Just in time for some-but-not-all of the first qualifiers to be determined, here’s part two. The oopsie I made in your slippers on Tuesday here.

Group E

Netherlands (World Cup: Final), Sweden (UEFA qualifiers Group 1: 3/6), Finland (Qualifiers Group 4: 3/6), Hungary (Qualifiers Group 1: 4/6), Moldova (Qualifiers Group 2: 6/6), San Marino (Literally the worst team ever)

Sheila, circa 1978. Yes, my mother did used to be Martin Lawrence.

This year, and quite unexpectedly, the Dutch reached the World Cup Final for the first time since my mother danced to the Bee Gees. (I can only assume.) They did this with an unfancied team, after the most faltering of starts, etc etc… It’s big, is what I’m trying to say. Only a year ago the Netherlands’ stars, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben, were being unceremoniously dumped onto the transfer market by Real Madrid, a little taste of humble pie that culminated in a facefull of it for Madrid as the ex-galacticos showed what they could do for their new teams, both Champions League finalists, at Real’s home stadium. I guess there’s a reason the whole Spain squad comes from Barcelona.

Now that the World Cup is through they’re going to lose some people, most especially Van Bronckhorst. (Incidentally, does anyone know the convention for Dutch last names?  I know in French you drop the ‘de’ if the name is longer than a syllable – so ‘de Gaulle’ by ‘Lafayette’ – while in German ‘von’ indicates nobility so you’re always supposed to use it.) Hatchet man Mark van Bommel has been named their new captain, though, and everybody else is still on form. They have enough talent to overcome almost any degree of shakiness and the real danger is that, weighed down by scorn over their performance in Johannesburg, they pull back on their physicality too much. Like it or lump it, that’s how they got to the Final in the first place, and as the team reshapes around Robben and Sneijder it’s a useful stopgap.

Unlike some groups they’ll have stout competition. Sweden are under new management and they secured the instant coup of the return of petulant journeyman striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Not only is he a top class player, he’s a top class douchebag: Asked if he was getting his fiancee an engagement present he replied, “She gets Zlatan.” If I was called Zlatan and stood 6’20” I suppose I’d be slightly cocky, too, and Sweden have enough talent to justify him by building a squad around his striking prowess. Young midfielders like Martin Olsson are available in some abundance to fill out the now obligatory 4-2-3-1. (Or they might play two up front with new man Marcus Berg partnering with Ibra, though there’s not much evidence of how they’d work together.) Two goals from Olsson impressively put away Bosnia/Herzegovina in a friendly match in May, and on Ibra’s return Scotland – admittedly understrength, but when aren’t they? – were devastated.

Their partners from Group 1, Hungary, don’t look like challengers. Somewhat sad in a way, considering that Hungary are one of the two or three nations most conspicuous for their lack of international success. But they’re a smallish nation with no well-funded major league to promote their talent and Africa, not Eastern Europe, is now the growth area. They’re impressive enough, but the weak Sweden of 2009 was already too much for them. Sweden will be stronger this year – to say nothing of the Dutch.

One can’t be so sure about Finland. They don’t have much going for them but, not for nothing, they were the only team in qualification that Germany couldn’t beat. They finished a surprisingly strong third a mere four points behind Russia. Then again they drew to Lichtenstein and have never qualified for anything ever, and you’re hard-pressed to find a Finnish “name”. That could be a good thing – a bunch of players with some talent and small egos working together as a team, which is something of a Nordic trademark – but to face the other three in this group you need quality. I’m not sure they have enough.

The Dutch to win. Sweden second. Finland and Hungary have outside chances, but no better than maybe 3:1 or 5:1, respectively.

Key matches: All of them. Even the matches against the crappy teams: this group might come down to goal difference, which means scoring 12 against San Marino matters.

Group F

Croatia (UEFA qualifiers Group 6: 3/6), Greece (World Cup group stage: 3/4), Israel (Qualifiers Group 2: 4/6), Latvia (Qualifiers Group 2: 3/6), Georgia (Qualifiers Group 8: 6/6), Malta (Qualifiers Group 1: 6/6)

A big 2010 reunion here: Greece, Latvia and Israel were respectively 2, 3 and 4 behind Switzerland in Group 2 of the World Cup qualifiers.

Croatia are by some reckonings one of the World’s top ten teams despite missing out on a World Cup playoff spot. They benefit from the consistency of Slavan Bilic, coach since 2006, despite the fact that he’s perpetually thought to be on the verge of resignation (as late as November he was talking up a Premier League move). His record is why: despite the disappointment of 2010 he has a .710 average with only four defeats in thirty-eight matches. Croatia have an embarrassment of riches for such a small nation, with a first team that boasts starters from the best leagues in Europe, including a trio at Tottenham Hotspur. They’ll need a serious inquest into their tactics after a string of middling results but they’ll have the opportunity to experiment a little with Latvia before their home meeting with Greece. (A box of wine and some Kenny G is probably a good place to start.)

The two meetings with Greece will decide which one will qualify automatically – though Croatia and not Greece will be a lock for one or the other of the top two spots. Brand new coach Fernando Santos has domestic experience but will be thrown into the deep end 7 September. In his predecessor’s nine year term, encompassing a 2004 European Championship victory, relatively few players saw action as an established, trusted side was played over and over. That was then: now they’re stale and were found out at the World Cup, where only two players were under 25 (versus eight 30+ and six who had fewer than 10 caps, including two who had never featured for the national team before). The country featured regularly in the advanced stages of European club competition, but the league has suffered lately and is now a lesser Scotland, with Olympiacos besting Panathinakos about once every six years. Constant European play lets the two big clubs buy players from outside Greece, which dilutes the talent pool for the national team. Lately, it’s showed.

Israel and Latvia both finished relatively solidly in an even group for the 2010 World Cup qualifying, mostly because it was also really awful. Latvia did especially well considering they have a squad that boasts nothing in the way of European competitors, while Israel often sends a team to the group stage of the Champions League (this year Hapoel Tel Aviv) but finds itself too Jewish for Asian competition and too poor for European.  Either of these teams have an outside chance – but only an outside chance – of stealing a march on Greece. Georgia and Malta do not (indeed I suspect football fans in the latter may wish they’d accepted the chance to fuse with England even after the World Cup).

Croatia should win. I’d like see Latvia or Israel sneak into the playoffs as rank outsiders but it’ll probably be Greece.

Key matches: Croatia against Greece for first; Latvia and Israel against Greece for second.

Group G

England (World Cup: Round of 16), Switzerland (World Cup: Group stage 3/4), Bulgaria (UEFA qualifiers Group 8: 3/6), Wales (Qualifiers Group 4: 4/6), Montenegro (Qualifiers Group 8: 5/6)

Speaking of being on crack, I feel confident enough after England’s friendly win and the following tabloid reports in predicting the Three Lions as runaway winners in 2012 and Brazil 2014.

Why? For the lulz.

A well-researched dramatization of Fabio Capello giving the bad news to a hapless young Englishman.

Fortunately for dear old England, they’ll have the benefit of a slimmed down (and relatively anemic) fixture list. England aren’t so hard to upset, but of the other teams here only Switzerland’s a real contender to take points from them. The Special One allegedly-kind-of-but-not-actually thinks England is doomed under Fabio Capello. He can backpedal all he wants – I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying that a nation who cannot find the native coaching talent to have a national manage their team has no place in the first rank. Could you imagine Italy having a foreign coach? The Dutch? The Spanish? No, but you can imagine them winning something, too.

