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Page last updated at 16:11 GMT, Tuesday, 1 December 2009

England awaiting fate in World Cup finals draw

Jonathan Pearce
By Jonathan Pearce
BBC football commentator

Just as the advent calendars being opened from the start of December start the countdown to Christmas, so Friday's Fifa 2010 World Cup finals draw in Cape Town will signal that football's global fiesta is fast approaching.

It has taken 3,600 hours of manpower to dress the Draw Hall. It will take the celebrities who pull the balls from the pots just a few seconds to signal England's destiny.

There's a dreaded possibility that England could face the old nemesis Portugal in the group stage. Didier Drogba, already this season a thorn in the side of Premier League defences, might also be thrown in against England in the opening phase with his in-form Ivory Coast.

England manager Fabio Capello
Capello became England manager in December 2007

England manager Fabio Capello must feel like he is sitting in a little cart at the start of a giant rollercoaster ride. He expects an adrenaline rush, but he does not know how thrilling the ride might be.

The cynics will claim the draw is fixed. It has its mysteries and its parameters. I don't know which teams will fall into which pot. I'm only guessing, but I hope it gives you an idea of what England could face.

It would be a huge boost to be seeded - and England should be. Everyone is in the dark until Fifa announces the method behind the seeding system.

South Africa, as hosts, will be one of the eight. The other seven could be formulated on their records over the past two World Cup tournaments, although there have been hints that it will be decided on Fifa's world rankings as at October of this year. That date has been chosen because the November qualifying play-offs could artificially elevate some countries at the expense of others who were not in competitive action this month.

October's list read: 1 Spain, 2 Brazil, 3 Netherlands, 4 Italy, 5 Germany, 6 Argentina, 7th England. Fabio would, then, get his seeding.

606: DEBATE

If the Fifa executive committee decides to go down the previous tournament record, England should still be included. France, as finalists in 2006, might get the nod over the Netherlands. That would be a travesty.

Capello knows he'll have to get his team ready to face any of those big names at some stage. He'll want to be in the opposite half of the draw to Brazil and Spain though.

The Spanish show no sign of losing their European Championship form. They've won 40 of their last 44 matches. Torres and Villa are the most lethal strike pairing in the world. Alonso, Iniesta and Xavi form a sublime midfield trio. Their flaws are tiny.

Brazil have a frightening attack coordinated by Kaka. Luis Fabiano scored nine goals in 11 qualifying matches. Robinho, Nilmar or Elano could chip in with a few. Melo and Gilberto Silva anchor the midfield. They are sturdier in dealing with set pieces in their own box and deadly with them at the other end.

Having witnessed them both at close hand at the Confederations Cup last summer, they are my favourites for the final if they can cope with the altitude over a month's intense competition.

Argentina striker Lionel Messi
Messi won a trophy treble with Barcelona last season

Argentina were awful in qualification. Diego Maradona appeared clueless at times and used 50 players! But they've made it through to their 15th finals and if Guus Hiddink does agree to work with Maradona, they'll be a different prospect. Any side containing Europe's Footballer of the Year Lionel Messi, as well as Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero will get goals. But new keeper Sergio Romero is suspect. They are beatable.

Germany have won seven of their last 10 matches. They've only once failed to make the last eight in 17 World Cups. Many of the team will be at their third finals. Everyone knows how formidable they will be if not exactly sprinkled with stardust.

Italy have not failed to clear the group stages since 1974. Some of their players are over the hill and they may be suspect early on. They haven't beaten another country in Fifa's top five in their last five attempts. The reigning champions are ripe for the taking if England come up against them in the knockout stages.

It will be a cruel blow for Robin van Persie if his ankle injury keeps him out. But the Netherlands shared their goals between 11 scorers as they became the first European country to qualify. They are creative going forward and conceded just two goals in making it through. Their keeper Maarten Stekelenburg will be at his first majors as number one though. The pressure is on. They have buckled in the past at the latter stages but England won't want them too early.

On the other hand, South Africa will do nicely for Capello. If they are seeded, as expected in the A1 slot to kick off the tournament, England would love to be the seeds in Group B. The Bafana Bafana boys are the lowest-ranked hosts since Fifa started its ranking system. No other qualifier is currently ranked below them. Somehow they managed to make the Confederations Cup semi-finals but they still looked poor.

I cannot see them winning their group, but given mediocre opposition and tighter organisation brought in by Brazil's World Cup 1994 winning coach Carlos Alberto Perreira, now back for a second spell in charge, the hosts could squeeze into Round Two as runners up. It would be a dream ticket for England to meet them there.

Capello's men are assured of having another African or South American side in their group. They should all be assigned one pot together so as to keep them apart in the first phase. The Ivory Coast and Chile are the main dangers for me here.

"La Roja" amassed 30 points for the first time in South American qualifying. Humberto Suazo of Monterrey hit 10 goals in 18 matches. Alexis Sanchez of Udinese and Sporting Lisbon's Matias Fernandez are fine players. It's 47 years since they won a game at the finals yet they could create a stir next summer.

