World Cup contenders plot route to final

<img border='0' align='left' title=' ' src='' class='caption'> Now that the 32 World Cup teams know who they are playing in the first round, the leading contenders are plotting a route to the final.

Updated: December 05, 2009 17:00 IST
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Now that the 32 World Cup teams know who they are playing in the first round, the leading contenders are plotting a route to the final.

The top five teams in the FIFA rankings _ Spain, Brazil, the Netherlands, Italy and Portugal _ are all in the same half of a somewhat lopsided draw, so they could meet each other sooner than expected. Brazil and Portugal were drawn into the same group, so they will play in the first round, and one of them is likely to face Spain in the second round.

"I'm hoping not to face Spain too soon in the championship, not least because we'd be facing Iker (Casillas) in goal," Brazil playmaker Kaka said. "I prefer playing with him in Real Madrid than against him in the World Cup."

Kaka will also come up against Real Madrid teammate Cristiano Ronaldo when Brazil and Portugal face each other in Durban on June 25. By then, both will have come through tough games against Ivory Coast and the unknown North Koreans.

"It's a complicated group. I'm not overjoyed but we'll be playing against great teams," Ronaldo said. "Brazil is very strong, Ivory Coast is really tough and Korea runs a lot. If we get as far as meeting Spain, I'd be happy. We'd have played a good World Cup."

Portugal beat the North Koreans in one of the World Cup's most famous games in 1966. Having knocked out Italy in the group phase, the North Koreans were ahead 3-0 inside 24 minutes at Goodison Park before Portugal, inspired by four goals from Eusebio, won the game.

Unless they both win their groups, defending champion Italy and the Netherlands could meet in the last 16 with the possibility of then facing either Brazil or Spain in the quarterfinals.

England goes into the competition with its highest hopes since 1970, when it failed to defend the title it won four years earlier. But it has an old score to settle against the United States in the group phase and could face two of its traditional World Cup foes, Germany and Argentina, in the first two knockout rounds.

In their only previous World Cup meeting in 1950, the Americans stunned a star-studded England 1-0.

"What I didn't want was to come up against the unknown and we have avoided that and we have avoided some of the really hard groups, like the one Brazil find themselves in," England midfielder Steven Gerrard said. "We have played two of the sides in our group under Fabio Capello (United States and Slovenia) and beaten them. So we know what to expect and we know what we have to do to beat them."

Facing Slovenia and Algeria, who both advanced through playoffs, the English and Americans should qualify for the last 16. Whoever wins that group is likely to avoid three-time champion Germany, which is in one of the toughest groups along with Australia, Serbia and Ghana, any of whom are capable of reaching the second round.

Winner in 1978 and '86, Argentina hoped that the appointment of Diego Maradona as coach would inspire the team to another triumph. But the team failed to find any form in qualifying, only made it as the fourth-place finisher in South America and now has a tough group against Nigeria, South Korea and 2004 European champion Greece.

"It's not an easy group," Argentina general manager Carlos Bilardo said. "On the contrary, I think it's very difficult. In 1990, everybody thought that Cameroon was easy and we ended up losing the first match. Korea are strong, but we know them very well. Nigeria are difficult, too, and Greece have shown in recent years that they can compete against big teams.

"If it wasn't Greece, it could have been Portugal or France, so we can't complain."

Argentina could then meet 1998 world champion France in the second round.

After being embarrassed by Thierry Henry's handball in the playoffs against Ireland, France now has a comparatively easy group alongside host South Africa, Mexico and Uruguay.

France beat South Africa 3-0 in their only World Cup meeting and went on to win the title.

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