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First hurdle headaches

With some of international football’s big names only just managing to qualify for South Africa 2010, John Rooney asks the question: who should we be backing for an early exit this summer?

When looking over the draw for the group stages of any major tournament, you would be forgiven for thinking it would be easy to pick out the sides certain to go through to the Round Of 16. Spain? Of course. Italy? Surely. England? They better! Though if past tournaments have taught us anything, it’s that some of the biggest surprises can come during the opening round.

Unfortunately for the French, Raymond Domenech’s side are the perfect example of one of the big boys failing to live up to expectations, finishing bottom of their group in World Cup 2002 and in Euro 2008. Les Bleus could also be a good bet for repeating their poor performance from two years ago having scraped through qualifying, beating the Republic of Ireland in the playoff courtesy of Thierry Henry’s hand. France’s showing in their qualification group was equally inauspicious; humbled in their opening game 3-1 by Austria, while only narrowly overcoming minnows Lithuania and the Faroe Islands.

Placed in Pot 2 for the group draw, France were fortunate to be placed with South Africa from Pot 1 – among the favourites for the sole reason of being tournament hosts – avoiding the likes of Spain, Brazil, Italy and England. However, with South Africa having the advantage of home support they could be a more difficult proposition than expected, while Everton’s increasingly excellent Steven Pienaar will be looking to make an impact on the international stage. If the hosts’ chances begin and end with being on home soil however, in Mexico and Uruguay they have capable opponents whom they must be wary of. Central American powerhouses Mexico have a talented mix of experience and youth, with lynchpin Rafael Marquez and Stuttgart duo Ricardo Osorio and Pavel Pardo vital to their hopes of progressing. Furthermore, Mexico have not failed to qualify for the last 16 of a World Cup they have taken part in since 1978.

Two-time World Cup winners Uruguay, however, have failed to impress at the World Cup since reaching the semi-final in 1970, and have won just one of their last 16 World Cup matches. In spite of their poor recent record, they are a side capable of playing good football and with Atlético Madrid’s leading scorer Diego Forlan leading the line the South Americans have goals in them.

Like France, Argentina qualified for South Africa following a difficult qualifying campaign in which Alfio Basile stood down to be replaced by Diego Maradona. Despite helping Argentina to the fourth automatic qualifying spot, it was a turbulent few months for Maradona who drew criticism for the team’s performances and bizarre squad selection – calling up over 100 players after taking charge, including a recall for 36-year-old veteran striker Martin Palermo.

Perhaps fortunate to be put into Pot 1 as one of the eight favourites, in South Korea, Greece and Nigeria they have drawn a tough group. Both Korea and Greece have overachieved in the last decade, coming fourth in 2002 and winning Euro 2004 respectively. South Korea could not repeat their 2002 success in Germany while Greece failed to qualify, however both sides play with a determination and never-say-die attitude that could cause the erratic Argentineans problems.

Another side looking to make up for not making it to the World Cup last time around is Nigeria, who, having won the Under-17 World Cup Korea in 2007, will be looking to utilise some of that teenage talent this summer including 19 year-old Hamburg striker Macauley Chrisantus, who was the top scorer at that tournament. Argentina’s inability to make the best of the talent in their side as well as the threat posed by their group, make 11/2 for the Albicelestes to be eliminated from the first round look like good odds.

The ‘Group of Death’ status however is reserved for Group G, featuring Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast (coached by a familiar face in Sven-Goran Eriksson), with North Korea looking like the group whipping boys, but who impressed in qualifying, conceding just five goals.

Brazil and Portugal are the favourites to progress to the next round, but with a squad littered with Premier League talent including Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Eboue, the Côte d'Ivoire could cause an upset, more likely at the expense of Portugal than five-time winners Brazil. The Euro 2004 finalists may have the 2008 World Player of the Year at their disposal in Cristiano Ronaldo, but the Portuguese rely too heavily on the Real Madrid forward with few other players possessing the ability to make a real impact within an ageing side. Should Ronaldo pick up an injury and miss out this summer Portugal would be in major trouble, but with their odds laid at Evens to be knocked out at the group stage they’re not such an attractive proposition. As for Brazil, both Portugal and Ivory Coast could potentially spoil the party, but Dunga’s side eased through qualification and with odds of 5/1, shorter than that of Argentina at 11/2, your money would be better spent on the latter.

BEST ODDS

1. Argentina (11/2, Sky Bet)
2. France (3/1, Blue Square/888sport)
3. Brazil (5/1, Blue Square/888sport)
4. Portugal (Evens, Blue Square/888sport/Sky Bet)

Best of the rest...

Germany (7/2, Sky Bet)
Holland (4/1, Blue Square/888sport)
England (8/1, Blue Square/888sport/Sky Bet)
Italy (8/1, Blue Square/888sport/Sky Bet)
Spain (8/1, Blue Square/888sport/Sky Bet)
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