In the first Power Rankings I focused primarily on pedigree and team strength. This time around I'm looking more at injuries and path to the final. The path to the final is a key aspect of my ranking. The top half of the draw is slightly easier than the bottom half, with four of the Big 9.
There's always a "Group of Death" at the World Cup, but it's not always the same. There are two kinds of Groups of Death: at least three strong teams, or four balanced teams where any team could come out of the group. Rarely, there's even a group that has four strong teams - 2002's England/Argentina/Sweden/Nigeria pile-up.
This time, we've got both. Group G with Portugal/Brazil/Ivory Coast is the first kind of group of death. Groups A & D are also full of sides capable of advancing, and should be fun to watch throughout.
The Big 9 I refer to are the nine teams which people wouldn't be surprised by winning the World Cup. They are the non-Uruguay previous winners (France, England, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy) plus the three European powers that haven't broken through (Spain, Portugal, Holland.)
I firmly expect the top 7 in my rankings to go through. From 8-31 are teams which I think might have a chance, and while France (8) and New Zealand (31) have a big divide between them, the middle is pretty well bunched. 13 (USA) and 23 (Nigeria) don't have that much difference in chances to progress, in my opinion.
Before the tournament starts, I'll be updating this with injuries if they're likely to change things much.
I still think Brazil has the best team, and in an even round-robin, they're the likely winners. But the World Cup ain't even. There's so much randomness, and drawn with two highly motivated, extremely talented teams in their group, it's possible (but unlikely) that they may not even survive the group. Wouldn't that be something?
EDIT: With Drogba out, Brazil's group just got easier for them. Back to the top!
As ever, the Dutch have the talent. As ever, their squad is chaotic. Like Spain, I'll believe it when I see it. Their group offers some opportunity to stumble, especially in their first match against the Danes, but their potential second round opponents from Group F mean that they're likely, barring complete collapse to ease their way into the quarterfinals. If this group can get confidence, they could break the Netherlands' streak of bad luck in major tournaments.
The nominal favorites were my favorites a decade ago, as I consistently picked them to win every major tournament, only to see them run into another power or some insane bad luck. It's less that Spain has (or had) something specific working against them, and more that it's really difficult to have the talent and the luck required to win a World Cup. And nobody would deny that Spain has the talent, but the luck is already working against them.
Their group is somewhat challenging, and offers plenty of opportunity to stumble, but it's the next round that screws the Spanish this time: they're matched up against Group G. A date with Brazil, Portugal, or the Ivory Coast may knock the favorites out early.
Brazil, 2002. That's who Argentina remind me of. After having clearly the best team with the most potential in the prior World Cup, they ended up disappointing. They still have the collection of talented players, but they've struggled to mesh as a unit, and they likewise struggled in qualifying.
The biggest wildcard non-player in the tournament is Diego Maradona. Why do they think he's a qualified manager? Is he a qualified manager? Or can he be just-good-enough to pick the team and get out of the way?
England's got a good draw. Their group should be challenging but eminently conquerable. They're in the top half of the bracket, where the biggest danger would be taking on arch-rival Germany in the round of 16, which could cause the entire nation to go collectively insane (especially if it went to penalties!)
They have injury issues at left back, which may give American Landon Donovon some fun on the right wing, but another injury, to David Beckham, may actually help the team, by relieving media pressure. I think they've got a good manager, good players, and a good position. The first match against the USA should be good fun.
EDIT: With Ferdinand out, they just seem to have too many holes in defense, so I'm dropping them.
Never count out the Germans, they say. Others here are willing to count them out. Especially with their best player of the last decade, Michael Ballack, ruled out with injury. I say: never count out the Germans, and this is a perfect place for the Ewing Theory to rear its ugly head. In 2002, the Germans were arguably worse than they are now, and somehow managed to find their way into the final. I don't think they'll have the luck, but I do think they can be pencilled into yet another quarterfinal appearance.
France is the biggest wild card in the tournament, in my opinion. They have the disarray to flame out in the group stage. They have the talent to make the final. They remind me of Germany in 2002, or France 2006 in that respect. Alternately, Argentina 1994. Toss in an underaged prostitute scandal, a chaotic group, and a coach who's already been replaced, and there should be drama.
The match with Uruguay is probably my third-most-anticipated match of the first batch of games, behind Ivory Coast/Portugal and USA/England. I hope it's fun.
Has any defending champion ever had so little expectation in a World Cup? Not in my soccer-watching memory. But Italy's mediocre results in Euro 2008, the Confederations Cup, and qualifying indicate a team on the downswing, as well as the age of their 2006 heroes. But they've been drawn into a cushy group, and they still have arguably the best goalkeeper in the world. We may not know much about the Italians until the quarterfinals.
I don't really like Portugal. I really don't like Cristiano Ronaldo. I hope they get knocked out early, and he cries. That's always fun.
That said, he's probably the best attacking player in the world, and the rest of the team isn't bad either. Portugal is extremely dangerous. So is the Ivory Coast, and with Brazil in the group with them, their first-round matchup may be the most intense and highest-quality of the group stage. Watch this game.
