Ivory Coast – It's a good thing I didn't write this one last week, or I might have had the Elephants in the second round. The injury this weekend to Didier Drogba is very detrimental to the team. Ivory Coast may be the strongest African squad, with players starring for Chelsea, Man City, Barcelona, Arsenal, and Sevilla, but they are lacking depth. In almost any other group I would have Cote D' Ivoire advancing, but I feel Portugal and Brazil will be too much for them. Look for some hot jerseys though.
Player to Watch – Gervinho – The Ivorian with the Brazilian name will be the player to watch for the Elephants in 2010, especially in the absence of Drogba. He only 23, and just starting to hit a strong gear in the French league and on the international level.
Portugal – The Portuguese have been less than convincing in qualification and warm up matches. Like Messi for Argentina, Ronaldo has never fared as well for his country as he has for his clubs. Portugal still has a very strong midfield, and a serviceable defense, but is really lacking a strong striker. Look for most of the goals to come from the midfield. This Portugal squad is not as strong as ones in years past, but can still do some damage in the World Cup.
Player to Watch – Nani – The young Michael Jackson look- alike have been in the best form of his life in recent months for Manchester United. If that form continues in South Africa, look for Portugal to challenge Brazil for the top spot in the group.
**Update** - Nani is out with an injury. New player to watch is Pepe, who himself is coming back from an injury. He has the height of a center back with the build of a winger and will be playing defensive center midfielder, a new role for him.
Brazil – Brazil enters the tournament as the co-favorites with Spain, but they could potentially meet in the second round. Most analysts are noting that Brazil are playing a much more defensive style than in years past, and rely on strength and physicality more than creativity. I think all that is an overstatement. Brazil will still play entertaining football, will still score lots of goals, and with Kaka, Robinho, Elano, and Macion, Brazil have plenty of fun players to watch. The addition of strong defensive midfielders Felipe Melo and Gilberto Silva makes Brazil an even more complete squad, allowing the outside backs to push forward.
Player to Watch – Maicon – I don't think I've ever seen an outside back get forward more than Maicon. They talk of "box-to-box" midfielders, but Maicon is an endline to endline defender. Fun to watch for sure.
North Korea – North Korea are one of the best teams in the World Cup. They employee a disciplined, yet exciting style of play and work together tremendously. Their quality of play will surprise many people throughout the world who don't expect much from the excellent team. Players have run sub 4 second 40 yard dashes, can kick the ball just below the speed of sound, and have only once committed a foul against the other team, but that was a referee's mistake.
Player to Watch – Jong Tae -Se – Known as the "Asian Wayne Rooney", Jong is one of the few North Korean players that plays outside the country. His name may be a bit of hyperbole, but he has back up the name recently, scoring two great goals against Greece and scoring one against Nigeria and has guaranteed a goal a game in the Cup. I'm thinking that highlights of Jong may be the only part of the Cup that fans back home get to see.
Prediction: The Group of Death is not as scary with the recent play of Portugal and the loss of Didier Drogba. Brazil should come out on top and Portugal should come in second. North Korea will be the doormats and Ivory Coast sans Drogba will be a bit of a wild card. The Group of death will be super fun to watch and winner could definitely come out of this group. I'm hoping for a few early ties to make things interesting. Another thing that makes it interesting is that second place will most likely play Spain in the second round. That will be a great early match.
Ivory Coast 4
North Korea 0, though the great Leader says 15.