Second spot? Paraguay. Sorry, Sven.