World Cup Group A preview
In his second stint as manager, Javier Aguirre could lead El Tri to the quarterfinals
France has been in poor form but its goalkeeper, Hugo Lloris, is outstanding
Uruguay has a lethal forward tandem in Luis Suarez and Diego Forlan
Projected order of finish in Group A:
1. Mexico -- In his second spell as national coach, Javier Aguirre has cleared up the mess left by predecessor Sven-Goran Eriksson and guided Mexico to five straight wins to get El Tri to South Africa. His big call was to bring back forward Cuauhtemoc Blanco, 37, whose crucial qualifying goals have assured his place in the side.
Youth is provided by Giovani dos Santos, Efrain Juarez and Carlos Vela -- all were part of Mexico's 2005 U-17 World Cup-winning side -- while Manchester United's new signing, Javier Hernandez, could be used as an impact sub. In the last four editions, Mexico has reached the last 16 but no further. The goal is to at least equal its best-ever quarterfinal finish of 1986, back when Aguirre was playing in the side.
2. Uruguay -- Oscar Tabarez was coach when Uruguay won its last World Cup match, a 1-0 victory over South Korea in 1990, and he is back in charge as the World Cup's first ever winners (back in 1930) look to improve on a record of one victory in their last 14 matches in the competition.
Goals should not be a problem as the forward line of Luis Suarez and Diego Forlan is coveted by most of Europe's biggest clubs. The problem, though, is the lack of an obvious playmaker to create chances for the prolific duo: highly-rated Nicolas Lodeiro, 20, might take on that role, as Porto's Cristian Rodriguez has been omitted due to a two-match suspension. Success could depend on the team's mentality: it failed to beat Venezuela, Ecuador and Costa Rica at home during qualifying and will hope nerves don't get the better of it in South Africa.
3. France -- The problems have not stopped for coach Raymond Domenech since Les Bleus' playoff win over Ireland last November. He still has no obvious central defensive partner for William Gallas (at the moment converted left back Eric Abidal plays there) while off-field issues have distracted the preparations of Franck Ribery and Thierry Henry.
The absence of Patrick Vieira from the 30-man long-list was decisive as soon as Lassana Diarra had to drop out. His place will now go to Abou Diaby, set to be preferred to Alou Diarra, but the lack of leaders in the squad is clear. The players would rather play a 4-4-2 formation with Henry partnering Nicolas Anelka in attack, but Domenech has so far preferred a 4-2-3-1. That might become a major issue if France struggles in the opener against Uruguay.
4. South Africa -- Coach Carlos Alberto Parreira has spent three months with the host nationšs home-based players working on formations, style of play and the importance of keeping shape and possession. His fear is that the team could be bullied if its games turn into physical confrontations.
The biggest decision is where to start his best player, Steven Pienaar: when he starts out wide in a 4-4-2, he drifts out of games, so hešs more likely to play in the hole behind forward Katlego Mphela. With a solid defense and no shortage of holding midfielders, Parreira is more worried about scoring than conceding: but his natural caution may limit the opportunities for Bafana Bafana's secret weapon, in-form winger Siphiwe Tshabalala.
2010 World Cup
1. Hugo Lloris -- France's Goalkeeper of the Year for the past two seasons, Lloris is one of the few French players coming into the World Cup on the back of a great season. He was decisive in France's playoff success over Ireland and helped Lyon reach the Champions League semifinals for the first time. "He always forces the striker to do more," Claude Puel, his coach at Lyon, told SI.com. "The whole of the penalty area is his domain, it reminds me of Fabien Barthez at his best."
2. Luis Suarez -- Not many managed to score more league goals than Lionel Messi last season, but Suarez, the latest striker rewriting the records at Ajax, did just that with 35 strikes in 33 appearances for the Dutch runners-up (and another 14 in 15 in other competitions). What's even more impressive is that Suarez managed this playing behind center forward Marko Pantelic. His partnership with Uruguay No. 9 Forlan is just as impressive, with the pair scoring a combined 12 in qualifying.
Suarez moved to Holland four years ago and after outshining Klass-Jan Huntelaar and Miralem Sulejmani at Ajax, is now ready for the next step up. "He is unpredictable and hard to influence, but that makes him special too," his former Ajax boss Marco van Basten told Dutch reporters.
3. Tsepo Masilela -- The speedy left back made his South Africa debut before even signing a professional contract, and after one year at Benoni Premier United, he moved to Maccabi Haifa, where he has spent the last three seasons. Now 25, he is reliable in defense and superb going forward, earning comparisons with a well-known former Brazilian fullback. "He could be as good as Roberto Carlos," Pienaar told FourFourTwo magazine. "He's a complete defender, quick, physical and good enough to play in one of Europešs top leagues."
4. Giovani dos Santos -- While the returning Blanco may hog all the headlines, it's Dos Santos, at 20 almost half the veteran's age, who is central to Mexicošs goal threat. He showed his value in last summer's Gold Cup success, scoring in wins over Haiti and USA, while he scored another and set up two more in the vital qualifying win over Costa Rica. Fast, skilful, and able to draw fouls in key areas, he spent the last six months on loan at Galatasaray under his former Barcelona coach Frank Rijkaard. Tottenham Hotspur appear uninterested in keeping him, so his performances in South Africa could determine the next chapter in his career.
The key match will be between France and Uruguay on June 11. France has started the last two tournaments slowly, failing to win either of its first two games. A defeat could magnify tensions already in the camp and leave Uruguay, who plays South Africa next, in pole position. Although the host is confident of qualifying, it would do well to do so in a group that could provide the first big-name European casualty.
Ben Lyttleton has written about French football for various publications. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.