AUSTRALIA: FIFA RANKING 20, ODDS TO WIN 150-1
Australia have matured into a determined, compact side under coach Pim Verbeek. Matured however is the right word. The players are growing old together, and the team is built around a core of veterans from the last World Cup, all of whom are now in their 30s. The green and gold are beginning to look a bit grey.
Verbeek, a journeyman from the Netherlands, opts for a defensive 4-2-3-1 formation that includes Tim Cahill (30), Vince Grella (30), Mark Bresciano (30), Harry Kewell (31), Brett Emerton (31), Lucas Neill (32), Craig Moore (34), Scott Chipperfield (34) and goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer (37).
Verbeek's cautious approach has been criticised by an Australian public spoiled by the more attacking aspect adopted by his predecessor Guus Hiddink. However they cannot argue with the results which saw the Socceroos qualify for South Africa with two games to spare, despite having moved from the easy Oceania group to the tougher Asia section. They have also beaten both the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland away in friendlies, and reached the country's highest ever Fifa ranking of 14th last year.
The criticism has got up the nose of some of Australia's senior players. Kewell, who plays for Galatasaray, said: "People should be backing Australia, giving us credit and building us up. Some seem to want us to fail. We're trying our best to make the nation proud. If critics don't want to support us then don't watch us."
Kewell is likely to be Australia's first-choice forward this summer, playing a new role as the team's lone striker, a risky strategy to say the least given the former Leeds and Liverpool player's questionable record of fitness. Verbeek has few other options in attack however, having sent home Middlesbrough's Scott McDonald for having failed to score in his 16 appearances for the national side.
The lack of firepower places greater importance on Cahill. English defences know all about the Everton man's strength from midfield, and his ability to score vital goals with his head. Cahill will be supported in midfield by Emerton and Bresciano. The alternative is to opt for a target man like Josh Kennedy and play Kewell on the left, but Verbeek seems to prefer using Kennedy as an impact substitute.
Fulham goalkeeper Schwarzer will be expected to repeat the heroics that helped his club reach their first European final last season. However in front of him the defence is in danger of showing its age, with Neill, of Galatasaray, lining up alongside Moore, who is currently without a club.
Midfielder Jason Culina, another veteran from Germany 2006 when Australia finished second in their group behind Brazil and lost in the knockout stages to a late goal from Italy, believes age will count in the Aussies' favour.
"We have been together for a long time and the majority of players have one World Cup behind us, and we have a bit more experience now," Culina said. "Yes we have older legs but we also have older minds. I honestly think we can improve on last time."
Potential second-round match with England will provide all the motivation they need, although they are much more likely to finish propping up Group D.
Previous best Second round (2006). Finished bottom of group stage in 1974 in what was their only previous appearance prior to Germany four years ago.
Killer fact Hold the record for the highest victory in qualifying - beating American Samoa 32-0 in April 2002.
Goalkeepers: Mark Schwarzer (age 37, Fulham, 74), Adam Federici (25, Reading, 1), Brad Jones (28, Middlesbrough, 2). Defenders: Lucas Neill (32, Galatasaray. 55), Craig Moore (34, unattached, 49), Scott Chipperfield (34, Basel, 64), David Carney (26, FC Twente, 25), Luke Wilkshire (28, Dynamo Moscow, 41), Mark Milligan (24, JEF United, 10), Michael Beauchamp (29, Al-Jazira, 21). Midfielders: Tim Cahill (30, Everton, 39), Mark Bresciano (30, Palermo, 54) Vince Grella (30, Blackburn Rovers, 44), Brett Emerton (31, Blackburn Rovers, 72), Jason Culina (29, Gold Coast United, 48), Brett Holman (26, AZ Alkmaar, 31), Carl Valeri (25, Sassuolo, 21), Mile Jedinak (25, Antalyaspor, 11), Richard Garcia (28, Hull City, 6), Dario Vidosic (23, Nuremberg, 6). Forwards: Josh Kennedy (27, Nagoya, 18), Nikita Rukavytsya (22, FC Twente, 3), Harry Kewell (31, Galatasaray, 45).