Ivory Coast striker Didier Drogba
Ivory Coast striker Drogba is in fine form for Chelsea

The Ivory Coast are unbeaten in 18 matches. They have had good results in high-profile friendlies against top European countries. Drogba is on fire and their side is packed with players who have experience in the top European leagues.

There are other African threats. Cameroon have a settled side as they enter their sixth finals, with Samuel Eto'o leading their attack. Ghana was the first team from the continent to qualify. Any team with Stephen Appiah, Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari will be fluent and creative even if their form has dipped since qualification.

Probably the best opponents from this likely pot would be Algeria or Paraguay. Given their limited experience of playing sides from outside Africa - it is nine years since they beat a European team - Algeria will probably be out of their depth despite local backing. Paraguay have lost their way of late with seven defeats in 10 games. They have made it beyond the group stage three times in their last four finals - but not this time.

The third pot to consider will contain those countries ranked outside the top eight. Real threat lurks here.

Having won just one of their opening five qualifiers, a late burst of form took Portugal through via the play-offs. No England fan needs reminding of the penalty shoot heartache in the quarter finals in Germany or at Euro 2004. They are unbeaten in six against England, who won't want to meet Ricardo Carvalho, Deco, Simao or Cristiano Ronaldo.

The United States proved to be a tight, competitive unit at the Confederations Cup. These will be their sixth finals in a row. They have plenty of tournament experience. Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey will be worthy opponents. They are feisty and even if there may not be enough goals in the side to go far, they could prove awkward group opponents.

No-one will want Nemanja Vidic's Serbia in their group with wily old boss Raddy Antic. They are capable of springing a surprise. Australia with Mark Schwarzer in goal will be difficult to beat as Italy found in round two last time around when a last gasp and controversial Francesco Totti penalty decided it.

France striker Nicolas Anelka
Anelka scored in the play-off against the Republic of Ireland

It is a lovely thought that England might be able to exact revenge on France for the dubious victory over Ireland. But in reality, Thierry Henry remains a wonderful player, Nicolas Anelka is inspired and Franck Ribery will be fit by the summer. Capello won't want them.

Having sacked Sven-Goran Eriksson, Mexico have strung together a run of just two defeats in 16 under Javier Aguirre. There could be one or two nasty little problems in this section.

The Swiss, though ranked 18th right now, would be the best looking opposition. They are obdurate as a 0-0 draw with Italy in August shows and don't forget they went out of World Cup 2006 without conceding a goal. But they're not really threatening.

That takes us to the final pot containing the lowest ranked countries. South Korea captivated the world in 2002 and considering they've lost just once in 29 internationals, could be tricky. Denmark are also likely to be in this section.

England hammered them in the Second Round seven years ago, but the Danes have won both friendlies between the two nations since are much improved. They won a tough qualifying section.

By far the weakest teams in the competition should be New Zealand and North Korea.

Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il may not let his people see much of the action on TV if they get walloped and despite the romantic memories of 1966, I can't envisage them creating too much of an upset this time around. They simply lack any sort of experience at this level.

The size of the World Cup is vast compared to 45 years ago. It can blow the minds of rookie players and fans.

It's lovely to see New Zealand at the finals for the first time since 1982. The side contains lots of players who've seen action in England and Scotland. They lost all three games in Spain and if they play like they did at the Confederations Cup, they'll lose all three again.

New Zealand defender Ryan Nelsen
Nelsen made his New Zealand debut in 1999

The fitness of Ryan Nelsen is vital. He missed the summer tournament and their defence played like a Sunday morning pub side. Shane Smeltz scores goals readily in Australia's A-League, but this is a different level altogether. Spain brushed them aside in the Confederations Cup. England will do so too if they meet them.

One never quite knows what to expect with Fifa. The whole draw procedure may be changed. But if it does follow along similar lines to the ones I've drawn up here, England's 'group of death' would be with Portugal or France, the Ivory Coast and Denmark or South Korea. The easy route through would come if they're drawn with Switzerland, Algeria or Paraguay, and New Zealand or North Korea.

This will be the fourth Finals Draw I've covered. It is normally a chaotic affair. The most predictable thing about it is its unpredictability.

Remember the predictions in this column come from a man who strongly tipped France to defend their title in 2002 and Luca Toni to be the top scorer in 2006! I am a walking health warning to erstwhile punters!

Remember that I've gone for a Brazil v Spain final with Spain the winners! Expect then to see anyone else at Soccer City on 11 July 2010!


Jonathan Pearce will be commentating at the 2010 Fifa World Cup finals draw on Friday on BBC Two/online from 1715 GMT.



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see also
Republic World Cup plea rejected
01 Dec 09 |  Internationals
Messi named top European player
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Drogba hopes for kind 2010 draw
01 Dec 09 |  African
Stars lined up for World Cup draw
01 Dec 09 |  African
Voting opens for BBC player award
30 Nov 09 |  African
Chile set to keep World Cup place
27 Nov 09 |  Internationals
Who has qualified for South Africa 2010?
19 Nov 09 |  Internationals
World Cup 2010 map
05 Dec 09 |  Football


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