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Thursday, June 08, 2006

6/8 World Cup of Coffee

We're just a day away! Here are the links to our earlier group previews in case you've missed it. We had technical difficulties yesterday that prevented our Groups E and F post from going up until last night. Check it out if you want to see how we rate the United States:

Groups A and B
Groups C and D
Groups E and F

Right then. Today we look at our final two groups, G and H. France and Spain are the headliners, Switzerland and Ukraine the dangerous challengers, and Tunisia and the Republic of Korea the potential spoilers. Togo and Saudi Arabia: thanks for stopping by!

This is not as straightforward as it seems because the Swiss could win this group. I followed France and Switzerland pretty closely during qualifying as an Ireland fan since all three teams were in the same group. The Swiss played France tough and drew both matches. But I'm going to play it safe and stick with France. Les Bleus are a team that could either implode in the group stages or play in the final. They are a combustible mix of an unpopular manager, veteran players wielding too much influence, and deserving up-and-comers like Franck Ribery who are pushing the veterans for playing time. The 1998 Cup holders flamed out in 2002, starting with their stunning loss to Senegal. But I'm picking them because of one name: Thierry Henry. This is my Arsenal bias on full display, but I feel like he's ready to make amends for a poor 2002 Cup and assuage his Champions League heartbreak. Much of the focus has been on Zinedine Zidane, the aging French superstar who will retire after the World Cup, but France's hopes lie with Henry, the greatest striker in the world. Switzerland relies on striker Alexander Frei and young talent such as defender Phillipe Senderos and the sublimely monikered Tranquilla Barnetta. By all accounts, they are a technically gifted side who have effectively assimilated young talent into their team. They will give familiar foes France a lot of trouble but need to make sure they take care of the Republic of Korea as well. The Koreans are coming off a stunning semifinal berth in the last World Cup, which they co-hosted. Expect a very different outcome this time. Without the sea of red in the stands, the comforts of their home country, the tactics of uber-manager Guus Hiddink, and a series of favorable officiating decisions, there will be no semifinal berth for the Koreans. This isn't to say they aren't a quality side or that they won't give France and Switzerland trouble. They are and they will. But despite the talents of Manchester United midfielder Park Ji-Sung, I don't think they have the guns or the momentum to make a run, particularly considering their abysmal record in Europe. Congratulations to world title holders Togo! I'm referring, of course, to the Miss World Cup title, won with beauty and grace by Miss Togo. Unfortunately that will be their only taste of victory or display of beauty at this World Cup. Their best player is Arsenal (reserve) striker Emmanuel Adebayor, but they will struggle to score against this group. Hey, it's a great accomplishment to qualify and Togo won't be burdened by expectations. Never say never? Nah. Never. Despite what the witch doctors say.

Group H Order of Finish: 1. UKRAINE, 2. SPAIN, 3. TUNISIA, 4. SAUDI ARABIA
It's a truism in European soccer to point out the chronic underachievement of the Spanish in international competition, despite having one of the strongest domestic leagues in the world. I don't have an anwer for it, but I suspect it will rear its head again in group play. Spain finished second in qualifying and had to win a playoff against Slovakia to qualify. But this team is talent-laden from back to front. Keeper Iker Casillas is one of the five best in the world. Carlos Puyol heads up a steady defense. The midfield contains the likes of Xavi while the strikeforce includes Raul (though shaking off major injury) and young gun Fernando Torres. I think they have too much talent not to get through to the second round, but I'm not picking them to win the group. Ukraine tops Group H not only because of their superstar striker Andriy Shevchenko(who will now ply his trade at Chelski), but because they have chemistry, momentum heading in, and more talent than people realize. They open with Spain in a hugely crucial match. Spain and the Ukraine no doubt are very focused on that match, but they better not over look Tunisia. This team has the experience, talent and coaching to advance to the second round despite a lack of star names. I hear that striker Francuiledo Dos Santos is their biggest threat while Hatem Trabelsi anchors the defense. It will be important for Tunisia to get 3 points from Saudi Arabia in their first match and hope Spain and the Ukraine tire each other out. The Saudis aren't expected to do much despite consistently qualifying for the Cup. Legend Sami Al Jaber will be counted on to score goals.

A nation rejoices: Wayne Rooney's going to Germany!

Here's your team nickname guide, so you can impress your friends at the pub.

Finally, test your knowledge with the Great World Cup quiz. Warning: questions display English bias...

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