by Trevor Whenham
Get more World Cup betting information including betting bonuses, World Cup odds and our famous World Cup picks, which in 2006 earned $100 bettors over ten times their initial investment. ($100 bettors earned $1,820 click here for details)
Unless there is an unexpected break in form, Group H may well be the least suspenseful group in the first round of the World Cup. Spain is a world class team which would surprise no one by going deep into the tournament. The Ukraine is in its first World Cup, but it is a fast-rising squad that should qualify for the second round without too much problem. On the other side you have Tunisia, which is the most resilient of the African squads, but isn't coming in on a high note and Saudi Arabia, which is the second longest shot on the board for the tournament at 750-1, according to Bodog.
It is hard to believe that a team as perennially talented as Spain could have such a dismal World Cup record. The Spanish national league is among the best in the world and their players certainly don't lack in skill, yet the team's best ever showing was fourth place in 1950. It is often one of the pre-tournament favorites, both in the World Cup and the European Championships, but it always finds a way to disappoint. At Euro 2004 the team went in heavily favored, but it didn't even advance from its group. Even qualifying for this tournament was much harder than it should have been. The Fury, as they are known, needed a playoff against Slovakia, a team they greatly outclass, to make it in. Still, their depth and talent is such that the only team that can beat them is themselves. Unfortunately for their fans, you can't totally rule that out.
Ukraine is making its first appearance at a World Cup, though it has only been an independent country since 1992. It qualified easily, losing only one of its 12 matches in a group that included strong teams like Denmark, Greece and Turkey. Coach Oleg Blokhin was so pleased with the qualifying run that he predicted his team would win the World Cup. Star player Andriy Shevchenko, the AC Milan striker who was 2004 European Footballer of the Year, was quick to temper those expectations. Though winning it all might be too bold of a goal, the team should benefit from a relatively weak group and move on.
Tunisia deserves credit for remaining a strong team in Africa for several years. It was the first African team to ever win a World Cup game, beating Mexico in 1978. Sadly, that's the only game it has won, despite qualifying in 1998 and 2002. It is the only African team from 2002 to return this year. Coach Roger Lemerre, formerly coach of France, took over the team in 2004 and led it to a win in the African Cup of Nations. His goal now is a win in Germany. He isn't riding the wave of momentum into the tournament that he might have hoped, though. The team had a disappointing run at the 2006 African Cup which ended in the quarterfinals. At 10/1 to win this group Bodog hasn't ruled them out completely, but they will need a top effort and some luck, particularly against Ukraine, to move onto the next round.
It is fairly easy to build a strong case against Saudi Arabia. It has only ever had two players play outside of the country. In 2002 it allowed 12 goals and scored none in group play, including an 8-0 shellacking by Germany. The coach, Brazilian Marcos Paqueta, has only been at the helm since December after his predecessor was dismissed for a dismal showing at the West Asian Games. To be fair, though, the team does deserve some credit. This is its fourth consecutive World Cup and it did make it out of the first round in 1994. It has also been Asian Cup champions three times, though not since 1996. Its defense is much improved since 2002. It is not likely to move on here, but considering that soccer was banned in Saudi Arabia until 1951, it could be a lot worse.There isn't much to learn from head-to-head match-ups in this group. Tunisia and Saudi Arabia played a home-and-home series, each winning 1-0 on their own field, but that was in 1985. Of more interest, Spain and Ukraine played twice during Euro 2004 qualifications. The first match was a 2-2 draw, while Spain won the second, 2-1. Those two teams meet again in the first game of the group. It will likely also be the best game in Group H.