What the experts say: Groups E & F

CBC Sports commentators Nigel Reed and Jason de Vos, and CBCSports.ca soccer reporter John F. Molinaro offer their analysis and predictions for Groups E and F.

CBC Sports commentators Nigel Reed and Jason de Vos, and CBCSports.ca soccer reporter John F. Molinaro offer their analysis and predictions for the 2010 World Cup, focusing on Groups E and F.

Group E

Nigel Reed: If Euro 2008 is any guide, the Netherlands will win this section at a canter. The Dutch ooze class all over the field so the real debate is which nation will advance as group runners-up.  

The Dutch flew out of the blocks at the European championships and there's every reason to expect another impressive start at the World Cup. Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Dirk Kuyt can all create and score, and I expect them to live up to their collective star billing.  

Cameroon and Denmark will battle for the second qualifying berth. Samuel Eto'o carries the Africans' hopes and the new skipper will need to reprise his Champions League form for his nation. The Song brothers should give Eto'o a solid platform from which to work.  

The Danes could be one of the surprise packages. The weather conditions should certainly suit them if they can keep everyone fit. Nicklas Bendtner and Jon Dahl Tomasson have both been struggling with injuries and a tough opener against Holland could set the tone.  

Japan is one of Asia's heavyweights, but not at this level. Four years ago, the Japanese struck out in the group stages with just a single point from their three games. The retirement of the iconic Hidetoshi Nakata does nothing to help the cause. Another winless World Cup probably awaits.

Prediction: 1. Netherlands 2. Cameroon 3. Denmark 4. Japan

Jason de Vos: Cameroon legend Roger Milla chose an inopportune time to criticize his country's best player, Samuel Eto'o. Suggesting that Eto'o has yet to succeed in Cameroon's colours is an insult to the man who carries the hopes of an entire nation on his shoulders. 

If Cameroon has any chance of advancing out of Group E, it will be due to the contribution of Eto'o. Always a threat in front of goal, Eto'o is coming of an excellent season with Inter Milan, having won an Italian league title, the Italian Cup and the UEFA Champions League. Leading Cameroon through to the knockout stage would cap it all off. 

Denmark should not be overlooked, despite the fact that they have no one in their ranks with the ability of Eto'o. The Danes won a difficult qualifying group, finishing ahead of Sweden and Portugal to take top spot. Rather than relying on individual brilliance, the Danes can count on a strong work ethic and team unity to get them results.

Japan will be hoping for a better tournament in 2010 than the one they had in 2006, where they left the World Cup at the first hurdle after picking up just one point from the group stage. Theirs is a resolute and workmanlike side, and they will be relying on their speed and quickness on the counterattack to generate chances. I fear that the lack of a proven goal scorer could see them suffer the same fate as in 2006.

The Netherlands are my outside bet to win the tournament. They play beautiful football — passing and moving with ease — and coming into the tournament, there isn't a team in the world who is in better form. Much depends on the fitness of Arjen Robben, who tweaked a hamstring in Holland's final warmup game. If Robben is passed fit, I fancy the Dutch to go far in the tournament, perhaps all the way to the final.

Prediction: 1. Netherlands 2. Denmark 3. Cameroon 4. Japan

John F. Molinaro: As in past World Cups, this is a talented Dutch side, especially in midfield where they have a diverse collection of players, including Arjen Robben. They showed great team unity during the qualifiers, proving they can play as a collective unit, unlike in the past. The Dutch should easily top this group.

The Danes will surprise a lot of people in South Africa, just as they did in the European qualifiers. Coach Morten Olsen has this team running at peak efficiency and with such a talented crop of players at his disposal, the Danes should claim second place.

Cameroon has enough quality players in its starting lineup to give any team trouble and progress out of the group stage. But the Indomitable Lions lack depth, and they rely too much on Samuel Eto'o. That could be their undoing in South Africa.

It's hard to imagine the Japanese being able to advance to the second round. A trio of tough opponents in Group E means the Asian powerhouse will have to fight for everything it earns. Japan simply can't compete with teams the calibre of the Netherlands and Denmark, and even Cameroon will prove a stern obstacle.

