With all 32 sides now having played at least one match, we’re due an overview of the World Cup circuit. The results you see below are based on slightly more than 10,000 simulations using the SPI (Soccer Power Index) Match Predictor given the results of the tournament to date.
Group A. This group cheated by playing one additional match before anybody else. And it was a critical one, with Uruguay defeating South Africa 3-0. The victory all but assures that Uruguay will advance and South Africa won’t. It was really the second and third goals, which Uruguay scored very late, that were the key, because in a tournament where people are having trouble winning by multiple-goal margins, Uruguay will almost certainly win any tiebreaker and South Africa will almost certainly lose it. For South Africa to advance, they’ll probably need the following three things to occur: France draws Mexico, Uruguay beats Mexico, South Africa beats France. None of those things are impossible but it’s quite a parlay, especially since South Africa will be without its keeper, and without striker Kagisho Dikgacoi, for the France contest.
As for France and Mexico, tomorrow’s match is a de facto play-in game, although look for Mexico to play more aggressively because their remaining match is against tough Uruguay while France’s is against the more vulnerable hosts. By the way, nobody should be surprised that it’s Uruguay which sits atop this group; SPI had them rated 8th or 9th in the world heading into the tournament, whereas France was fortunate to qualify and seem as though they’d rather be on the beach in Nice. And Mexico, though a difficult side to get a handle on, did not endure as many tests in qualifying.
Group B. I didn’t see anything wrong with Argentina in its 1-0 opening win against Nigeria. Yes, Nigeria failed to convert on a couple of good scoring chances, but the same was true of Argentina; this game could just as easily have been 2-0 or 3-1 as a draw.
The story here, however, is South Korea, which played terrific soccer against Greece and was also very impressive in a series of friendly matches in the run-up to the tournament. Their fitness and technical style seem to be compatible with what’s working in South Africa so far, and SPI has gone bonkers over them, moving them all the way up to 10th in the world (ELO agrees, now rating the South Koreans #16). With that said, South Korea’s rating is extremely volatile because they just haven’t played that many matches against high-quality opponents and so if they’re underwhelming against Nigeria or Argentina their rating will fall nearly as quickly as it rose. But whereas before it appeared as though Nigeria could somewhat afford an opening loss to Argentina, now things will be much trickier for them.
Group C: There’s a pretty clear decision-rule here: if the USA either beats Slovenia, or draws with Slovena and beats Algeria, they’re very likely to advance. Otherwise, they’re very unlikely to, although there are wild card scenarios which could come into play if England starts to lose some matches that it shouldn’t. Not that Slovenia ought to be anything in particular to fear; Algeria is one of the worst sides in the tournament and Slovenia only beat them after Abdelkader Ghezzal was dismissed and then only on a soft goal.
Pretty much the same decision rule applies for England, by the way, although there’s been a bit too much consternation in the tabloids over their draw to the Americans. Had Robert Green not allowed that goal to trickle in, I don’t think anyone would particularly accuse them of having played a poor match.
Group D: Germany’s 4-0 win against Australia was one of the few matches I didn’t watch, but the scoreline somewhat speaks for itself. Again, it’s the more physical teams, and the more technical teams, that seem to be thriving amidst the altitude changes, the vuvuzelas, and the Jabulani, whereas the prettier, more finesse sides seem to be somewhat disoriented. And German soccer is a lot of things, but it isn’t pretty.
I thought the Serbia-Ghana match was one of the more attractive of the tournament so far, although it helps that both teams have such sharp-looking kits. Really, there’s a lot of talent in this group – obviously excluding Australia. But it’s simply going to be very hard for Serbia to qualify with two teams already having accumulated three points ahead of them.
Group E. We have the Netherlands only narrowly behind Brazil with a 14 percent chance to win the entire tournament versus 16 percent for the Seleção (Holland were briefly ahead of Brazil, in fact, but the advantage reversed itself once we ran a few more simulations and increased the sample size). They’re almost certain to qualify, at least, out of a middling group, and their relatively versatile style could be advantageous under the somewhat varied playing conditions of the tournament.
This has been a somewhat disappointing tournament for the African teams as a whole, but Cameroon was the only one to have lost a match that they were distinct favorites in. Like Serbia in Group D, they’re not without talent, but are simply going to find it very difficult to qualify in a group where two teams already have three points – and with their match against the Netherlands yet to come. Denmark, in fact, is better placed to take advantage should Japan’s win against Cameroon prove to be a fluke.
Group F. This is a pretty terrible group; I say that it should concede one of its qualifying positions to Group D or Group G, although I don’t think FIFA will go for that. Everyone now seems to agree with what SPI thought going in, which is that the Italian side – a mix of players who are too old or too young – is in something of a rebuilding phase and not obviously stronger than the Paraguayans. Still, the Italians are perfectly well positioned to advance in this marginal group, and it behooves them to work on their goal differential so that they can top the group and avoid Holland in the Round of 16.
Group G. Mixed feelings here about Brazil. I only saw the second half of their match against North Korea, and in the second half, Brazil still looked very much like Brazil, in spite of having conceded a late goal. And there’s really no way to calibrate our estimate of how strong North Korea is since they’re so isolated from the rest of the football world; perhaps they were busing in not just fans but also players from China? Just kidding – I think. Still, let’s not make too many excuses for Brazil; this is a match that, by SPI’s reckoning, they should have won 3-0 or 4-1.
The consensus seems to be that Ivory Coast looked the stronger of the two sides in the draw against Portugal and I wouldn’t disagree. I thought Alexi Lalas made an excellent point too, which is that they’re bigger and more physical than Portugal and that ought to create more of a mismatch against North Korea – which could be critical since the second qualifying position could easily come down to goal differential. With that said, Brazil still have about a 15 percent chance of failing to advance and themselves could be vulnerable in a tiebreaker scenario after only having beat North Korea by one goal.
Group H. Chile were certainly impressive in a match that could easily have been 3-0 or even 4-0 had their finishing been better. Still – although SPI thought very highly of the Chileans heading into the tournament – it’s hard to tell how much of that is Chile being really good versus Honduras being really awful. The interesting thing will be to see if Chile adopt a more conservative style now that draws against Switzerland or Spain would suit them just fine. I tend to think they shouldn’t – first, because in a short tournament, you stick with what works, and second, because there’s a big advantage to finishing first in this group and avoiding Brazil in the knockout stages.
But let’s not bury the lede here, which was Spain’s loss to Switzerland – easily the most compelling result of the tournament to date. Spain had so many near-misses that it’s hard to regard them as not having been a bit unlucky. At the same time Switzerland, for as well as they played, was not exactly burning up the pitch qualifying out of a very weak UEFA group. But this is all academic, really: in a three-match group stage, any loss is devastating whether it’s deserved or fluky, and Spain now have barely better than even odds of advancing.