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Breaking down the World Cup groups

Martin Rogers
Yahoo Sports

Follow Martin Rogers on Twitter at @mrogersyahoo

Let the countdown begin.

Friday's World Cup draw in Cape Town, South Africa, lit the fuse on one of the most anticipated tournaments in soccer history and kicked off a six-month glut of prediction and speculation.

As ever, millions around the world waited with whitened knuckles as their nation's fate rested in a faraway goldfish bowl. As ever, there was a Group of Death, potentially with thrilling matchups and a wealth of intriguing storylines to look forward to.

Here we take a look at the groups and games that will send the soccer world into a frenzy from June 11 onward.

Just six months to go. Get excited.

Group A

No host nation has ever been eliminated in the group stage of the World Cup, but that is a very real possibility for a weak South African side that ended up with a tough draw.

France was the big winner here, ending up with a scenario that is easier than if it had been seeded. The French are riding their luck just after squeezing through a playoff thanks to Thierry Henry's infamous handball.

Mexico will be quietly pleased with its outcome and will like its chances of getting past Uruguay and claiming a place in the knockout phase.

Predicted finish: 1. France, 2. Mexico, 3. South Africa, 4. Uruguay

Group B

Argentina's Diego Maradona was the only head coach missing from the draw, as he is suspended from all official events following a crude rant after his team narrowly qualified for the tournament.

He will be back, of course, when the event starts and will try to lead an inconsistent but supremely talented side to glory. A weak Nigeria and shaky South Korea should not pose too many problems.

Keep an eye out for Greece, though. An unspectacular but hard-as-nails Greek defensive unit will be hard to break down.

Predicted finish: 1. Argentina, 2. Greece, 3. South Korea, 4. Nigeria

Group C

This group kicks off with a mouth-watering clash between England and the U.S., with the Americans hoping to repeat the miraculous victory in the 1950 World Cup.

Recent form might be a better indicator, though, with England having comfortably won a friendly 2-0 in 2008.

Although those two teams will be favorites to qualify, both Slovenia and Algeria came through tense playoffs to clinch a spot in the tournament and can't be discounted.

Predicted finish: 1. England, 2. United States, 3. Slovenia, 4. Algeria

Group D

This is a tougher group than it looks like on paper. While Germany will like its chances of topping the table, it could be heavily tested.

Ghana is one of the most dangerous African teams, while Australia is a rugged unit that believes in its ability to cause shock results.

Serbia was powerful in qualifying but struggled desperately in 2006, finishing without a point. Another early exit could beckon here.

Predicted finish: 1. Germany 2. Ghana 3. Australia 4. Serbia

Group E

Many will expect the European powers of the Netherlands and Denmark to dominate, but this group could be wide open.

The Dutch were outstanding at Euro 2008 before being upset by Russia and should have enough fluidity and technique to force their way through.

However, don't be surprised if Cameroon puts up a strong display. It's a talented and experienced squad that can go deep. Denmark qualified well but has a point to prove, while Japan is capable of springing the occasional shock.

Predicted finish: 1. Netherlands, 2. Cameroon, 3. Denmark, 4. Japan

Group F

The Italians showed incredible spirit and resilience in lifting the trophy in 2006, and they're hungry for more glory. The Azzurri could not have wished for a better group and rightly expect to win all three games.

Slovakia was a revelation in qualifying, while Paraguay mixed outstanding form with some alarming dips. New Zealand may be the worst team in the tournament and will be outclassed.

Predicted finish: 1. Italy, 2. Slovakia, 3. Paraguay, 4. New Zealand

Group G

This is one of the most stacked World Cup groups in recent memory and shapes up as a three-way battle between Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast. There is star power aplenty here with Kaka, Didier Drogba and Cristiano Ronaldo.

The Ivory Coast is a serious threat, especially on African soil, while the final game between Brazil and Portugal is the highlight of the first stage.

Brazil, as always, is the favorite, but it could not have imagined a group as tough as this. Winning the group could be imperative, as the second-place finisher is likely to meet Spain in the round of 16.

Oh, and North Korea? Going home early.

Predicted finish: 1. Brazil, 2. Portugal, 3. Ivory Coast, 4. North Korea

Group H

Spain came from the bottom group of the Euro 2008 draw and went on to sweep its way to the title. The world's second-ranked side will be pleased with its group, but knows it is guaranteed to face a tough opponent in Round 2.

Chile is an outfit that could take many by surprise, having played some slick and attractive soccer in cruising through the South American group.

Switzerland looks to be too limited to advance far even if its gets through the group, while Honduras' World Cup adventure after coming through CONCACAF may be a brief one.

Predicted finish: 1. Spain, 2. Chile, 3. Switzerland, 4. Honduras

Top four games of the first round

1. Brazil vs. Portugal in Durban on June 25 – Two heavyweights will slug it out.

2. England vs. United States in Rustenburg on June 12 – Huge opener for both teams.

3. South Africa vs. Mexico in Soccer City on June 11 – The host nation kicks off the tournament.

4. Portugal vs. Ivory Coast in Port Elizabeth on June 15 – Could decide second place in the Group of Death.