Argentina (4), Ivory Coast (41), Serbia and Montenegro (47), Netherlands (3)
Outlook: The European press has anointed this the Group of Death, but I'm not buying it. Sure, you've got two of the top four teams in the world. But they should both coast through the group stage. The Ivory Coast has a few big names (Arsenal's Kolo Touré, Chelsea's Didier Drogba, Lens' Aruna Dindane), but the Elephants aren't deep enough or consistent enough to hang with the Argies and the Dutch. Serbia and Montenegro allowed just one goal, to Spain, in 10 qualifying games, but the competition is a little tighter here.
Upset Special: It wouldn't surprise me if S&M held one of the Big Two to a draw, but I don't see it or the Ivory Coast pulling a shocker.
Best Game: June 21, Argentina-Netherlands. Potentially the best game in the tournament until the semis. Since it's the last group game, it'll be played at the same time as the Serbia and Montenegro-Ivory Coast game. Think anyone will be watching the latter?
Man of the Group: Edwin van der Sar. The Dutch keeper conceded just three goals in the Oranje's 12 qualifiers.
Who's Going Through: The Dutch have really stepped it up since Marco van Basten took over as head coach, twice beating the Czech Republic by a 2-0 scoreline. They'll win the group -- and establish themselves as a serious favorite to win the Cup -- by beating Argentina, which will come in second to advance.
Mexico (7), Iran (19), Angola (61), Portugal (10)
Outlook: Like C, this one looks like a two-horse race. But one of those horses is Portugal, which every four years or so endeavors to invent a new way of blowing it at the World Cup. That means Iran could become a factor. Even in winning nine and drawing three in their 12 qualifying games, the Portuguese found a way to be maddeningly inconsistent. They blew a two-goal lead and drew with Lichtenstein, then banged home seven against Russia four days later.
Upset Special: If Angola wins a game, I'll eat my hat. (Or at least some cupcakes.) That leaves Iran. I don't think it can beat Mexico, so if there's going to be an upset, it's going to have to be against Portugal. And I don't think it'll happen. In 2002, Portugal was considered a decent shot to win it all. Burdened with those expectations, they came out of the gate tight. Unfortunately for them, they were playing a U.S. team that was good enough to take advantage of it. This year they open with Angola, which doesn't have the talent to knock them off even if Portugal comes out flat again. It will be an easy win for Luiz Felipe Scolari's side, so there's not going to be a crisis of confidence this time around. By the time they get to the Iran game, I think they'll be firing on all cylinders.
Best Game: June 21, Portugal-Mexico. The top scorer in World Cup qualifying (Mexico's Jared Borgetti) goes up against the top scorer in European qualifying (Pauleta).
Man of the Group: Cristiano Ronaldo. If nothing else, he'll probably lead the tournament in step-overs.
Who's Going Through: Portugal beats Mexico and wins the group. Iran scratches out a draw against Portugal, but it's not enough -- Los Tricolores claim the second spot with six points.
Italy (12), Ghana (50), Czech Republic (2), United States (8)
Outlook: I got your Group of Death right here, pal. All due respect to C, this is the worst group to be in, because one of the world's top 12 teams is guaranteed an early trip home. And Ghana is no day at the beach, either. This is a nasty, nasty group. It's more like a Group of Death After a Long and Agonizing Period of Suffering.
The U.S. draw kind of reminds me of 2002. On paper, the toughest game comes first, against a high-scoring, elite team without much history in the World Cup. In '02 that worked out well; the Portuguese came out sluggish, the U.S. jumped them and stole the game. The same thing could happen with the Czechs. This is the first time they've qualified for the World Cup. They're looking to eradicate the disappointment of failing to qualify for the last three tournaments, and people are expecting big things out them. (They certainly looked dangerous at Euro 2004.)
That was pretty much the same boat Portugal was in four years ago. And, as discussed, the first half-hour of the tournament was a disaster for them. They looked lost, and the U.S. put them on their heels straight away with John O'Brien's goal. By the time they got their bearings, they were losing 3-0. If the U.S. has a shot against the Czechs, it's that there's a chance the Czechs will pull a Portugal and be similarly tight for the first 20 minutes or so. That's when the U.S. needs to strike. If they can send them reeling in the early minutes, they might be able to pull it out.
And it's not a terrible mismatch. The two strongest pieces of the Czech attack, midfielder Pavel Nedved and gigantic striker Jan Koller, will be going up against two of the strongest pieces of the U.S. defense: midfielder Pablo Mastroeni and defender Oguchi Onyewu. If the Maestro can slow Nedved down and the Gooch can manhandle Koller (and really, is there anyone the Gooch can't manhandle?), the Yanks could make it interesting.
After that comes Italy, which isn't going to be easy. Everyone is talking about how the Italians are off their game, how they're not as dangerous as in years past. They still scare the life out of me. I can't see the U.S. breaking down that defense. And then, just as in 2002, the U.S. closes with what should be its easiest game, against Ghana. As we saw with the Poland game in Korea, though, there really are no easy games
Upset Special: Ghana's going to beat someone, and I've got a sinking feeling it might be the U.S. More likely: the Italians.
Best Game: June 22, Czech Republic-Italy. The Czechs love to attack, the Italians love to defend.
Man of the Group: Nedved. The Czech Republic's playmaker could hold the key to the Italy game. He plies his trade in Serie A, which can't hurt. If he can make things happen, run the attack, maybe bang a pass or two off Koller's head, then the Czechs should beat the Azzurri and top the group.
Who's Going Through: Honestly, I have no idea how the U.S. is going to handle this group. Some days I think we're really on the verge of doing something special. Other days, I tell myself that we made the final eight in '02 despite winning only two games -- and one of those was against Mexico, whom we own. We got slaughtered by Poland, for crying out loud.
I've gone over permutation after permutation, and this is what I'm telling myself is going to happen.
• U.S.: draws against the Czechs, loses to Italy, beats Ghana.
• Czech Republic: draws against the U.S., beats Ghana, beats Italy.
• Italy: beats the U.S., loses to the Czechs, ?? against Ghana.
• Ghana: loses to the U.S., loses to the Czech Republic, ?? against Italy.
So it all comes down to Italy-Ghana (which is actually the first game). If Italy draws or wins, they go through. If Ghana wins, the U.S. sneaks through with four points. And I've already pegged Ghana to pull the upset. So the Yanks are into the round of 16 again.