Qualification was supposed to feature the departure of the old guard and the arrival of new faces like Jack Wilshere, Adam Johnson and – one can only hope – Tom Cleverley. In the event of the promising youngsters only Johnson and Arsenal defender Kieran Gibbs actually made it into the squad, with Wilshere sent back to the under-21s. Other overlooked players, including Darren Bent and Everton’s Phil Jagielka, did break the final squad, where they’re joined by Joe Hart. Though it’s too early to tell, Hart looks to be the first time England is in safe hands in almost a decade. Assuming he’s as good as his recent form you can expect him to be firmly in goal there for a decade or more.

Below that the group is perhaps the most finely balanced in the competition. At the very bottom I’d lay aside Montenegro due to youth (of the team, not the players); their first competition since independence was the World Cup campaign. There’s no reason they can’t emulate a nation like Slovenia, especially when the Euros expand in 2016, but I don’t see it yet. Switzerland were the only team in the World Cup to take points from Spain but it was an absolute smash-and-grab – and a classic on the level of any of these. Switzerland can’t often be accused of involvement in classics, since their last two World Cups have featured mostly long, dull, grinding games, including their draw against minnows Honduras when a win would have sent them to the round of 16. I don’t know how to say choke in French, Italian or German, but I bet a few people have been practicing.

Bulgaria and Wales are odd things. Both have teams with skill anchored by quality players. Bulgaria feature several talented Petrovs. Wales can call on Robert Earnshaw and Craig Bellamy up-front – the latter, now back in Wales and out of the Premiership entirely, might be moved to focus more on international performance – as well as Gareth Bale, who has been something of a sensation lately. That’s never translated internationally, perhaps as he’s been played at fullback rather than on the wings in midfield. As the Welsh squad thins out space there may be space for Bale to grow into the team, which would be a godsend for them. Aaron Ramsey, sickeningly injured against Stoke in February, should be back at some point in the qualifying campaign. If they can be made to work, these four could carry Wales far indeed.

England to qualify outright, though with nothing near a perfect record. I’ll gives Wales the narrow nod to reach their first European championship ever, though Bulgaria with good odds as well. The Swiss are the favorites if you’re laying money on it but they’re like Midas, only with shit, and I don’t like them. So they don’t qualify. Simple, no?

Key matches: England away to Switzerland; any Wales against Switzerland.

Group H

Portugal (World Cup: Round of 16), Denmark (World Cup: Group E, 3/4), Norway (UEFA qualifiers Group 9: 2/5), Cyprus (Qualifiers Group 8: 4/6), Iceland (Qualifiers Group 9: 5/5)

Another evenly balanced collection. You know, I rather like these five-team groups. Five is a pleasant number, found often in nature, while six is bloated and grotesque. The more you know.

Carlos Queiroz letting us know exactly where we can put our drug tests.

A reunion for Denmark and Portugal, the World Cup qualifiers from UEFA Group 1. Despite finishing behind unfancied Denmark (in a group including Sweden and Hungary), Portugal clawed their way out of the World Cup group stage with draws to Ivory Coast and Brazil before their obligatory 1-0 rout to Spain. Carlos Queiroz remains for now as Portugal coach, which is a lucky break for their opponents, as are the retirements of Deco and Simao. (Watch this space, however: persistent accusations of interference with drug testers have led to a six month ban for Queiroz, which may prove too much for the Portuguese FA to take.) Cristiano Ronaldo remains on good club and solid international form, but the team was unsettled to the very end in South Africa and Ronaldo has never been well-integrated into the national side. He’ll be out injured initially, and their initial squad combines a core of experienced players with several younger, less tested options across the field. Portugal, until now somewhat old, need the experience.

Riddled with injuries and themselves looking even older than they actually were, their qualifiying group betters Denmark simply weren’t. Wholly deserving their demolition against Japan, they’ll look to engage in the same kind of comprehensive reconstruction as England, France and Italy. They’ll keep well-respected coach Morten Olsen through the 2012 campaign,by which time he’ll have the longest tenure of any national team manager in the country’s history. He’ll have his work cut out for him: the venerable but aged Jon Dahl Tomasson has retired and Dennis Rommedahl, at 32, can’t be far behind. With Bendtner out against Iceland there are no other stand outs in front, and both Rommedahl and Poulsen have more individual caps than the rest of the forwards and midfielders combined.

Fortunately, both teams’ meetings are interspersed with six competitive friendlies. Norway is the only other side capable of mounting any challenge and managed second place in the World Cup qualifying group only after a spastic display against Macedonia and Scotland. This group has real teams. The defining characteristic of the other three is not their ability to qualify – they won’t – but whether they take points off the two leaders. That will make the difference.

Olsen will have his work cut out for him, but is trusted and has some young talent coming through. He’s also relatively adaptable, which is good, as a thin bench will continue to force it upon him. Queiroz did barely enough not to get fired with a team that I could get to the World Cup Finals. (Half of which he missed, having been banned from the first two by his own country.) This is a case where the manager not merely matters but where switching them would almost guarantee a reversed result. Denmark qualifies automatically. Portugal second and a contender for best runner-up.

Key matches: Denmark and Portugal and not much else.

Group I

Spain (You damn well know), Czech Republic (UEFA qualifying Group 3: 3/6), Scotland (Qualifying Group 9: 4/5), Lithuania (Qualifying Group 7: 4/6), Liechtenstein (Qualifying Group 4: 6/6)

If Spain don’t win every match I’ll work in a poultry factory in Cambodia for a year. If their form slouches they might concede a goal on the way. The others might as well refuse to play them in the hope they get rusty without practice.

In Group 9 for the World Cup, which featured a Dutch side that didn’t lose and four other teams, Norway lost out on a playoff spot with the worst second place record, 10 points from 8 games. With 14 final places up for grabs the best goes straight up rather than the worst straight down, so about that number will do for one of the three contenders. (The Purple Parrots of Liechtenstein will miss out on the trip to Space Camp but receive a gift certificate to FAO Schwartz.) Both Scotland and the Czechs were disastrous in the World Cup qualifiers, Scotland’s 1-0 result in a March friendly equivalent to being Best Underperformer.

Now, I like Scotland. I was impressed despite their loss to the Dutch in the final group game. And then I watched them get walloped by Sweden. Mass rejections of a Scotland call-up left coach Craig Levein with little of a first team and they were run down as Zlatan Ibrahimovic made his return. Neither Scotland nor the Czechs have an Ibrahimovic, though Chelsea keeper Petr Cech is almost as good and the various journeyman keepers Scotland can call on (the latest Blackpool’s Matt Gilks via his father’s mother’s sister’s cousin’s aromatherapist’s girlfriend in Inverness) are not. Which might have had something to do with the 3-0. In a race for who sucks less, it’s the Czechs by a country mile.

I’m sorry – what’s that? Lithuania? Oh. Well. No.

Key matches: Any Scotland and Czech Republic.

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Euro 2012: Episode IV

31 August 2010

Let’s face it. Your 20s aren’t what you expected. You’re lowly-paid, overworked (or underworked – or both), and you’re dreading the day that that itch gets so bad you can avoid the doctor no longer. And you pine – pine – for the simple summer days when your team was humiliated by Spain or Germany (or even the Dutch!). Well, if you’re European your wait is over, since those 47 long months until Brazil 2014 will be broken up by Euro 2012 somewhere out East, where natural gas and Russian denial-of-service attacks come from. The rest of us Americans will have Shark Week expanded to a month and the invasion of the Maldives to enjoy, but until we start awarding three points for a win in international police actions, I’ll settle for trying to decide if Moldova or Albania are more formidable with a little leather ball.

