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World Cup Group G preview

Projected order of finish:

1. Brazil -- Dunga is not a popular figure in Brazil, where his team is considered too workmanlike for the Selecao tradition. But you can't argue with one defeat in two years, not to mention a Confederations Cup win and qualifying on top in South America. Brazil is no longer a collection of stars; it's a team, and it has one of the most awe-inspiring defenses -- yes, defenses -- protecting its interests. Goalkeeper Julio Cesar is at the top of his game, with Internazionale's Lucio and Roma's Juan in front of him. Gilberto Silva and FelipeMelo aren't spectacular individuals, but together they expertly marshal the middle of the park. There's no shortage of skill elsewhere -- Brazil will be dangerous on the counterattack and it remains the set-piece grandmasters.

2. Portugal -- Carlos Quieroz isn't terribly popular for picking newly naturalized Liedson up front, but its an acknowledgement by the coach that Portugal doesn't always take its chances; Liedson adds teeth to the attack and allows Cristiano Ronaldo to play wider, where he tends to be more effective. Defensively, Portugal is strong thanks to central pair Ricardo Carvalho and Bruno Alves, and though it plays 4-3-3, the fullbacks tend to hold back. Portugal had to go to a playoff against Bosnia and Herzegovina to get here, and has recently been held to a goalless draw by Cape Verde Islands, ranked 114th in the world. But it still has players of enough individual quality -- Ronaldo, Nani, Simao -- to create something out of a less dazzling team performance.

3. Ivory Coast -- Manager Sven-Goran Eriksson announced his squad by saying: "It's not enough to hope Drogba will go out and score some goals." But Ivory Coast's results bear a strong correlation to Didier Drogba's form, and even if his elbow injury doesn't prevent him from playing, it could well mute his influence. Which is a shame, because there was virtually just a coin toss between Eriksson's men and Portugal for second. Ivory Coast has a strong spine, held together by the excellent Yaya Toure in central midfield. Its habitual 4-3-3 will shift to 4-4-1-1 against Brazil and Portugal, but without a natural playmaker, it relies on Drogba at the tip. Pacy alternatives Gervinho, Seydou Doumbia and Aruna Dindane won't offer Salomon Kalou or the rest of the team a similar target.

4. North Korea -- Playing in the finals for the first time since 1966, not only has North Korea been drawn in GOD2010"!, but its preparations have been hit by food poisoning, an earthquake, bad light and failure to qualify for the East Asian Championship. Coach Kim Jong-hun's cunning ploy to smuggle an extra striker to South Africa disguised as a goalkeeper hasn't paid off either -- FIFA ruled that striker Kim Myong-won can only play in goal if he sees the field. His charges have a strong team ethic and are well-organized enough to stick to their defensive game (since he took over two years ago, they've typically gone 5-3-2). But it would be incredible for that to be enough to overcome the rest of this group -- he 1966 team, which made it to a 5-3 quarterfinal loss with Portugal, was far more adventurous.

1. Lucio, Brazil -- Forget the grandstanding of players like Ronaldinho (Dunga has), captain Lucio is what makes Brazil tick. In the last few years he has become almost faultless, tackling with cast-iron commitment -- and with such careful precision that in Germany in 2006, he played 386 minutes before conceding a foul. Bayern Munich coach Louis van Gaal offloaded him last summer, jittery about Lucio's willingness to race out of defense with the ball. But it's that confidence on the ball that helps Brazil break out so swiftly. The fact that he can strike a dead ball so sweetly makes him an asset in the final third, too.

2. Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal -- Ronaldo hasn't really brought his club form to the international party too often, but he insists he's saving himself for the main event and was certainly key to Portugal's progression to the semifinals last time around. The Real Madrid winger has everything you would want from an attacking player: dizzying pace, the ball skills of a freestyler, strength in the air; as well as being a fierce striker of the ball, he also has the goalmouth-poaching skills of a more traditional center forward. He creates space for teammates by attracting two or three opponents when bearing down on goal, and he'll usually beat them.

3. Yaya Toure, Ivory Coast -- In reality, there's not a great deal to choose between Toure and his central midfield colleague, Didier Zokora. They're both tough tacklers who do a fine job of protecting center backs Kolo Toure and Sol Bamba, who have an intermittent propensity for the shambolic. But there's such an aura of calm around the younger Toure, and such an eye for a well-placed forward ball, that he's important to what the Ivorians are capable of creating from midfield. Toure has been linked to a move to big-spending EPL side Manchester City, and Barcelona insists Toure is worth a similar sum to Spanish midfielder Cesc Fabregas.

4. Jong Tae-se, North Korea -- Nicknamed "the People's Rooney" for his burly appearance, run-all-day-long commitment and missile-esque strikes, Jong actually reckons he's more like Drogba. Even if he's half right, North Korea could give the group a bit more trouble than it expects. He plays a more isolated game for North Korea than at Kawasaki Frontale, up front ahead of attacking engine Hong Yong-jo, but his neat ball control and turn of pace enables him to create chances and he's not scared to shoot. With 14 goals in his first 20 appearances, he will at least hope to see his name up in lights this month.

Knowing that World Cup predictions can only ever come back to haunt you, let's nonetheless say with some confidence that North Korea doesn't stand a chance without some serious divine intervention. As for the rest, the clash between Ivory Coast and Portugal on June 15 will do much to decide the outcome, since Brazil looks in fine enough fettle to merit the favorite tag.

Eriksson has said the match will be "like a final," though it takes on a rather different complexion if Drogba cannot play. Despite looking rather impotent at times in qualifying, Portugal will see this as a chance to stake an early claim on second place. Ivory Coast will feel able to contain the Portuguese for the most part, but may have a harder time penetrating their defense without Drogba to bruise and buffet it into mistakes.

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