GERMANY: FIFA RANKING 6, ODDS TO WIN 14/1
Michael Ballack, Germany's injured captain, offered an intriguing insight into the Teutonic psyche recently with his description of participating in the World Cup as "real suffering". Ballack's ruptured ankle ligaments, caused by Kevin-Prince Boateng's brutal tackle in the FA Cup final, has meant the suffering has come early for Ballack. But the injury has also allowed the Chelsea midfielder the opportunity to take a step back and observe Germany's preparations for the World Cup with a sense of perspective.
Ballack recognises, perhaps more personally than any of his fellow countrymen, that Germany's wonderful record of consistently reaching the semi-finals and finals of major tournaments is a guarantee of monumental pressure being placed on every successive generation who pull on the famous white shirts.
"Germany is a nation which must always win," he said. "You really have to suffer to get to the point where the real suffering begins. You are only respected when you win. This is brutal for sportspeople, particularly for youngsters. That will be the case for our lads in South Africa. It's awful for the team when they can only really enjoy the tournament from the semi-finals. Anything else would mean failure. That does push you and motivate you, but it is a merciless game. To start with, the aim is purely to avoid a catastrophe."
Ballack's honest assessment of the minds of the Germany players ahead of the World Cup perhaps goes some way to explaining the nation's remarkable record of competing in the latter stages of competitions with monotonous regularity, while at the same time the rather boring football they play to grind out the results they need. To the Germans the World Cup is business, not fun, and it is often the neutrals who suffer most, having to watch them play.
The German public have good reason to expect great things from their football team, who almost always manage to punch above their weight. Germany have never failed to qualify for the World Cup, and in the 16 tournaments in which they have competed, they have reached the semi-finals a record 11 times, and the final on seven occasions, winning three and losing four. This excellent record has been maintained into the new millennium, finishing runners-up in 2002 and third in 2006. In addition, they were also runners-up to Spain in the 2008 European Championships.
The injury to Ballack is a severe blow to German hopes however. Their captain adopts a defensive role for the national side, a position he occupied for Chelsea during the final month of the club's Double-winning season, and from there he dictates play. He was described as "irreplaceable" by many German pundits in the wake of his injury, and there is no doubt he will be sorely missed, not least by many of the younger players in the side such as the dangerous Mesut Ozil, for whom Ballack has become something of a mentor. In Ballack's absence, the expectation is that Bastian Schweinsteiger will take greater responsibility.
The loss of Ballack has exposed a lack of experience. Only in attack do Germany possess an abundance of players with proven tournament experience, with Miroslav Klose keen to maintain his impressive record, having scored five goals in each of his previous two World Cups. The Bayern Munich forward's total of 48 goals from 94 internationals puts him second in the German all-time scoring chart. Klose is likely to be joined in attack by either Lukas Podolski or Mario Gomez. Leading the posse of younger talents is Ozil, one of the most intriguing German players for some time. The 21-year-old adds youth and flair to Germany's organisation, and earned his place in the team by helping the Under-21s win the European Championships last summer.
Ozil, who is a third-generation Turk, is tall, strong in the dribble and can shoot and pass with unerring accuracy with his left foot. He has been joined in the senior side recently by Marko Marin (21), Jerome Boateng (21) and Thomas Muller (20).
German coach Joachim Low's main headache is the goalkeeping position, following the tragic suicide last year of first-choice Robert Enke. Bayer Leverkusen's Rene Adler was Germany's No 1 until he was ruled out after breaking a rib in May.
It appears likely Low will go for Schalke's Manuel Neuer, 24, who has played only three times for the national side, including a friendly against Ivory Coast last November in which he dropped a clanger that led to a goal. Given that Germany have been put in such a tough group, their relative weakness in goal will give Ghana, Australia and Serbia hope of pulling off a major upset.
The Germans' strength in depth should be enough to see them into the knockout stages. However if they are to reach the semi-finals again they would probably have to beat Argentina in the quarter-finals. Let the suffering begin.
Reaching the final will be beyond them this time – they are seeded to meet Argentina in the quarter-finals, and then either Spain or Italy.
Previous best Winners three times (1954, 1974 & 1990). All three of the country's wins came as West Germany. Unified nation made final in 2002.
Killer fact Have won four out of four penalty shoot-outs in the World Cup. Have also played a joint record number of World Cup games (with Brazil) - 92.