Group A

Germany (World Cup: 3rd place), Turkey (UEFA qualifiers Group 5: 3/6), Austria (Qualifiers Group 7: 3/6), Belgium (Qualifiers Group 5: 4/6), Kazakhstan (Qualifiers Group 6: 5/6), Azerbaijan (Qualifiers Group 4: 5/6)

You may remember Germany having a particularly good World Cup with an extremely young team and no Michael Ballack. They may be a bunch of gays, but undeniable a stylish one on the pitch and as much fun to watch when they cracked against Spain as when they crushed England and Argentina. O(e)zil, Muller and the other non-standard-character-promoting players have been crafted into a powerful system by Joachim Low, who will surely stay as Germany coach through the next World Cup. The best of them might have a decade of national team play ahead. Not only will they top the group, and not only will they do it without losing a game, they will be at worst second-favorites to win it all.

Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan are perpetual also-rans who might pick up points here or there – mostly from each other. (Despite the rankings, Azerbaijan are better.) As in all things Belgium are a poor imitation of the Dutch and are in the midst of an unending breakdown. Their only real accomplishment in World Cup qualification was scoring a goal against Spain, and 1998 coach Georges Leekens can’t help a lack of top-shelf talent, a shortage cruelly exposed in their 11 August friendly defeat to underrated Finland. A result for them would be lasting longer than their country does.

In fairness bets on their groupmates Turkey and Austria aren’t much more inspiring: Turkey underperformed in World Cup qualification while Austria managed only four home wins in a group won by Serbia and a French team busy packing for their journey into the wilderness. Austria have also had a deal of upheaval in their coaches – 3 since Euro 2008 – while Turkey will still be working with a youngish team. (Only two current call-ups will be out of their 20s when eligible for their first game, which falls on midfielder Emre’s thirtieth birthday.)

And you thought the Mike Ditka pornstache was dead and buried

I favor Turkey. They’ve had time to reflect on missing the World Cup and have a huge pool of native talent with experience in European competition. They’ll also have the distinct advantage of experienced Dutch coach Guus Hiddink, who guided South Korea to the 2002 semifinals, Australia to the 2006 Round of 16 and Russia to the 2008 European semifinals (before watching them fuck up on the verge of the World Cup). What’s the chance lightning strikes twice?

Oh, fine. Take an option on Belgium then.

Key matches: Turkey and Austria in Germany.

Group B

Russia (UEFA qualifiers Group 4: 2/6), Slovakia (World Cup: Round of 16), Irish Republic (Qualifiers Group 8: 2/6), Macedonia (Qualifiers Group 9: 4/5), Armenia (Qualifiers Group 5: 6/6), Andorra (Qualifiers Group 6: 6/6)

If not for all the crappy teams you’d call this a Group of Death. Macedonia competed for the second-placed spot in Group 9 up to the final day, while Russia were unlucky to be drawn with Germany, shut out of outright qualification and then stunned by little Slovenia in the playoff. As for Ireland, they attract myths. Like their luck.

Let’s dive right in. Macedonia aren’t that good and never win away – impressing against Scotland does not equal impressing. (But more on that shortly.) So there’s them apples.

After their 2010 failure Russia have a new coach, Dick Advocaat, who left Belgium for Russia after Hiddink left for Turkey. (Whose previous coach was made Consul of Rome.) It will be familiar ground for Advocaat: a team with an occasionally-bright past and a few big-name stars which is nevertheless short on raw talent. Besides a few players in the Premier League (Arshavin most notably) they almost all play for Zenit St. Petersburg and the Moscow teams; however there’s no solid core of the sort Barcelona supplies Spain or Juventus used to for Italy.

Slovakia, of course, ran away with perhaps the easiest qualifying group and then stunned Italy on the final match day of the World Cup’s first round. Their team is precisely the opposite of Russia’s, an international melange marked strangely by a core of players in the Turkish Superlig, including the really impressive Robert Vittek. (His exploits detailed better here.) It’s hard not to be impressed, but Slovakia were gifted with weak groups – twice – and an extraordinary Italian team who realized you win by scoring goals just fifteen minutes before the end of their Cup journey. Ten games against opposition of considerably greater quality, the best I can say for them is that they might – maybe – sneak into 2nd. 3rd is far more likely.

The headquarters of the Irish national team. Also the Army, police force and cereal production authority

Which brings us to Ireland. If your heart wasn’t broken and your face contorted into rage over Thierry Henry’s handball, then you’re an asshole. Still, they’re managed by Giovanni Trappatoni – the kind of Italian manager you actually want, unlike a few I’m aware of – and most of the team plays in England or Scotland, lending some mutual experience and a coherent style far beyond what the country’s own anemic league could provide. There’s a diversity in the selection of players available and anchors in forward Robbie Keane and goaltender Shay Given. Both are heading towards the close of their international careers and both will be looking to wrap it up in style – especially Given, as he’s replaced (likely permanently) by England international Joe Hart between Manchester City’s posts.

Perhaps ridiculously, Ireland will top the group. Russia will come second.

Key matches: Any pair of Russia, Slovakia and Ireland. Watch especially when Ireland travels; I think they’re better away.

Group C

Italy (World Cup: Group stage 4/4), Serbia (World Cup: Group stage 4/4), Northern Ireland (UEFA qualifiers Group 3: 4/6), Slovenia (World Cup: Group stage 3/4), Estonia (Qualifiers Group 5: 5/6), Faroe Islands (Qualifiers Group 7: 6/6)

Or maybe this is the Group of Death, with three World Cup qualifiers in one delicious package. Somebody’s going to go home a sad panda, are they not? And it’s already begun; two stoppage time goals were all that prevented the Faroe Islands upsetting Estonia and – surely for the first time ever – taking the lead in a qualifying group. You’ll forgive me for underrating these two juggernauts, but this will be their last appearance in a paragraph I really ought to have ended thirty words ago.

I do need to take a moment to disregard Northern Ireland specifically rather than just lumping them with the others. They weren’t bad as recently as 2006, when they beat Spain 3-2 at home; the scorer of all three, Sunderland/Ipswich Town’s David Healy, is still available for the campaign. But even in the Euro 2008 qualifiers they came third, behind Spain and Sweden, and they’ve never qualified for the European Championships. Worse, nothing jumps out at me to say that this year they will.

I’m sure they’re all nice guys, though.

Italy will be very early in their reconstruction after the horror show of this year. In Prandelli they’ve got a new manager and some of the oldest players will retire themselves, with a couple of young standouts like Quagliarella and New Jersey’s own Giuseppe “The Situation” Rossi available to take their place. It’s not clear how far and how fast this reconstruction will go; attacking options Pirlo, Gilardino and Pazzini were recalled while the entire back line has been retooled. Even into qualification several players are receiving first call-ups, suggesting (rightly) that there isn’t much satisfaction to be had from the lost to Ivory Coast; of the returners, from perhaps the widest spectrum of Italian clubs  ever, a number are relatively unknown. They’ll have to get known pretty fast if Italy is going to avoid the dragon-slaying potential of the second-place playoffs. (I will give some points. Mario “Stupid Mario” Balotelli returns to ignominy for the first two games. Well done.)

Serbia were unlucky not to go to the World Cup round of 16 – they fell to weak Ghana thanks to a red card, a penalty and international sympathy for OMG AFIRCAN TEAM!!!11, gained a shock victory over Germany and then collapsed when Australia found their own shit too late, a trend that’s plagued Serbia longer than just this June. Even if they wanted to retool it’s not clear they have enough options, as their team is not hugely aged or experienced to begin with and already draws in the best of the Serbian soccer diaspora. Matters are made worse as Coach Radomir Antic landed himself a four-match ban for slagging off the referee in the Australia game and the Serbian authorities, complaining of the lack of better options, demanded he take a pay cut or get the boot. (And took the chance to piss all over him as they did.) They should have thrown him into the Guus Hiddink merry-go-round. They could have sent him to Iceland and got San Marino’s coach.

