Today I figured I'd shoot out one more World Cup Preview before I head back to the land of green lawns and slow-ass internet. So here's my handicapping on the last two groups, Group G and Group H.
Group G: France, Switzerland, South Korea, Togo
I want to get one thing out of the way. Writers are trying to look at this group and Togo as a dark horse. This seems to only be because France choked hard at the last World Cup to Togo's West African neighbor Senegal. Yes, Togo did beat Senegal, but this is a European World Cup, and traditionally, European sides are upset with less frequency when they are playing on their home soil. I'm not saying that Togo doesn't have what it takes, because any team that makes it to the finals is a good team, but 1998 World Cup Champion France, European power Switzerland, and 2002 World Cup semifinalist Korea are very different beasts from Zambia, Mali, and Liberia. Togo could have some discipline problems, having accured 16 yellow cards in 12 games and the bright lights and big stage of Germany could pose problems. France and Switzerland are very familiar with each other. They finished first and second in their qualifying group (arguably the hardest in Europe) battling to 0-0 and 1-1 ties in qualifying. France is led by Arsenal striker Thierry Henry. Statistics show that Switzerland scored more goals in qualifying than France in qualifying, but keep in mind that six of those goals came on the last day of qualifying against the Faroe Islands. (First person to be able to locate the Faroe Islands on a map, wins a prize.) France's defense is ironclad, only surrendering 2 goals in 12 matches of qualifying. Despite the failure of Les Bleus at Korea/Japan four years ago, I'd be pretty hard-pressed to not pick them to go through to the next round. As for South Korea, I'm going to admit, they're an enigma. They have some players with European experience, most notably Ji-Sung Park of Manchester United, but last World Cup was really an anomaly, it was the first time the Red Devils made it out of the first round, and they were playing on their home soil. This time around, their goal differential is the lowest in their group (+11). They average nearly 2 yellow cards a game, and will be playing halfway around the world in front of hostile fans. As good of a team as the Koreans have become, I can't see them getting out of the group stages. I like the Swiss and the Frogs.
Group H: Ukraine, Spain, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia
This is a group that is getting surprisingly little attention. As much as I deride the FIFA World Rankings, everyone in this group is in the top 45. That being said, some teams shouldn't be. Saudi Arabia is making their 4th World Cup Finals appearance, and despite the fact that they won their Asian qualifying group, beating out South Korea, I still don't like their chances. They haven't played any significant opposition outside of their Confederation. They are paired with two European powers in a European World Cup. Oh yea, and the last time they faced a team from Europe was 4 years ago....losing 8-0 to Germany in the group stages at the 2002 World Cup. The Saudis, while much improved, should not be much of a threat to Spain. Ukraine is led my AC Milan star and 2004 European player of the year Andriy Shevchencko, and are making their first World Cup appearance. Do not let that deceive you however, as it was only 16 years ago that this team was known as the Soviet Union. Ukraine won their qualifying group that included tough European powers Denmark, Greece, and Turkey. Ukraine's goal differential isn't that great (+11 in 12 qualifying matches), but the talent level is there. On paper, Spain should win this group easily. They scored at a prodigious clip in qualifying, but I'm concerned. They scored 25 goals in 12 games, but 11 of them came against San Marino. While good teams beat bad teams, Spain had a pretty soft draw in qualifiers. Their biggest results were 2 ties against Serbia and Montenegro. The Spaniards also have a tendency to lose their cool, collecting 22 yellow cards in 12 matches. Combine that with a Spanish history of underachieving in the finals, and this is a team that is ripe for upset. So who goes through at their expense? If it's going to be anyone, it's going to be Tunisia. Germany is not that far from Tunisia, so there should be a fair number of traveling supporters, and Tunisia had some good stats from qualifying. I'm going to make my second ballsy prediction (The first being that the United States would go through), and pick the Tunisians to join Ukraine in the knockout rounds.
So after the group stages, the 16 teams remaining will be: Germany, Poland, Sweden, England, Holland, Ivory Coast, Portugal, Mexico, Czech Republic, United States, Brazil, Croatia, France, Switzerland, Ukraine, and Tunisia. In my fifth and final World Cup Preview, I'll examine how I think the knockout stages will play out if what I've predicted in the group stages comes true.