by Daryl Grove - 04/10/2006
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The great thing about the World Cup is its unpredictability. France entered the 2002 tournament as World and European champions. Strongly fancied to put in another strong performance, they crashed out at the group stage, failing to record a victory and finishing bottom of Group A. More than likely, at least one high profile team will be going home earlier than expected this year. Which big name will fall at the first hurdle? Check the sites on Doc's home page for the most current odds.
Germany hasn't looked too impressive in recent friendlies (a 4-1 defeat to Italy was followed by an unconvincing 4-1 win over a second-string USA) but they're still 1/12 favorites to qualify from Group A. Given their recent problems, and the heavy criticism coach Jurgen Klinsmann is under, it's possible they could implode on their own soil. But add a relatively easy group (Poland, Ecuador, Costa Rica) to the fact the home nation always qualifies from the group stage and Germany seems unlikely to fall at the first hurdle.
England is 1/8 to qualify from Group B, and this side is the second favorites to win the whole thing at some sites, but they still have several problems. Key players like Michael Owen and Ashley Cole are currently injured, David Beckham isn't in great form and the team is over-reliant on the talents of Wayne Rooney. It was painfully obvious at Euro 2004 that an injury or suspension for Rooney leaves England toothless.
The other problem is the manager. After the infamous fake sheik scandal, Sven-Goran Eriksson will be seeking alternative employment post-World Cup. Whether the English F.A. announce Sven's successor before or after the tournament, the situation could impact on team unity and concentration. While Group B looks easy on paper (Sweden, Paraguay, Trinidad & Tobago) this could work against an England team that struggles for motivation against weaker opposition (remember the defeat to Northern Ireland?).
At 3/10 Argentina are favorites to qualify from Group C, closely followed by Holland at 1/3. But it's called the "Group Of Death" for a reason; Serbia & Montenegro (2/1) and Ivory Coast (9/4) are both capable of beating the two favorites so anything could happen. It would still be a shock if illustrious nations like Argentina and Holland were eliminated early but the tight odds mean it's not worth betting on.
Portugal is favorites to qualify from Group D at 1/5, with Mexico second favorites at 1/3 with Iran and Angola expected to finish the World Cup early. Like France, Portugal made an early exit from the 2002 tournament after underestimating a determined USA side in the opening fixture. With a World Cup winning manager in Luiz Felipe Scolari, and dangerous attacking players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Deco, the Euro 2004 finalists are unlikely to repeat the mistakes of 2002.
Group E may not have the Group of Death tag but there's massive potential for an upset. Italy is in great form and favorites to qualify at 1-5, but it will face a solid Czech Republic, an under-rated USA and an unknown quantity in Ghana. If Ghana can hold Italy to a draw (or worse) in the opening game then the Azzuri will face an uphill battle to get points from the Czech Republic and USA.
Looking for a long shot? Then why not back the tournament favorites to go out at the group stage? World Cup holders, No. 1 in the FIFA Rankings and boasting the World Player Of They Year in Ronaldinho, Brazil is 1/25 to qualify from Group F. Croatia, Japan and Australia will all put up a fight but none will have the quality to upset a talented and confident Brazil.
France is 1/14 to qualify from Group G. The group is weak, with Switzerland, South Korea and Togo the opposition, but in 2002 a stronger looking French team finished bottom of a group containing Denmark, Senegal and Uruguay. France nearly didn't make it to World Cup 2006 -- old hands Zinedine Zidane, Claude Makelele and Lilian Thuram came out of retirement to rescue a faltering qualification campaign. The team made it, but confidence was rocked again by a recent friendly defeat to Slovakia.
Though Spain has spent years earning the tag 'perennial under-achievers,' they're still 1/8 favorites to advance from Group H. As always, this could be the year that Spain finally gets it together or they could crash and burn in the group stage (as they did in 1998). First timers Ukraine (2/5 to qualify) pose the biggest threat. They were impressive in qualification and can look to Andriy Shevchenko for goals, but even with a strong Ukrainian showing Spain can expect to qualify by finishing ahead of an uninspiring Tunisia and World Cup whipping boys Saudi Arabia.