Slovenia, meanwhile, finished the best of the three, narrowly missing clearing the group at the expense of either England or the USA. Like Serbia’s, their squad is pretty settled and proved unusually thrilling despite extremely limited resources. What can you say? They had the fussballgeist. But this is a fickle thing, and surely they won’t keep it. The problem for a team like Slovenia (or indeed Serbia) is that in order to progress in a more difficult group – which this one is – they will need to rely on all of the same players over a long period of time, a big difference compared to gambling on their fitness in three games over 10 days. A bench consisting of all (and only) of the finest players with major league experience in the country makes attrition their biggest foe, especially for those players who have both league and European competition. Any changes forced on them due to form or injury will have more of an impact on systems which have already proven relatively successful with a certain set of players. The temptation will be to shoehorn new players into the old system.

All material, this one. Italy will be shaky but will have enough time to put together a decent team. I don’t smell the magic around Slovenia again, but I’ll back them to continue on in second place. Serbia’s turmoil (and pre-existing injuries to a few key players) will cost them.

Key matches: Slovenia away in Belgrade.

Group D

France (World Cup: Group stage 4/4), Romania (UEFA qualifiers Group 7: 5/6), Bosnia and Herzegovina (Qualifiers Group 5: 2/6), Belarus (Qualifiers Group 6: 4/6), Albania (Qualifiers Group 1: 5/6), Luxembourg (Qualifiers Group 2: 5/6)

Does anyone else think that when Henry handled the ball he stole Ireland’s luck?  I think that. The President of Ireland and some Druid prince and his Leprechaun Army will probably have to rip out his beating heart and turn it into an amulet so Milla Jovovich can use it to stop the destruction of the Earth with her sidekick, Norm from There’s Something About Mary, and the Artist Formerly Known As the Second-String Mel Gibson.

Either way, once again France drew the Group of Life. An AIDS Ward XI could go to the finals from here. Belarus, Albania and Luxembourg are all minnows and Romania’s not much more: They have a new coach who’s okay but they draw their core team from the country’s own biggest sides, whose failure in European competition leaves the national league and by extension the team in freefall. (Though, famous last words.)

France and Bosnia/Herzegovina, then. As ever the ball is pretty much in France’s court. B/H are what they are and though certainly no pushover they don’t have the depth to metamorphose into a really superior team. If they win, it is because France aren’t pushing hard enough; if they lose it is because France are on the way to comprehensive reform. Given their dive into the abyss in South Africa, coach Laurent Blanc has the leeway to completely recraft this team. He has the players, too. The real question: Does he have the balls?

His first step was decisive: against Norway he banned all 23 of the players in South Africa and called up a whole new squad, declaring also that only the blameless keeper, Hugo Lloris, is certain for re-inclusion. This offered him the chance to call up an entire raft of the neglected and ignored. The cost was a 2-1 loss, but it may be the best of all France’s late sufferings. Lessons were learned, and the squad now named for the beginning of Euro 2012 qualification is a decent melange of old and new: Saha, Benzema and Mexes return as Loic Remy and the excellent Jeremy Menez join up.

The consensus was that after the collective punishment of the Norway match the entire thing should be put behind France; for that reason, and for the effect on qualification, the further bans handed out to Anelka (the “mild-mannered” man who will never play for country again) et al were a mistake which could only hamper the team. Bilge, I say. In fact wouldn’t have mattered a jot if Laurent Blanc called up eleven new people to play Norway, all were terrible and then he called them up again. Everyone on the team must know they’re optional and that bad attitude is worse than bad form, since it means they’ll be humiliated despite rather than because of their skill on the pitch.  Sending this message is the only thing that can save these miserables. On September 7th in Bosnia, we’ll see if they have done enough.

I want Blanc to succeed. I think he will. France will top the group and maybe even with a little style. B/H to the playoffs.

Key matches: The very first one. If France win in Bosnia they’ll be pretty much home free. Runner-up status to the matches between Bosnia/Herzegovina and Romania.

The problem with postmortems are that they invariably require bodies. This World Cup, we’ve had several. But of course without death we have no new life, eh? Eh? Am I right, Italy fans?

Group A & B: La France est mort… vive Maradona!

I predicted three teams over the course of seven months to clear Group A. The one I didn’t topped it without conceding a goal. So much for me.

After gaining a draw despite a late red card from France Uruguay roared out of the gate, their 3-0 win over South Africa not merely putting them first but virtually ensuring that the hosts would not proceed. (Which they duly failed to do, despite a really fiery win over a France both shameless and shameful.) Mexico followed them to no particular surprise.

In Group B Argentina were top with a full nine points – with the Netherlands the only ones to qualify with a perfect record. (In 2006 four of the eight groups had a finisher with three wins.) The performances that got them there were more mercurial – a shaky 1-0 win over a solid Nigeria, a rollicking 4-1 over second place finishers South Korea and a pretty sleepy 2-0 result against Greece, who needed and knew they weren’t going to get three points to sneak forward. South Korea played out an exciting 2-2 draw with Nigeria on the last day, with three more points from Greece enough to carry them forward despite poor goal difference. South Korea have dazzled only in flashes – but when they’ve been on, they really have been.

The clashes it sets up are Uruguay-South Korea and Argentina-Mexico. Uruguay-South Korea have already finished 2-1 for the former; I was going to take a punt on South Korea, so that’s 1 down already.

Argentina-Mexico promises to be a fascinating clash, but the momentum’s really with Maradona’s boys. He had the chance to rest several starters (but not Messi) against Greece and with the sheer weight of attacking power he’s got I don’t see how Mexico can do enough to exploit Argentina’s iffy defense. (Demichaelis in particular should probably not start.) The result depends on what Argentina comes in expecting. If they take it as they did Nigeria, Mexico have a chance. Considering the tantalizing possibility of a dream quarterfinal against either England or Germany, however, it’s not much of one. Argentina.

Groups C & DThe world turn’d upside down…

Lots of misfires in this one. Slovenia did not go through, though it has to be said that they finished second-place finishers before Landon Donovan nailed a rebound against an Algeria team who were mostly useful in exposing how poor were this group. England’s low-scoring finish mean that it’s the USA who finish first on goals scored thanks to the incredible 2-2 draw with Slovenia.

I have to admit I did not cheer for my home country but for about five minutes before and after Donovan’s goal. I wanted Slovenia to win in their match-up, not only to be proved right – I like being right – but because all America turns into Boston when our teams do at all well in international competition. And we know how Boston fans are. (i.e. insufferable.) For a moment of weakness the possibility that the USA might go out on a pair of disallowed goals – on decisions which were each shaky at best – moved me to patriotism. I promise it won’t happen again, but I’ll give USA their due: when they play, shit always seems to go down.

In Group D Germany recovered to finish top despite falling to Serbia. (Inexcusable, 10-men or no.) Thanks to their shellacking against the winenrs, Australia failed to get through, despite nearly pulling off a 10-man win against Ghana and absolutely dominating Serbia. If you consider that in the two games Ghana won both featured sending-offs and penalties, and that Ghana did not score a goal besides, I think I was correct when I suggested that no African team had the quality to get through the group stage. Ghana just had the luck. “But it’s Africa’s World Cup!” No, it’s South Africa’s World Cup and I’m damn sorry they didn’t get through. I’m also sorry Ghana did.

Ghana have already met the USA and booked their place to the quarterfinals thanks to some truly horrific defending. For the record, my money was on USA; and if you asked me again it’d still be. 0-2 now…

Thanks to their profligacy England have a horror meeting with Germany in the round of 16. Ledley King might be back; but Miroslav Klose certainly will. England are still playing Emile Heskey, who’d possibly be good at what he does if his job wasn’t scoring goals, and Fabio Capello just doesn’t appear to be up for it. The hero of England’s campaign has been the fan at the Algeria match who got lost looking for the pisser and wandered into the dressing room, where he promptly gave the team a dressing down for their performance. Winning a World Cup can’t be that easy. The only thing that can save England now is Roy Hodgson. But he’ll come only too late.

