By David Nikolic, Special to OMC   Published Jun 09, 2006 at 5:05 AM
The World Cup kicks off in less than 48 hours and it looks to be the most competitive group of 32 teams ever assembled.  While there are many nations making their first appearance (African nations, Trinidad and Tobago, Ukraine to name a few), many of the top players in the world are now all playing together year-round in the best leagues in Spain, England, Italy and Germany.  They will have already adapted to weather, the crowds, the refs, unlike anytime in World Cup history.  No South American team has won the World Cup staged in Europe since 1958, when a young Pele took Brazil to the Championship.  

This year could be different.
While I enjoy watching the individual expressions of a Ronaldhino, as a soccer coach, I covet a collaboration of team play in attack, individuals who do well on set pieces, organization without the ball in defense and a tactical presence from the sideline. That is why I look to teams like France, Italy, Argentina, England and maybe Portugal outside of everyone's favorite, Brazil, to make some noise and go deep into the tournament this month.
I am not very good at betting, that is why I don't make many trips to Vegas or even Potowatami for that matter, but they are the teams that I feel will get through after the second week of the tournament.
Group A: Germany is the host and the big name here. With a new coach in Jurgen Klinsmann, an almost fully fit team and the German pedigree they should be through to the second round.  But the home crowd will be expecting great things, and the pressures are intense. But I think that they will prevail.  Poland is the other team that I expect will pull through.  A solid team with good forwards, they will be dangerous on free kicks.  Costa Rica and Ecuador could surprise but I will not be surprised if they do not advance.
Group B: England was one of my choices for a semifinal spot and they still could get there for two reasons: set pieces and a deep bench. Set pieces mean David Beckham. From anywhere in the attacking half, they will be dangerous.  The bench, even with the unknowns of Wayne Rooney, they are covered. Sweden should get through, but watch out for Paraguay and their forward, Santa Cruz. The opening game with England and Paraguay will be pivotal. Trinidad and Tobago will play the role of the spoiler.
Group C: The group of death. I have family heartstrings pulling at me in this group, with the country now known as Serbia and Montenegro now playing together for the last time as a country (those replica jerseys are now collector's items, as my dad told me).  A team that went through qualifying giving up only one goal, Serbia will be tested with the attacking individual brilliance of Argentina, the powerful team spirit of the Dutch and the tactically savvy coaching of Henri Michel for the Ivory Coast. This group is too close to call, but I would like to see Argentina and Serbia come through.
Group D: I saw Portugal live in 2004.  They are individually talented and well organized. What remains to be seen is if they can do something away from their home fans. I believe that they can.  A great coach and a mix of young and old talent should push them to the top of the group.  They remember what happened when they took the USA too lightly and I think that will not happen again.  Mexico and Iran will battle for the next spot.  If Mexico is on, watch out.  They can and have a good chance to get back to the second round and a chance to get a quarterfinal spot. Angola has a nice first-round match up against former colonist Portugal, but I don't see them getting a win here.
Group E: While the bookmakers will say Italy and the Czech Republic are safe bets, don't count out the USA.  I will be cheering for them on Monday as they kick off their bid for another glorious run through the CUP and I have learned to trust coach Arena's hunches with his teams.  I am hoping for Italian and American winners in Round One. The Czechs are good (I saw them, as well, in 2004) and a bit more seasoned from their Euro 2004 run, but Italy is a tournament team that knows how to get the points and advance. Ghana with Michael Essien leading the team could and probably will pull a surprise against one of these three teams.
Group F: Brazil. Brazil. Brazil.  Do we need to say more?  The battle for second place should be between Croatia and Japan.  Both teams did quite well in recent history (Croatia in '98 and Japan in '02).  I have to give the edge to the Croatians, although they are not as strong as they were in the past.  Australia is a dark horse for a couple of reasons.  Their top players have seasoned their game in Europe the past four or five years and they have, in Guus Hiddink, a coach who has won in the World Cup and on the Club level.  Their physical style could pose problems for all three opponents. Watch out for the Socceroos.
Group G. France has great quality in its side and looks like it will be the last run at another World Cup championship for this generation of Les Bleus.  With Henry, Zidane, Vieira and Makelele they have top players in all of the right places. South Korea did well on its home turf last time out and has a good chance of moving on, as does Switzerland.  The Swiss are well organized and will be hard to break. They will look to counter.  Togo is the fourth team and should finish at the bottom.
Group H: Spain has always been an underachiever in the World Cup, but this tournament could be different. The group is set up to their advantage and they also have a group of young players that did well throughout the Champions League. They also have plenty of options in attack and with the great goalkeeper, Casillas from Real Madrid, it will be tough to score on the Spaniards.  Ukraine is my choice for a darkhorse.  Even though they are young and have some injuries, they have a great striker in Shevchenko and their work rate will be among the best.  Tunisia and Saudi Arabia fill out the group, and I am not looking for either team to do damage.
My DVR is set and I have mapped out locations to watch the action.  Enjoy a month of the beautiful game. I know I will.

Editor's note: David Nikolic, the associate head coach of the women's soccer team at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, will provide analysis of the World Cup for