Predicted order of finish:
1. England -- Group favorite, England is in South Africa amid the usual hype and expectation, fuelled by the winter weather over there and the Capello-effect. Under Fabio Capello, a 4-2-3-1 formation has seen England better organized and, largely, brought the best out of a talented midfield that had previously proved difficult to combine effectively. On a good day, England is a high-tempo outfit, pressing to win the ball and getting it forward fast. But the exclusion of Theo Walcott, and less surprisingly Adam Johnson and Scott Parker, robs the midfield of pace and bite, and on a bad day, the more established midfielders can look like they've never met. A major rethink will be necessary if England fails to reach the knockout stages, however.
2. USA --Bob Bradley's gone largely with 4-4-2 during qualifying, and shows no signs of changing, but 4-2-3-1 would arguably afford his best players room to show what they can do -- like England, the U.S. looks better on the front foot. The U.S. has no breath-taking strikers, but the midfield has stamina and some very nice players of the ball. With a bit of momentum behind it, the team is capable of silky-one touch football that allows it to counter-attack dangerously and midfielders Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan are a dangros tandem. On losing that momentum, however, the U.S. can lose cohesion, and looks vulnerable to counter-attacks itself. Consistency isn't a term that can easily be applied to the U.S.' performances and results, but it will be determined to live up to its Round of 16 billing this time.
3. Slovenia --Matjaz Kek's side qualified in impressive fashion, defeating Russia in the playoffs, and is probably the only team in the group with a settled starting XI that hasn't been forced on the coach by injuries. Slovenia does the simple things well, stays organized and is tirelessly competitive. There's a lot of movement in the 4-4-2, with attacking fullbacks Miso Brecko and Bojan Jokic and fluid central midfield pair Robert Koren and Aleksander Radosavljevic. Throw in a seriously robust defense and an excellent goalkeeper, Samir Handanovic, and you have yourself the makings of a second-spot contender. However, the creative sparks tend to come from younger players like Rene Krhin (20) and Nejc Pecnik (24), who'll need to keep their heads on the big stage.
4. Algeria -- The designated passionate no-hoper, Algeria is actually inconsistent enough to cause trouble in the group, even if it doesn't escape itself. Algeria is just as capable of being turned inside out by Malawi as it is of doing the same to Egypt, arguably one of the strongest African teams ever. In a straightforward 4-4-2, Rabah Saadane's side looks pacy on the counter-attack, with one or two nippy midfielders. The frontline isn't spectacular though, 35-year-old Rafik Saifi remains its most gifted member and the main threat will come at set pieces. The big test for the Algerians may be endurance -- a considerable chunk of its likely starters haven't racked up too many minutes this season, so the last half hour of games (when they've also been known to lose discipline) will be crucial.
1. Wayne Rooney, England -- There was almost a day of national mourning after Rooney limped out of Manchester United's Champions League campaign; looking back at England's recent history on the world and European stages, England's reliance on the striker is evident. Rooney's application and endeavor lift drooping heads, and he wants to give the opposition defense trouble at every opportunity, even when his teammates have given up. As a goal scorer, he's come into his own this season, drifting around the middle to devastating effect. In addition to his trademark vision in the final third, Rooney now boasts the instincts of a predator in the six-yard box and has developed a much-talked about knack for heading the ball goalward, too. Capello's choice of strikers suggests he has thoughts for one thing: feeding Rooney.
2. Landon Donovan, U.S. -- The names on the U.S. roster are becoming increasingly familiar across the globe, but Landon Donovan remains a class above his teammates. Combining pace, stamina and incisive movement, he's an all-rounder who's already proved he can maintain his high standards in the rough and tumble of Everton's Premiership season. Donovan can sometimes look uncomfortable with his talisman tag, but he remains a terrific foil for the power of Jozy Altidore, and links the front and midfield to good effect. Counter-attack is the U.S. team's best weapon and in Donovan they have the man to do damage to even the best teams -- as his goal against Brazil in the Confederations Cup final testifies.
3. Valter Birsa, Slovenia -- There's a lot to like about 23-year-old Birsa who, having struggled up front for Sochaux in France, has been in impressive form since being switched to midfield, where he now plays for Auxerre. With a left-foot for aesthetes everywhere to appreciate, Birsa tends to play on the right for Slovenia, as an inside-out winger who can drive towards the goalline and launch an in-swinger. Slovenia has found its best form since he came into the squad, and though it might be stretching things to suggest that's entirely down to Birsa, he's the epitome of a team player, always willing to put in a shift.
4. Karim Ziani, Algeria -- The crafty winger has struggled for pitch minutes at VfL Wolfsburg this season, but was central to Algeria's qualification and will likely drive its best moves in South Africa. Lithe and adroit on the ball, Ziani can try to do too much in possession at times, but is capable of carrying the ball into dangerous areas and has an excellent cross in his arsenal -- used to set up Antar Yahia's winner against Egypt in the playoff that got Algeria here. In addition to forward-thinking distribution, Ziani shows willing when it comes to tracking back and getting tackles in.
There are two potentially decisive encounters in this group. The opening match between England and the U.S. (June 12), a clash between the two favorites to progress, has so much riding on it -- the victor here will be best placed to win the group. Under the weight of massive expectation, England has to win. The U.S. was overwhelmed in its first group game of 2006, going down 3-0 to the Czech Republic having conceded early, but there's no doubting that Bradley's men will be up for the fight here. Having beaten Spain and run Brazil close in Confederations Cup, the U.S. fears no one. England has the edge in most positions, but psychologically the sides are much closer, and neither will want to chase what could easily be a "first goal wins" encounter.
Going on the (reasonable but probably dangerous) assumption that both Slovenia and the U.S. fail to beat England but fare equally well against Algeria, their meeting on June 18 will be the key matchup in the battle for second place. It may even end the tournament prematurely for one of them. Slovenia and the U.S. have never met on a soccer field, but both sides will set themselves out to be difficult to break down, and both have attackers capable of working moments of magic. However, the U.S. should be confident of creating the better chances. If this match can't separate the two, the U.S.' matchup with Algeria in its final group game gains a great deal of meaning.