I’ll be cheering for England. But Germany will win. England at least can take comfort that they got further than the champions.

Group E & F – A huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuge advantage!

Now I have no problem being wrong here. In Group E Netherlands came first after three relatively grinding performances against three solid teams. (Still too much pretty passing though.) But in a decisive and extremely impressive performance Japan absolutely shut Denmark down. They needed less shutting than I’d have hoped, sadly, since a good half of their starting XI were missing or playing at less than full fitness. I’ve got an article about what went wrong for Denmark in the works – but suffice it to say unfavored Japan richly deserve their place in the 16.

Group F was fucked up. There’s no other way to put it. Italy turned in the second-worst performance by a defending champion in history (behind, of course, France in 2002), coming last in the group after two draws and a nail-biter 3-2 defeat against Slovakia. Slovakia! Paraguay, over whom I was too embarrassed at my naivete to tell a real newspaper I thought they’d beat Italy, didn’t but ran off with the group anyway. Final-day last-placers Slovakia took the second spot over Italy’s dead body.

Paraguay and Japan now meet in the next round. I’m excited for this match-up, maybe moreso than any other in this round, because I really don’t know what to expect. Based on the Japan I saw against Denmark, however, I’m going to take a shot on them to win. They were really good, and if we’ve seen the best of Paraguay so far I don’t think it’s enough. (Hint to Paraguay: try not to give away free kicks.)

Netherlands-Slovakia I don’t expect to be much of a contest. You’d like this Dutch team to make the quarterfinals against pretty much any opposition – Slovakia were scrappy against Italy, but then Italy were just bad. I don’t know if the Dutch have the juice necessary to go all the way, but I see no more Eastern European giant-killing in this World Cup.

Groups G & H – Mas que nada

Yesterday Brazil and Portugal passed the ball and forth for about 90 minutes while Ivory Coast desperately tried to replicate the latter’s 7-0 demolition of North Korea. It didn’t work. As a whole I thought the group was pretty unspectacular – the most exciting moments were North Korea’s real threat to Brazil in the first match and the bizarre sending off of Kaka for being run into by an Ivorian. (Fabiano’s handball, on the other hand, was just eh. He had no flair.) So Brazil first on 7, Portugal following on 5.

In Group H, despite the difficulty of the occasion, best result was acheived when a very negative Swiss side was put out after a goalless draw with Honduras while Chile, despite being reduced to ten men and two goals down, pulled one back to finish behind Spain on goal difference, each with 6 points. Frankly I don’t know many neutral fans who didn’t want these to be the two teams who went through – they earned it. Especially Chile. They have the second best ten-man performance of a World Cup with a lot of them, only behind Australia – and Australia didn’t claw a goal back after they were reduced.

Two very exciting match-ups in the round of 16, then: Spain-Portugal and Brazil-Chile. I think one of the second place teams will upset. Now, Portugal are certainly a strong team and Spain have displayed very worrying behavior – Del Bosque is still playing two holding midfielders rather than sending one up in attack, and when he does it doesn’t seem to matter much. (Perhaps because it’s Fabregas, who hasn’t been great so far.) But in the end Portugal live and die by Cristiano Ronaldo – like it or not he is this generation’s Eusebio. He was good for the semifinals last time around; he might be this time. But Spain have a half-dozen Ronaldos to call upon – they might almost being playing a World XI. It is Spain’s to lose.

Chile, however, have really shown a phenomenal spirit and we know they can beat Brazil – they did it during qualification. Against Spain they really were magnificent and dominated large portions of the game despite being a man down. They’re not perfect and certainly neither were Spain, but I most doubt Brazil. There’s a strangeness to them right now, a certain emptiness. They play but – I don’t know. It’s probably some bullshit marginally-racist construction I have in my head, but I expect Brazil to show just that bit more feeling than all the rest, not grind out wins by hook or by crook. Chile have shown that feeling, and if they can just hit the target a little bit more I think they can upset. What’s more, I think they will.

Also, Dunga dresses like I do. Never a good sign.

2-0. That’s the result of Morten Olsen’s big push for a draw against the Dutch. Between Elia’s legs, Dirk Kuyt’s right foot and Daniel Agger’s back, Denmark was thoroughly dominated by a Dutch team that showed flashes – just – of brilliant play.

Zonal Marking has a great summary of what went down, and it reports what you might expect: for a 2-0 win there wasn’t much in it as the Dutch struggled to bring down tightly-managed Danish resistance. The Dutch were favored and they got their win, and you might – as they do – take good note of the fact that the Danes avoided the mauling that was suffered by a poor Australia or a far better South Korea against similarly talented teams. But you can’t help thinking that they were capable of more – that if the Swiss can manage a very shaky team to a shock victory over the tournament’s favorites, Denmark could have taken one over an uncertain and only vaguely-favored Great Team.

Morten Olsen’s little fake-out routine with Bendtner was probably a mistake – at least it was a waste of time. I suppose there’s a chance that when he gave all those interviews he really didn’t think Bendtner would play. There’s also a chance that tomorrow I’ll become CEO of Merrill Lynch or the Sun will crash into Mercury. The fact is he played a little mind game with the Dutch that ultimately caused them no great consternation and got out of it was sixty-five minutes of mature but ultimately ineffective play from his star striker.

Ruse or no, he had little choice: with only three strikers in a squad that often plays two and veteran Jon Dahl Tomasson down with injury, it was either Bendtner or Soren Larsen, the journeyman striker who’s played little for the national team since his sensational introduction in 2005. You almost get the sense that he was included only because two strikers was too few even for Olsen; and when Bendtner went off he was replaced by Mikkel Beckmann, an attacking midfielder who seemed a poor fit and left little impression.

Eventually all three substitutions went to players up front – before Bendtner, the young Thomas Enevoldsen went off for the venerable Jesper Gronkjaer and Thomas Kahlenberg went off for Christian Eriksen. None had the effect of the Dutch substitution of van der Vaart for Elia, who terrorized the Danish right and turned Jacobsen, Rommedahl and the reinforcing Eriksen inside out. Worse, his runs pinned back Simon Kjaer and Daniel Agger, both of whose support were an important component in the early threat by the debilitated Danish strikeforce.

The lack of striking options, and the over-reliance on tried-and-true players like Jorgensen, Christian Poulsen and Rommedahl are problems with no solution; the squad is there, like it or lump it. But the good news is that Denmark’s defense did prove a good deal of mettle and for the first thirty minute the attack was as good or better than a Dutch team with far more options. Now Denmark has got its most difficult match out of the way and low expectations mean no psychological shock like that suffered by France, England or Italy. Poulsen/Agger’s own goal was unfortunate but a bizarre lacuna to otherwise excellent play – and perhaps only a little worrying in view of the fact that the only goal surrendered by Italy in the 2006 group stage was their own. The next match is against a Cameroon side which can’t work with Samuel Eto’o and Japan are not likely to get any better result against the Dutch. A final match against Japan suits a Danish team that tends to thrive with their backs to the wall. The dynamite burns slowly, but it burns all the same.