Prediction: 1. Netherlands 2. Denmark 3. Cameroon 4. Japan

Group F

Reed: The defending champions may not be the force they once were, but Italy remains favourite to top the group. With a favourable draw, anything less will be seen as failure in the eyes of the Azzurri.  

Marcello Lippi's roster is, by and large, four years older and, in some cases four years slower than the Cup-winning team of 2006. The Italians are always slow starters and underachieved at the Confederations Cup. In this tournament, with these opponents, it's a different matter.  

Paraguay provides the first test for Italy and the South Americans will fancy their chances of reaching the last 16. The South Americans beat Argentina in the qualifying process and, in the absence of Salvador Cabanas, they will look to Roque Santa Cruz to provide the goals.  

It's tough to see the other teams in this group making an impression. Slovakia battled all the way to reach its first finals and though I expect them to be well-organized, scoring enough goals must be a concern. On the plus side, Martin Skrtel should have recovered from an ankle injury.  

The Slovaks will certainly expect to win their opening game against New Zealand. So will all the others teams in Group F. The Kiwis coach, Ricki Herbert, has warned his opponents against complacency but, in reality, New Zealand is out of its depth and it will show. 

Prediction: 1. Italy 2. Paraguay 3. Slovakia 4. New Zealand

De Vos: Despite being the defending champions, Italy has been less than convincing leading up to the World Cup. Some bizarre exclusions — including striker Giuseppe Rossi — by head coach Marcelo Lippi leave Italy looking a bit lightweight on the bench. Normally extremely strong defensively, the Azzurri have looked less than reliable in their tuneup games for South Africa. It might not hurt them in the group stage, but it will hamper their progress further into the tournament if they do not grow as a defensive unit.

New Zealand has had some tremendous results going into South Africa, not least of which was a morale-boosting 1-0 victory over Serbia. I have a soft spot for the Kiwis, as my former Ipswich teammate Tommy Smith will hopefully be lining up for them at the back. He will need the guidance of skipper Ryan Nelson beside him, as I expect New Zealand to come under a considerable amount of pressure in their three games.

Paraguay looks most likely to challenge Italy for top spot in Group F, having finished third in qualifying in South America — no mean feat. Roque Santa Cruz is coming off an injury-riddled season for Manchester City in the English Premier League, and he will need to recapture his goal-scoring form if he is to lead Paraguay into the knockout stage. The loss of Salvador Cabanas, still recovering from a gunshot wound, is a blow to Paraguay, so Nelson Valdez will also be relied upon to fire the goals.

Slovakia is taking part in its first World Cup, and it will rely heavily on its star players: Marek Hamsik in midfield, Martin Skrtel in defence and Stanislav Sestak up front. If those players are on form, they will give Slovakia a platform from which to build on. Winning the group outright is asking too much, but Slovakia could pip Paraguay for second spot in the group.

Prediction: 1. Italy 2. Paraguay 3. Slovakia 4. New Zealand

Molinaro: It would be foolish to write off the reigning world champions, like so many critics are, because the Italians have proved in the past that they are masters of grinding out results and winning it all when little is expected of them. Traditional slow starters at the World Cup, the Azzurri should win this group.

Paraguay boasts a miserly defence and in Gerardo Martino, the team has a coach who always manages to get the best out of his players. But the team's well-known struggles to score goals is a big problem, and Paraguay will be in big trouble if it finds itself trailing in a match and in need of a goal.

On paper, the Slovaks have enough to edge past the South Americans, but Paraguay is coming off an impressive qualifying campaign and has been here before. Slovakia is set to make its World Cup debut and lacks major tournament experience. It could be that the occasion may be too much for it to handle.

Let's be honest: New Zealand doesn't deserve to be at the World Cup. The All Whites only won the Oceania qualifying section because historical rival Australia now competes in Asia. The Kiwis lack quality players and have a serious depth problem, as evidenced by their dismal showing at last year's Confederations Cup. Anything other than a last-place finish in Group F would be a miracle.

Prediction: 1. Italy 2. Parguay 3. Slovakia 4. New Zealand