Like the Americans, Paraguay has a consistent, technically adept squad which just keeps qualifying for World Cups. Like the Americans, they're lucky in that their toughest match in their group is first. Unlike the Americans, they're so much farther ahead of their competition that I'm saying that other than the Big 9, they're the most likely to progress.
No more excuses. After three World Cups of being drawn in difficult groups, the Americans are heavily favored to take the second slot in Group C. Opening against England is ideal as well, as it takes the toughest match off the board immediately - any result would be a good result.
A couple injuries to starters in Charlie Davies and Onguchi Onyewu could pose problems, but as long as Donovan, Dempsey and Howard are healthy, the USA has the ability to get through. That first match against England may be biggest in American soccer history since the 2002 quarterfinals. It's gonna be fun.
Cameroon is back! Probably. An attack-minded squad with strong players all-around, including defense and goalkeeper, the Indomitable Lions are probably the African side with the best chance to progress to the second round. Their final group match, against Holland, is my bet for "Most Goals In A World Cup Match."
Every team in Group A should have a "let's wait and see" tag. Uruguay are probably the most consistent, but also probably have the smallest potential. This match with France could sort out the group in a hurry.
Both Greece and Korea were on my "danger teams" radar, as the last Power Rankings mentioned, and here they are in the same group, playing each other first. Group B could end up a total mess, and with its teams playing the even more messy Group A in the round of 16, we may see some shocking quarter- or even semi-finalists. South Korea? Again? I doubt it, but the door is open, and this team will sprint for it.
In 2004, Greece pulled off arguably the greatest underdog feat in modern international football history by winning the European Championships - roughly equivalent to making the final in the World Cup. It's doubtful they'll ever manage it again, but their qualification, with Europe's leading goalscorer Theofanis Gekas leading the way, gives them a chance.
The Serbs just keep qualifying. And they keep qualifying because they keep producing good players. They're in a tough group, but an opening match against Ghana ought to show whether they're darkhorses to go deep in the tournament, or punching bags as in 2006.
Ghana's fate and position in the Power Rankings depend entirely on one man: Michael Essien. Essien may be the best all-around player in the world, and is the heart and soul of an otherwise fairly non-descript Ghanaian side. If he's healthy, they could go far, perhaps even the semi-finals. If he's not, expect them to flame out of a difficult group.
EDIT: Essien has been ruled out, and so Ghana drops.
I like the Aussies. I think they've been improving, and I think they're fun to watch in the World Cup. I also think they're drawn in a tough group. If they can get a result against the Germans, expect them to skyrocket up the rankings. Right now, I just can't pick them over Serbia or Ghana.
Algeria's emotional battles with nemesis Egypt just to qualify mean that this is a team which should be ready for the World Cup. They won't have an easy time in Group C, but if they manage to surprise England or beat the Americans, they may sneak into the second round.
During the World Cup, you will no doubt hear, over and over, that Slovenia is the smallest team in the Cup. Fair enough. But they've been in the World Cup recently in 2002, and have players scattered across Europe. The USA may be the favorites for second in Group C, but Slovenia and Algeria both have a chance.
Is Nigeria back? They were the in-fashion African side in the 1990's, but have been much weaker this decade. Their manager has embraced a more defensive style than the supposed free-wheeling sides of the past, which will probably be necessary in a dangerous Group B. I don't expect them to have the consistency of Greece or Korea, but with Argentina a massive wild-card, who knows?
The solid Swiss start straight-off against the favorites, Spain. A good day may see their defensive style pull out a draw, frustrating the Spanish. Either way, they're in a group that has second place up for grabs.
Honduras, at first glance, would appear to be the weakest team in their group. But teams from North and Cental America - CONCACAF in soccerspeak - tend to overperform at World Cups, though they're often in tougher groups, like Costa Rica in 2002. Chile will be the clear favorites for second place, but if Honduras can stymie them in the opener, their chances improve immeasurably.
Japan is consistently one of the two best teams in Asia, and consistently doesn't do well outside of Asia. They're in a pretty tough group, and I think it's unlikely they'll surpass both Denmark and Cameroon. One of these days the Japanese may break through, but I don't think it'll be this year.
Over the next few weeks, you'll likely hear that South Africa is the weakest host in World Cup history, and also in danger of being the first host to not make the knockout rounds. They said that about the USA in 1994, and both Japan and Korea in 2002. Yet it still happened. They'll need luck, they'll need home crowds, and in a tough Group A, they'll need skill. However, a strong performance in the Confederations' Cup in 2009 demonstrated that it's possible.
The Kiwis are possibly the worst team in the World Cup, but they've been drawn into possibly the worst group. They have a teensy-tiny bit of hope, but it all rests on beating Slovakia in the first match.
Congratulations on making the World Cup, North Korea! You're totally screwed. Sorry about that. I have no words of possibilities for you. This is the only team in the World Cup that I can't conceive of in the knockout stages at all.