FULL TIME. So that’s it. No denying the Dutch were good for this, especially after bringing on Elia (it would be incomprehensible if they can’t find a place to start him after a display like that). As for Denmark, all this means is that it won’t be 1986. They’re not running away with anything. But from today’s form I can see them taking results against both Cameroon and Japan, who play momentarily. Now they’ll need to; but that’s the hardest match out of the way. Thanks to Mike de Vries and Sean Carroll and Peter in Denmark, and to the surprising number of people who checked in on this. For a first effort, it was a gas.
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90+3 min. Sneijder takes a knock and petulantly stays on the ground like a dead fish, spewing abuse at a Danish player.
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90+2 min. A final, desperate run is wasted. The Dutch still have near-unchallenged authority in the two-thirds of the pitch near then. I came to work 90 minutes early for this.
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88 min.  MASSIVE CLEARANCE! Elia fatally breaks into the box again and beats Sorensen, but the effort isn’t fast enough and a defender (Poulsen?) boots it off the line at literally the terminal moment. If it were close, that would have been the moment of the match.
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85 min. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLL!!!!!! Elia breaks away with Kuyt on the two central defenders. Elia winds up, strikes half-powerfully and it bounces off the post, pass the outrunning Daniel Agger and straight to Dirk Kuyt. He boots it into the empty net.
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80 min. Denmark actually moves again, but three times are either dispossessed or let the ball run away from them. How do you come back from this? Also, I think I was slightly unfair to Daniel Agger, but then so was the Jabulani. Though really I blame the vuvuzela. And international communism.
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77 min. Remembering the match against Portugal, we know that Denmark comes on late. It’s their bread and butter. Van Persie off for youngster Affelay. Teams are getting younger and younger all the time… ESPN also wants you to vote for man of the match. My pick’s Daniel Agger (NED).
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73 min. Elia is practically rioting on the Danish right, outrunning his men and crossing for van Bommel. The back line is holding but the Danes are not looking like winners. They need a chance and pronto. 18 year-old Christian Eriksen comes on for the effort.
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71 min. Confronted with a big opening Mark van Bommel decides that charity requires the donation of his ball to some of the poorer neighborhoods on the opposite side of the city. A decisive man, he uses his right foot to send it express.
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70 min. Elia gets away, but Sorensen calls out the militia and the effort is cleared away on a pass.
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68 min. Van der Viart off, Elia on. American commentator says all that Mike de Vries just said for free and is richly praised by John Harkes.
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66 min. A free kick for reckless glaring is awarded to Denmark. It’s a good ball in, but headed away, and a resulting cross back scorches away faster than Jay Leno’s ratings. “Thinking from a Dutch perspective we might see Affelay or Elia come on in order to stretch the Danish back line late on,” prognosticates Mike. We’re gonna hold you to that.
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62 min. Striker Beckmann on for Bendtner! Probably insurance for Bendtner’s injury issues, but that doesn’t smack of much confidence of salvaging a result. Denmark are dropping passes everywhere and, like England, look like the error has got under their skin. How doesn’t it? “Remarkable that the Dutch haven’t scored any goals actually,” Peter remarks from Copenhagen. I think it’s more remarkable that they have. This performance is shaky. Probably good enough to hold on, but shaky.
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59 min. Decent save by Sorensen. The mostly unmarked Van Persie passed to the entirely unmarked Van der Viart, who takes a stab. Not much for it, as the Danish defender was out of position to convert for the goal.
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57 min. First sub. Enevoldsen off, Gronkjaer on, almost immediately gets his first touch.
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55 min. Another Guardian commentator for Denmark, freshfromdk, remarks that he thinks the Dutch are playing a severe game and getting away with it. That it took de Jong so long to get booked is bizarre, but I’m not sure the Dutch aren’t just playing the physical game the Danes usually do but aren’t.
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53 min. Another Dutch foul leads to another wasted Danish free kick. “Well a dull first half gives way to a dull opening goal! A lovely header from Poulsen takes a touch off his own man,” quips Mike de Vries. But it was a lovely header, was it not? I call that looking on the bright side.
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49 min.Sean Carroll writes, “Come on Holland, a draw here is not good for Japan!” Yeah, Denmark’s stealing all that own goal thunder!
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46 min. HORROR! – An own goal to Agger, though Poulsen is sensed to have some culpability. A quick rush by Van Persie sends him wide, but he maintains possession and flings it into the box, where the defenders convert. Some team talk they must have had.
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Half -This match has rather been like a work by that Great Dane, Soren Kierkegaard – heavy with flashes of brilliance but long stretches of rather tedious digression. Fortunately that has not included many of the odd vowels favored by the Danes which, having never seen them on Sesame Street, I can only think heretical. (Come to think, do the Danes have Sesame Street? And what the Hell do the Japanese do?)
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ESPN are so invested in this match they’re encouraging people to wake up their friends – for Japan and Cameroon. Thanks for that.
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“The Dutch are too slow,” says Gullitt. I think the primary problem is that they’re a bit too fancy. But of course calling the Dutch slow is already too thinky for ESPN, which quickly cuts away to a report about Tim Howard’s injury as a result of Emile Heskey playing soccer in his general area.
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It goes out for a corner which Bendtner fails to convert. “Right now these two Europeans – the giants – are looking to change things up for the second half,” says American. Denmark? Giant? Aw, shucks. We’ll see what Ruud Gullitt has to say about this fact.
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Also, correction on 44: de Jong picks up his booking. About bloody time.
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44 min. – de Jong brings down Bendtner – his tackles are coming with increasing nastiness – but he dodges the card. Christian Poulsen’s free kick is wasted, on Simon Kjaer or indeed anyone shorter than a Chinese NBA star.
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43 min. – Van Persie gets clear in the penalty area, but can’t deliver a shot until Agger and Sorensen have all the roads covered. It goes agonizingly wide. In the commentary box, American commentator says blah-blah-blah. John Harkes says yes.
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40 min. – “They don’t ever actually build up a play,” sighs Peter. “They just shoot it off to the Dutch and wait for a counter.” What else do you do? Denmark’s got a world class defense but players up front who don’t have the ability to carve up a packed defense. The breaks are the best chance. Inter did it successfully during the Champions League final.
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38 min. – Absolutely deadly break leads to a shot from Kahlenberg palmed away for a corner. The resulting kick leads to a Sneijder breakaway, but though he’s good to win it he’s not to keep it. The Danish defense must be among the best we’ve seen so far.
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36 min. – Denmark wins a free kick, which Kjaer rifles into the wall. The Dutch are dominating possession but two of the three best shots have come off a Danish boot. This is really tight stuff.
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35 min. – On counter-attack the ball is crossed beautifully to Dennis Rommedahl, unmarked high on the right. Rommedahl rushes in and unleashes a zinger, which unfortunately goes straight into the arms of Martin Steklenburg. He’s definitely on notice after that one.
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33 min. – Van Persie nearly has a sitter but Simon Kjaer forcefully muscles him off. Schneijder for the corner… leads to a close-range cracker from Kuyt!
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32 min. – “Denmark are holding their defensive shape really well. They are frustrating the Dutch passing,” says Mike. And that’s exactly what they’ve got to do. Indeed it’s their only hope, that and finding the droids they’re looking for.
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30 min. – Oh, for those just joining us for a little pastry trivia: the Danish call Danish wienerbrød, which means “Viennese bread.” But then what do the Viennese call it? Must get to the bottom of this. A fair challenge brings down Martin Jorgensen, who doesn’t get back up. Some players mill about like cops at a crime scene.

27 min. – Does anyone else feel disconcerted to hear an American commentator? It’s like instant coffee, it just isn’t right. Meanwhile Dennis Rommedahl lifts in an excellent cross on a rare Danish attack; Bendtner heads narrowly wide.
23 min.Mike says, “I’m loving van der Wiel’s charging runs from deep. He’s causing a few issues. The Dutch are just starting to click into gear a little.” I was going to quip that that gear is neutral, but of course Denmark are wandering around at vague distance from their own goal, occasionally obligingly hoofing the ball towards the Dutch goal.

21 min. – Brilliant run by van der Viart ends in frustration some twenty yards out. He keeps possession but shoots well wide.

19 min. – The Dutch win a corner which comes to naught. No Rommedahl, but injuries seem today to favor Denmark, which was highly unexpected. “The danish players dont gain control over the ball at all. They just hit the ball randomly away from the Dutch,” Danish Peter complains. How very English of them. At least they’re not serving it up shined and on a doiley.

