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World Cup: Group breakdown

Can't-miss game

South Africa vs. Mexico: 10 a.m. Friday, Johannesburg, ESPN. Other matchups have the talent, but none can match the thrill, pomp and anticipation of the World Cup opener. Often that honor falls to the defending champ; this time it's host South Africa.

Who advances

Mexico, Uruguay: No host has ever failed to advance. South Africa will be the first. France, the best on paper, is a bit old at key spots and is so underwhelmed with coach Raymond Domenech that it has already named his successor. A bit of an upset, then: Mexico and Uruguay go through.

Can't-miss game

Portugal vs. Brazil: 10 a.m. June 25, Durban, ESPN. Likely the most talent-laden matchup in the group stage, with Brazilian stars Kaka, Dani Alves and Maicon against Portugal's Deco, Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo. And then there's the angle of former power vs. former colony.

Who advances

Brazil, Portugal: Brazil, of course. The last time it fell out in the first round was 1966. The other berth is tricky — North Korea has no chance, which leaves the other two. Ivory Coast superstar Didier Drogba broke his arm Friday; his nation could still pull the slight upset but with him likely missing, we'll go with Portugal.

Can't-miss game

Italy vs. Paraguay: 2:30 p.m. June 14, Cape Town, ESPN. Paraguay had little problem in qualifying, beating Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay once each. Italy has a reputation for starting slowly but has actually lost its opener only once (Ireland, 1994) in the past 40 years.

Who advances

Italy, Paraguay: According to FIFA's rankings, this is the weakest group (average ranking: 37.75), making the path to advancement smooth for defending champion Italy. Paraguay reached its fourth straight World Cup and got to the Round of 16 in 1998 and 2002. It should do so again.

Can't-miss game

Cameroon vs. Denmark: 2:30 p.m. June 19, Pretoria, Ch. 28. This is likely to settle second place below the favored Dutch and ahead of lightly regarded Japan. Cameroon relies heavily on Samuel Eto'o, and if he doesn't light up Japan in the opener, his team might go into desperation mode.

Who advances

Netherlands, Denmark: The Netherlands has by far the most scoring capability in this group and dominated its qualifying group. Cameroon is in its sixth World Cup, the most in Africa, and lit up the 1990 edition. But Denmark is deeper and a bit better on defense, giving the Danes a slight edge.

Can't-miss game

Ghana vs. Germany: 2:30 p.m. June 23, Johannesburg, ESPN. A clash of styles as the solid Germans face flashy Ghana, which ousted the United States in 2006 to reach the Round of 16 in its World Cup debut. Three of Ghana's best play in Germany's Bundesliga.

Who advances

Germany, Serbia: For Germany, think of Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament — never, ever leaving early. Germany has made the final eight the past 14 times. Serbia has a sterling group of defenders, starring Manchester United's Nemanja Vidic, who should pave the way forward.

Can't-miss game

United States vs. England: 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Rustenburg, Ch. 28. One of the most intriguing matchups in the group stage. The United States allowed an average of 1.3 goals in its 10 final-round qualifying matches and will have to tighten up against the explosive English.

Who advances

England, United States: England is perhaps the most prohibitive favorite anywhere because of the relatively weak group. Since 1990, the Americans have reached the Round of 16 each time the World Cup has been outside Europe (1994, U.S.; 2002, Japan/Korea); the trend should continue.

Can't-miss game

Nigeria vs. South Korea: 2:30 p.m. June 22, Durban, ESPN2. On paper, these teams are the most likely to advance behind favored Argentina, and this is the final group match for both. Nigeria has the edge in experience, with several English Premier League veterans.

Who advances

Argentina, Nigeria: Argentina, assuming that one of the world's most talented teams doesn't crack under volatile manager Diego Maradona, should win the group. Second place is a toss-up, but the pick is Nigeria, which has home advantage of sorts on its own continent.

Can't-miss game

Spain vs. Switzerland: 10 a.m. June 16, Durban, ESPN. The Swiss allowed only eight goals in 10 qualifying matches but must be at their best to stop Spain's attack, especially if Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas have recovered from injuries suffered this season.

Who advances

Spain, Chile: Spain might be the best team in the world, and it shed the label of tournament underachiever with a convincing title in the 2008 European Championships. It will have no problem in this group. Chile was an impressive second in South American qualifying, giving it the slight nod.

World Cup: Group breakdown 06/05/10 [Last modified: Saturday, June 5, 2010 6:31pm]

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