What the experts say: Groups A & B

CBC Sports commentators Nigel Reed and Jason de Vos, and CBCSports.ca soccer reporter John F. Molinaro offer their analysis and predictions for the 2010 World Cup, focusing on Groups A and B.

Group A

Nigel Reed: World Cup history has proved, time and again, the benefit of being the host nation, and it is South Africa’s turn to make the most of it.

There is no question Bafana Bafana would not be at the World Cup if not for its host status — the South Africans simply do not have the quality to match many of their continental rivals. But they do have a nation behind them, a powerful tool that cannot be ignored.

France is the team with recent World Cup pedigree, but also problems aplenty. Despite their individual strengths, I’m not convinced the French are mentally prepared for the battles ahead. Coach Raymond Domenech is despised by many fans of les bleus who cannot wait to see him go.

Mexico has the potential to be one of the more eye-catching teams in the group stages. Young, gifted and quick, the Mexicans usually progress beyond the group stages — a target which is certainly attainable this time round.

Uruguay may boast the best striker in the section, but Diego Forlan cannot do it all by himself. The opening game against France will be pivotal to their chances of success. A victory could reshape the group’s entire look, but I have a feeling the South Americans will be going home early.

Prediction: 1. Mexico 2. South Africa 3. France 4. Uruguay

Jason de Vos: It defies logic that France is struggling badly right now, given the amount of talent they have at their disposal. With the likes of Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka, Franck Ribery, Yoann Gourcuff and Flourent Malouda in their squad, one would expect France to be the clear favourite in Group A.

Unfortunately, that is not the case, given France’s poor form throughout qualifying and in the lead-up to the World Cup. What should be a comfortable group for Raymond Domenech’s men will be a stern test of their mettle.

Mexico has made it through the group stage in each of the last four World Cups, where each time it was eliminated in the round of 16. They come into this year’s tournament having played some difficult preparation matches, which should put them in good stead when it comes to deciding their place in Group A. Watch for Manchester United bound striker, Javier Hernandez, who could be one of the stars of the tournament.

South Africa could be the first host nation to fail to reach the knockout stage of the World Cup. They would have struggled to qualify for the World Cup, if not for the fact that it is in their own backyard, and they face an uphill battle to avoid the dubious honour of becoming the first host nation to miss the party. They will need to make home-field advantage count, and ride the wave of momentum generated by their boisterous supporters.

Uruguay will be a difficult opponent to overcome, as they have capable strikers in the form of Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez. They finished fifth in South American qualifying, winning a place in South Africa by beating fourth-place CONCACAF finishers Costa Rica in a playoff.

Prediction: 1. Mexico 2. France 3. South Africa. 4 Uruguay

John F. Molinaro: France comes limping into the tournament with confidence at an all-time low thanks to a recent loss to China in a friendly.

Les bleus have serious issues, a distinct lack of leadership being foremost among them, but they also have a slew of world-class players, and they have a point to prove — few neutral fans are cheering for them after their controversial qualification at the expense of Ireland. Everyone, it seems, wants to see France fail, and I think they will use that as a motivating factor to win the group.

The battle for second place comes down to Uruguay and Mexico. The Mexicans have a young and exciting team, while the South Americans boast one of the most dangerous strikers in the world in Diego Forlan. But the Mexicans have a more balanced roster, and that should be enough to see them edge ahead of Uruguay.

No host nation has ever failed to make it out of the first round in the 80-year history of the World Cup. That streak will come to an end this summer. I know South Africa is riding a 12-game unbeaten run headed into this tournament, but the support of the hometown fans won’t be enough to propel this team, which lacks depth and genuine quality, into the second round.

Prediction: 1. France 2. Mexico 3. Uruguay 4. South Africa

Group B

Reed: A nation’s inspiration or unpredictable maverick? Whichever way you view Diego Maradona’s handling of Argentina there is no debate the South Americans are a class apart.

When you have the world’s best player in Lionel Messi, plus a supporting cast of Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero and Javier Mascherano, there can be no excuses. Despite the well-documented toils in qualifying, Argentina should stroll into the knockout stages without dropping a point.

As the World Cup makes its historic first trip to Africa, the debate rages on as to the identity of the continent’s strongest representative. Nigeria’s Super Eagles, even without the influence of John Obi Mikel, have a well-balanced squad and will prove strong, physical opponents.

South Korea is earning a reputation of producing technically adept, hard-working players who play to a system that works for them. I can see them posing plenty of problems for Greece in the opener, but the schedule only gets tougher from there on in.

The Greeks won’t give much away but scoring at the other end remains an issue. It is essential they make a positive start against the Koreans and could catch a break in their final game if Argentina has already qualified. In the final analysis I can’t see Greece being a factor.

Prediction: 1. Argentina 2. Nigeria 3. South Korea 4. Greece

De Vos: Despite their lack of an experienced head coach, Argentina will win this group with relative ease. Even if Diego Maradona starts meddling with his lineup and formation, Argentina still has one of the best squads in world football, and I expect them to shine. Lionel Messi can underline his standing as the best player on the planet, and the World Cup in South Africa can be his to own.

While Argentina can be described as flamboyant and exciting, the Greeks can be summed up as resilient and pragmatic. In Theofanis Gekas, they have a dangerous front-man, while Sotiris Ninis provides hope that the future will be more exciting than what Greek fans have had to settle for recently. German coach Otta Rehhagel has done a fine job in charge of Greece, but his side can be difficult to watch if you want to see entertaining football.

South Korea will not have the roller-coaster ride that they did when hosting the World Cup in 2002, where they reached the improbable heights of the semifinals. However, they will be well organized, very fit and difficult to break down. Manchester United’s Park Ji-Sung is their top player, but it will be difficult for him to lead his team to the same finish as his colleagues in 2002.

Nigeria will be confident of reaching the knockout stage of the tournament, despite the fact that they will be missing John Obi Mikel through injury. With plenty of firepower up front, Nigeria will feel that they can advance from their group along with Argentina. If they can be a little more organized defensively, traditionally a weakness for Nigeria, I think they might just pull it off.

Prediction: 1. Argentina 2. Nigeria 3. Greece 4. South Korea

Molinaro: This is Argentina’s group to win or lose. With the best player in the world in Lionel Messi and a supporting cast that includes Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain and Diego Milito, the Argentines have to be considered one of the tournament favourites.

South Korea represents Asia’s best chance for success at this tournament. Coach Huh Jong-moo’s side will be one of the fittest at this tournament, and will run their opponents ragged playing their quick and short-passing game.

Can Nigeria survive the loss of John Obi Mikel? Maybe they can, but the Super Eagles always implode at the World Cup and it seems like that will happen again now that they’ve been denied the services of their best player.

As for Greece, well, they keep things tight at the back but you need to score goals, too. The Greeks’ dour and ultra-defensive approach may contain opponents for a while, but in the end they will be breached.

Prediction: 1. Argentina 2. South Korea 3. Nigeria 4. Greece

SOURCE-CBC SPORTS

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