14 min. – Denmark are locked up tight but this far aren’t doing much but repelling slightly shiftless attacks. The vuvuzelas are eternally peppy, though. I can’t believe they want to ban them. I think they’ve got a delicious existentialist quality.

12 min.Sean reports that Japan favors the Dutch to take three points today. Surely this outcome is more likely than desirable. Peter in Denmark: “At least they haven’t scored.” Typical Danes.

8 min. – Good also to see Enevoldsen playing for Denmark; he made a bit of a splash in the qualifier against Senegal. First Van der Wiel makes a run and Kuyt follows up; both come to naught.

6 min. – Lousy DC bus system. I rush into work just in time to see a) a crunching tackle and missed Dutch free kick and b) Bendtner’s alive!  He’s alive!

It’s 7:00 and I’m alone in a windowless room, which means it’s time for my very own extraordinary rendition of the tried and true minute-by-minute. More speculative than a Greek government bond, it is my hope that this effort entertains, informs and failing that avoids the sort of humiliation normally reserved for a first-choice England goaltender. (No points for the observation that it’s far, far too late.)

Group E’s  juggernauts the Netherlands meet my own adopted Denmark in a match-up whose conditions bear some similarity to this year’s Arsenal-Barcelona tie in the Champions League. Both teams were automatic group qualifiers; both feature strong defenses and attacking players of individual brilliance; both share not merely a style but a shared experience of play, with many players on both sides hailing from the Dutch Eredivisie; and one is the obvious favorite, overflowing with talent, while the other looks in desperate need of their own hospital emergency room. The Dutch may be short the miraculous if folically-challenged Arjen Robben, but they have a side packed with players of unquestioned international quality like Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie and the retiring Giovanni van Bronckhorst. By contrast Denmark feature a combination of old international hands and up-and-coming youngsters like defender Simon Kjaer and Arsenal’s Nicklas Bendtner, both of whom have been struck by the illness and injury plague that has also raised doubts over keeper Thomas Sorensen, striker Jon Dahl Tomasson, midfielder Daniel Jensen and even the coach, Morten Olsen. Olsen already ruled out Bendtner, though there are hints in the Danish press it may be a strategem, especially when he declares that he’d be perfectly satisfied with a draw. Given how badly outclassed Denmark is supposed to be, you don’t blame him.

But the teams’ histories are more complicated. The Dutch, of course, stand with Hungary and Spain as one of the best national teams never to win the World Cup. They created the total football that revolutionized the game but twice in a row fell just short of the prize, having to content themselves with a European Championship in 1988. They looked to repeat but the Danes, winners of the classic World Cup Group of Death six years before and admitted to the 92 Championship days before thanks to the expulsion of the collapsing Yugoslavia, saw them off in a thrilling semifinal penalty shootout on their way to a shock victory. Since then the Danes have been relatively unfancied and unimpressive, only reaching the World Cup Finals twice between 1986 and 2010, while the Dutch make regular appearances but never with the payoff they seek. As a result the teams rarely meet: the last time was  2008. Once again the Danes are the darkest of dark horses; once again the Dutch eye hungrily the prize that might very well, this year, be theirs.

I’ll be monitoring the match and updating regularly, so be sure to refresh the page. I’ll also be lucky to have the contributions of two of my fellow Group E fans from the Guardian’s band of international irregulars. Mike de Vries is a self-described “pessimistic Oranje supporter,” which did not stop him from effortlessly and rightly schooling me for my unintentional dismissiveness of a “youthful” Dutch side. (Average age: 27.7 – same as Denmark.) His blog is a great source of comment on these potential World Cup winners. Sean Carroll is a Tokyo-based writer and Japan aficionado who does, like, actual journalism, which I think will contrast nicely with my aimless blundering. Very much worth a look is his interview with Japan-based North Korea international Jong Tae-Se, which has kicked up quite a stir. Both gents have been good enough to lend their pith, mirth and insight on the match. I also hope to call upon my friend Peter Stockmann, who doesn’t have a website but is an actual Dane and can read Danish papers. Literacy is a huge advantage these days. The more you know.

(Starting off late here but feel free to e-mail your thoughts – wahlberg(dot)peter(at)gmail(dot).com. Sorry to be irritating, but I fear the spammers.

A handball a day keeps the World Cup away. Sorry, Thierry. Parts I and II here.

Group F… ig newtons

Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovakia; last prediction 1st Paraguay 2nd New Zealand

It’s a balmy, breezy tropical night.

You’re out. Nice little bar. You’re having a drink, you’re having a good time. You go into the bathroom. There’s a guy there, with a couple other guys. Something happens. Shit goes down. Out comes a gun – out comes a bullet. You’ve been shot. In the head.

This is Paraguay’s World Cup story: a brilliant qualifying campaign marked by wins over Brazil and Argentina marred by a shooting paralyzing their star striker. Still stranger, though, is the result: Salvador Cabanas not merely survives but is even now an outside chance to play!  In a World Cup plagued by injury this would surely be the bizarre angel atop the Christmas tree – and even on half-fitness Cabanas would be a massive boon to Paraguay’s chances. A Club America star, he has emerged as an absolutely top-class striker and was being seriously scouted by Premier League clubs before the shooting. (Also he’s money in FIFA 10.)

Italy’s story has rather less to it. The whole purpose of this exercise was ostensibly to retcon my unenviably optimistic prediction of a second-place finish to Paraguay. And yet… and yet they haven’t won a match since last November; they lost to Mexico; their qualification campaign was shaky from beginning to end; they’re roundly criticized for being too old, too immature, too rickety and crickety and for smelling a bit of formaldehyde. They have no injuries, which is good for their opponents since it means they miss the chance to play someone new and useful. Everyone says to me, “Oh but don’t you remember X when Italy were terrible but went on to win.” No. No I don’t. I don’t think the fussballgeist does either, for it a just spirit.

This group’s a two horse race: New Zealand have shown flashes of brilliance but more than anything are happy to be here at all, while Slovakia – fourth seeds and shock group winners ahead of Slovenia – in fact showed little spunk in a poor group (a weak finish whittled their lead to nothing and featured a loss against Slovenia) and none since. Either could finish third or fourth.

Prediction: Not much in it. Italy. On goal difference. Anybody who thinks they make the Final – and there are people – are absolutely unstable.

Group G – One is the loneliest number…

Brazil, North Korea, Cote d’Ivoire, Portugal; last prediction 1st Brazil 2nd Cote d’Ivoire

All right, well, easy bit first. Brazil is going to win the group. There’s iconoclasm and then there’s just magical thinking: I could downshift Brazil all I want, but they’ve not gone out in the group stage since 1966. I can only imagine that team was crap, but still really good crap, the easy-out no-wiping kind. That slightly disgusting metaphor aside, they glance at the group and win.

On the other end, North Korea are impeccably strange. How they got here, who they are, their tactics – we know nothing. What we do know is that a couple of humph-inducing results aside, they’re probably not very good and in a group with at least two good teams are likely to be totally outclassed. I think it’d be a remarkable result if they took a point. (Enjoy especially the grainy smuggled-out-under-a-cassock quality of the enclosed photo.)

My original pick, Ivory Coast (no more of that Frenchness; I expect them to call where I am “Etats-Unis”), are in the mire. They limped through the African Cup of Nations’ group stage after a humiliating draw to Burkina Faso only to be put to grass (GREAT phrase) by a violent Algeria. They got beat soundly by South Korea, drew to Cabanasless Paraguay and the only virtue in their Japan win was that they scored both of their goals unlike some England teams I could mention. That virtue certainly didn’t cancel out Didier Drogba’s elbow fracture, which has left him with a so-so chance of playing at all.

