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The luck of the draw means Europe's time has come

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Phil Minshull | 20:05 UK time, Sunday, 6 December 2009

Last week I wrote that next year's finals in South Africa could finally see a European team win the World Cup on terrain beyond the continental boundaries.

Having sat at home and watched closely as Friday's draw unravelled, my belief that this will become a self-fulfilling prophesy has increased.

Looking at the draw on paper, I think as many as 10 of Europe's 13 teams could make it through to the knock-out stages next summer and I'd also expect remarkably short odds on all-European semi-finals.

The draw could not have been much kinder to Spain, who Fifa have at the head of its own global rankings, holders Italy and, of course, England. Big guns like Germany and the Netherlands got rather more loaded groups but their coaches and players are still feeling confident that they can qualify for the last 16 and even go much further.

vdb_blog.jpgVicente del Bosque's Spain enjoyed a perfect World Cup qualifying record

Spanish national sports daily As' front page on Saturday reflected the mood of the nation.

"An easy group, then Cristiano (Ronaldo) or Kaka in the last 16," commented the newspaper. Clearly the World Cup for Spanish football fans and pundits effectively starts more than two weeks later than for most other people, with a potential match up against their neighbours Portugal.

Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque has, not surprisingly, been trying to guard against complacency since the draw was made.

"Any time there can be surprises, Chile are probably our chief rivals, Honduras play well and Switzerland are a solid outfit. But my biggest worry is that my 23 first-choice players get to South Africa in good shape," said Del Bosque.

However, despite Del Bosque's best efforts to try to keep calm and hide his glee, television pictures on Friday showed him with a permanent grin beneath beneath his bushy moustache.

Italian coach Marcello Lippi cuts a less lugubrious figure and also came out with the predictable mantra of, "there are no easy games at the World Cup," but the prospect of having to face New Zealand, Paraguay and Slovakia is unlikely to give him any sleepless nights.

Dutch football fans were also having a chuckle at their good fortune although Denmark and Cameroon (with Japan completing the group) could prove to be tougher opponents than Italy's rivals.

"A lot of people will probably think that we will make it to the next round without too much trouble," admitted Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk, although he did later add the usual qualifying remarks about how good his team's group rivals are.

The common consensus is that the section involving Germany, Ghana, Serbia and Australia is one of the two cliched "Groups of Death", but as the Real Madrid defender Christoph Metzelder pointed out on Saturday, "No one ever wants to face Germany either."

For my money, Serbia might be the surprise package of the World Cup, starting with getting through this group alongside Germany.

Coach Radomir Antic has done a fantastic job since taking over in the summer of 2008, changing the whole style of play, utilising the wings and getting the best out of attacking midfielders Milos Krasic and Milan Jovanovic, the latter being Serbia's top scorer during their qualification campaign.

France's luck also continued. Inevitably the controversy about Thierry Henry's handball will follow coach Raymond Domenech and his men all the way to Cape Town, where they play their opening fixture against Uruguay on 11 June.

lippi_blog.jpgMarcello Lippi's Italy are the World Cup holders
However, they have come out of the pot against the weakest African team in the shape of the host nation, the weakest South American team who only just scraped through the play-offs themselves and Mexico, whose performances in the CONCACAF qualifiers were anything but convincing.

Of the rest of the European teams, who do I think will go through to the last 16?

I wouldn't completely discount the chances of any of the remaining European teams but the odds seem to be against Greece and Slovakia on current form and the countries they have to play.

I have a feeling that Switzerland have been underestimated and they are my fancied country to also qualify from Spain's group. The expected climatic conditions should favour Ottmar Hitzfeld's team. Chile are a good team, as evidenced by them finishing just one point behind Brazil in the South American qualifying group, but they may just find the weather, to use the irresistible pun, just a bit chilly.

Denmark have a very good shot of progressing alongside the Netherlands from their group.

Morten Olsen, who has already announced that he will stand down as coach after being at the helm since 2000, doesn't have any true world stars to call upon. Perhaps the leading name in terms of recognisability is Arsenal's Nicklas Bendtner, the current Danish Player of the Year. However, the Danes have an especially competent defence, with Liverpool's Daniel Agger at the core, and in topping a tough qualifying group only conceded five goals.

Even Slovenia could make it through alongside England. After beating Russia in the play-offs, they are certainly not going to be overawed by the likes of the United States and Algeria.

In contrast to the generally optimistic noises coming out of most parts of Europe in the last few days, the one country that has been sounding a more sanguine note is Portugal.

Having to face Brazil and Ivory Coast, arguably the two best teams from their continents, as well as North Korea, Cristiano Ronaldo commented rather gloomily, "I can't be happy with this draw."

Nevertheless, perhaps the Spanish papers this weekend were right, the World Cup effectively does start for the majority of European teams on 26 June, when the first games of the knock out stages will be played.


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