Back in December when the draw came around, Group A was the one everybody wanted to get into. Host (and seeded) nation South Africa were drawn into the customary spot as the first team in Group A and almost immediately afterwards, rain dances and prayers were done repeatedly by fans of the other non-seeded countries. Well, three teams got their wish as Mexico, Uruguay and France round out the group. How do I see the group shaking out?
South Africa, who automatically qualified as the host country, is arguably the weakest host in this tournament’s history. They were required to participate in the World Cup Qualifying campaign in Africa this term, as this allows serves as qualification for Africa’s continental tournament. South Africa, based upon those results, would not have qualified for this World Cup and failed to qualify for the next African Cup of Nations. It is worth noting that every host country in the history of this tournament has qualified for the knockout stages. So does South Africa have any chance of avoiding going down in infamy?
Unfortunately, I just do not see it happening. While they do boast some talent in West Ham United striker Benni McCarthy and inspirational Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar, the majority of the remainder of the squad plays in the very sub-par South African Premiership and other lower-tier leagues. While the South Africans did advance from their group in the Confederations Cup last year, they did so due to their group consisting of Spain, New Zealand, and Iraq. Hardly anything close to the quality they will see in two weeks time, and they barely advanced at that. Unfortunately, I see them finishing bottom of the group, but putting up a pretty decent fight and give the fans something to cheer about at least.
France, meanwhile, is probably the biggest enigma in this tournament. They boast an embarrassment of riches all over the field, and if you want to look at it in terms of pure talent, they are the best squad in this group. Yet, they constantly underachieve. Their coach, Raymond Domenech, is a moron of Biblical proportions. After France went out in the group stages of Euro 2008, many expected the coach (who, to his credit, did lead France to the World Cup final in 2006) to be fired. Shockingly, he kept his job, and the qualifying campaign for France was nothing short of a roller coaster, ultimately ending with that William Gallas goal off a Thierry Henry handball against Ireland in the playoff round.
In terms of what they’ll put on the field in South Africa, well, Mr. Domenech is not lacking for choice. Goalkeeper Hugo Lloris is considered one of the best shot stoppers in Europe, and several big clubs have their eye on him. In defense in front of him, I’d expect regulars Eric Abidal, Gael Clichy, William Gallas, and excellent outside back Patrice Evra. While the midfield will be hurt by losing Lassana Diarra to sickle-cell anemia, they should have ample replacements in the world class Frank Ribery, Abou Diaby of Arsenal, Flourent Malouda of Chelsea and the young gun Yoann Gourcuff. Forwards will include the aforementioned Henry, Chelsea ace Nicolas Anelka, Djibril Cisse and Sidney Govou both of whom had excellent domestic campaigns. I expect France to advance out of the group as champions.
Mexico is entering this tournament in somewhat of a transition phase, but should still push Uruguay hard for the 2nd spot in the group. Mexico, while not as talented as years past, still has the phenomenal Guillermo Ochoa in goal, who is young and only getting better. Rafael Marquez remains a fixture in the Mexican central defense, along with that of FC Barcelona’s, and he will be joined by the young Carlos Salcido, who seems to improve every time he pulls on the Mexico shirt. In the midfield, Mexico lacks the strength of previous years, but still has Giovanni Dos Santos pulling the strings in the middle of the park for them. Joining him will likely be Andres Guardado, Alberto Medina and Gerardo Torrado, all three of whom are good box to box players. Up front, El Tri will have the ageless wonder Cuauhtémoc Blanco, along with young guns Javier Hernandez and Carlos Vela, all three of whom are capable of something special on their own. However, I do not believe it will be enough for them. Yup, you heard it… Mexico goes home in the group stage, finishing in third.
That will be because Uruguay will leapfrog them into second place. Uruguay survived the brutal South American qualifying campaign, albeit having to go in via a playoff with Costa Rica. The team is stacked from back to front, nothing more potent than up front with Atletico Madrid star Diego Forlan leading the front line. The hitman is in the form of his life, and if he can carry it over into South Africa along with strike partner Luis Suarez, Group A should take note. While I think it is very close with Mexico, I think Uruguay’s qualifying campaign and who they had to beat to get where they are will mean they are more battle tested and tougher mentally than Mexico. I’ll pick them 2nd.
So, the final standings will look like this (qualifiers for the knockout round in bold):