Portugal are far too Ronaldo-centred. (It goes around.) But the few results they’ve had in 2010 have been sound wins and their form was definitely on the uptick as qualifyiers drew to a close. They’ve lost Nani, true. But Portugal without Nani is weakened; Ivory Coast without Drogba is not.

I was ready to dump them in January, Drogba or no. Brazil then Portugal to come out of the group.

Group H – Ode to Ricky Martin

Spain, Switzerland, Honduras, Chile; last prediction 1st Spain 2nd Chile

Ricky Martin was maybe talking about a different country, now that I think about it. But looking at a team picture, he’d certainly have sung for this Spain team. Who have not lost since 2009. And were unbeaten for 35 games before that. Let’s be honest, they’re a deeply arousing squad. Is that gay to say that way? It’s not gay to say that way.

Honduras on the other hand are just keeping a place. (Though they beat the USA. That juggernaut.) They don’t have much chance to acheive anything.

In the middle Switzerland and Chile are both very decent sides. They’re also fighting amongst themselves for the chance to lose to Brazil, so it’s something of a poisoned chalice. I believe my reason for picking Chile last time was that Switzerland are racist. There wasn’t much else between them then and time has not changed the fact; both have injury issues with key strikers, both had very solid qualifying results (Switzerland a group winner, Chile the CONMEBOL runner-up), both are used to cooler conditions and playing at altitude. In this World Cup it’s no small advantage when the other team doesn’t have it…

Chile follows Spain. Yay for geographic diversity. As for how full of shit I am… tune in.

To assume makes an ass of you and me. So let’s get on with it. Part 1 here.

Group C – In-ger-lund!

England, United States, Algeria and Slovenia; last prediction 1st England 2nd Slovenia

Listening to today’s Football Weekly – the super-duper special World Cup preview – I can’t help but wonder what’s wrong with the English. Is the malaise in football’s motherland so great that America – America! – can be turned into some great vicious enemy waiting to maul hapless, helpless Albion?  What strange days we live in.

Yes, England looks a bit, uh, French lately. Indifferent against Mexico and fortunate to have two of Japan’s three goals go their way, you would rightly sniff a bit at the prospects of this being England’s Year. But only a bit: England were deadly in the qualifiers. You might smell a whiff of diffidence from their surrender to the Ukraine, but then a little charity is perhaps in order, especially since the squad was so much more unsettled this year than last. (A contagion starting with the Russian roulette going on in goal and abating only at the shiny golden pate of Wayne Rooney.)

But then. That Japan match was just – ugh. Ugh! God. I feel the bad kind of dirty just thinking about it. England’s best chance was a penalty. Which Frank Lampard missed.

Deep breaths. Deep breaths. We recall that they’re facing the same USA side that took a single point in 2006 and blew the 2007 Copa America. Their qualification run was basically identical this time around and the Confederations Cup, while an inspiring moment for a team of lesser lights, mattered rather less to Spain and Brazil, who seemed as though they simply couldn’t be bothered to lose. 3-1 against Australia is no mean feat – but big losses to the indifferent Czechs and the Dutch (minus Van Persie) are highly unencouraging.

See?

But that’s not how I really know the USA is in trouble. You know how? All this big tough bluster about giving England a rough time and psyching out Wayne Rooney when they can’t even muster the best widow’s peak. Like Jay DeMerit is Cristiano Ronaldo and Rooney’s just going to oblige them an hysterical red card  or gift some horrible passing error in a fit of pique. I think they’ve been basing their team strategy on the Nike commercial.

Told you so.

Of  course Algeria are a horror show and will not foul themselves to a single point. (Though I’ll tip them for worst group stage disciplinary record – take that Uruguay!) Slovenia, however, still tug at my soul. Their friendly results are encouraging but sparse – only three since last September, two wins and a loss (to England). However in terms of finding it where it counts Slovenia are up there, tossing out the top three seeded teams in their qualifying group and an excellent Russian side in the playoffs. Like I said before: it’s the fussballgeist.

Admittedly their group was easy-ish. But besides Mexico, was the USA’s any more challenge?

Hmm. Perhaps cynicism towards your home nation is an Anglophone thing.

England wins all three. Their first match will result in less a defeat than a rout of the United States. Slovenia comes through, but on only four or five points.

Group D – Sitzkrieg

Germany, Australia, Ghana and Serbia; last prediction 1st Germany 2nd Australia

The months have not been terribly kind to Germany. They’ve lost Michael Ballack to a needless meaningless injury (Arsene Wenger will hopefully feel some sick pleasure that the pendulum swings both ways) and ex-coach Franz Beckenbauer is using it as an excuse to say they won’t contend. Balls. (Balls-ack? Can I get a har har?) Ballack was good, a lynchpin, but Germany are not a team so inspired by a single player. His loss doesn’t rule them out the way Rooney’s would England or Ronaldo’s Portugal. It’s the difference between an A and A- team.

But maybe they don’t sweep the group. All of the teams they face are notionally quite strong; Serbia and Australia actually so. Ghana has a lot to offer in FIFA World Cup but they were bad at the Africa Cup of Nations, atrocious against the Netherlands and will see none of Michael Essien, who was a best a toy flashlight in the midst of a black hole.

Australia impressed in 2006, qualified effortlessly in the more difficult Asian Confederation and their last several friendlies have been positive. (Especially after forcing a 0-0 draw with the Dutch.) Star midfielder Tim Cahill is an injury doubt but you’d argue this still leaves them better off than others. (Germany, Ghana…)  I noticed Serbia got some buzz as a dark horse team; this is right, if for no other reason than that they’re on par with Australia (and the USA) but get nothing like the coverage. Reservations about their shaky form lately weren’t helped by a slightly hysterical 4-3 result against Cameroon.

Though neither were they after Australia’s 3-1 loss to the USA…

Germany will top the group, but may give up a draw. Australia with Cahill is 54-46 to come second; without 52-48. See what I did there? I used numbers to seem sciency.

Group E – Stale Danish and doubled-over Dutch

The Netherlands, Cameroon, Denmark, Japan; last prediction 1st Netherlands 2nd Denmark

I have to admit the subtitle’s a bit forced. After I spent a solid 15 minutes on it. Yeah.

The Dutch have continued a strong run of form after a perfect qualifying run, but… I don’t know. I watched them against Ghana and it was probably the most jittery big victory I’ve seen. They seemed tentative and slightly distracted and only very late did they expose the soft underbelly of Ghana’s misery and crap goaltending. For a great team, they weren’t very great – and they’ll be down the truly excellent Arjen Robben in the opener against Denmark. If they’re lucky.

The Danes, however, have fared far worse. Their key men both up front and in back, Nicklas Bendtner and Simon Kjaer, are on the knife-edge for desperately-needed inclusion against the Dutch. Then just today the coach/namesake of Olsen’s Gang took to his bed with a fever. In South African winter. You can’t make this shit up, can you? Bendtner and Kjaer have at least returned to full training, but with all three fit Denmark dropped three of the last four friendlies. (Taking it easy to avoid injuries?) Bendtner in particular is a blessing, since Olsen brought only three strikers to the tournament, preferring to keep his options open in a variety of supporting roles.

Cameroon are fully fit and somehow even more pathetic. Samuel Eto’o threatened to quit because Roger Milla wouldn’t be his friend (dude, cold) and the rest of the team aren’t much to write home about. Even Japan has rather more depth. Cameroon haven’t won a match since the group stages of the Africa Cup of Nations and I’m not sure their 0-0 draw against Georgia qualifies as a result. Or their 1-1 against Italy, come to that.

As for Japan – I can’t even. Read this instead. Too bad they’ll go as their fan contributor knows his stuff and is far less crap than I.

The absence of Robben probably won’t noticeably hinder the Dutch this early. They’ll come first. The Danes, luckier than good of late, to slide in second. If Cameroon are lucky they’ll make a good third.