And the fans? Expected to attend in large numbers, decked in their retro national team shirts with their black, red and gold painted on their faces.
Goalkeepers: Manuel Neuer (age 24, Schalke 04, caps 4), Tim Wiese (28, Werder Bremen, 2), Hans-Joerg Butt (36, Bayern Munich, 3). Defenders : Arne Friedrich (31, Hertha Berlin, 71), Per Mertesacker (25, Werder Bremen, 61), Jerome Boateng (21, Hamburg SV, 5), Philipp Lahm (26, Bayern Munich, 64), Serdar Tasci (23, VfB Stuttgart, 11), Marcell Jansen (24, Hamburg SV, 30), Holger Badstuber (21, Bayern Munich, 1), Dennis Aogo (23, Hamburg SV, 2). Midfielders: Sami Khedira (23, VfB Stuttgart, 4), Toni Kroos (20, Bayer Leverkusen, 3), Bastian Schweinsteiger (25, Bayern Munich, 74), Marko Marin (21, Werder Bremen, 8), Mesut Ozil (21, Werder Bremen, 9), Piotr Trochowski (26, Hamburg SV, 31). Strikers: Thomas Mueller (20, Bayern Munich, 1), Miroslav Klose (31, Bayern Munich, 95), Lukas Podolski (24, Cologne, 72), Mario Gomez (33, Bayern Munich, 12), Stefan Kiessling (26, Bayer Leverkusen, 4), Cacau (29, VfB Stuttgart, 7).
GHANA: FIFA RANKING 32, ODDS TO WIN 100-1
Ghana's progress in South Africa will depend on how well they manage to regroup following the loss of Michael Essien, who must sit out the tournament with an injured knee. The silver lining to the cloud that has engulfed Ghana's preparations is that midfield is their strongest area, and they have a host of players who can step in for Essien, although none can match the Chelsea man for inspiration.
Essien drove Ghana to the last 16 in Germany four years ago, but this time around the Black Stars are less reliant on their brightest talent, by design as well as necessity. Essien was also missing from all but one of their games at the Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year, when he picked up the knee injury that has ruled him out of the World Cup. Ghana shrugged off the loss of their talisman by progressing all the way to the final, where they narrowly lost out to Egypt. Most importantly, the side contained eight members of the Ghana Under-20 team, known as the Black Satellites, which last October made history by becoming the first African nation ever to win the Under-20 World Cup.
Ghana's Serbian coach Milovan Rajevac believes he can blend the youthful exuberance and unpredictability with the experienced players who play in the top European leagues into a team capable of winning games at the World Cup. The little-known Rajevac has made Ghana a more pragmatic side than the one that reached the second round four years ago. African teams in the past have been renowned for being wonderful going forward but rather naïve in defence, a weakness that Rajevac is keen to remedy. He said: "In tournaments you have to get results. We have to decide whether we wanted to be entertainers or win our matches."
There was little evidence of this defensive strength however when Ghana lost 4-1 to the Netherlands last Tuesday. In defence Rajevac will use John Mensah of Lyons and John Paintsil of Fulham in the centre, while in midfield he can call on the likes of Champions League winner Sulley Muntari of Internazionale, who has settled his recent differences with the manager, and the veteran Stephen Appiah of Bologna.
Another option is the exciting midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah of Udinese, who was outstanding at the Africa Cup of Nations.
The most tantalising of Ghana's many talents could be 20-year-old Andre "Dede" Ayew, who is the son of the legendary Abedi "Pele" Ayew, the three-time African Footballer of the Year and probably the greatest Ghanaian footballer ever. Dede, who captained the Black Satellites to success at the Under-20 World Cup, has been playing for the Black Stars for the past three years.
Playing in Africa will give Ghana a huge advantage over Serbia and Australia – second place and a probable last-16 clash with England is a real possibility.
Previous best Second round (2006). Pulled out in 1966 and 1982 and failed to qualify for any other Cup before making it to Germany four years ago.
Killer fact Midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng, yet to make an appearance for the Black Stars, has featured for group opponents Germany at age-group level.
And the fans? Ghana can expect plenty of backing as they have more fans travelling than any other African nation (apart from the hosts, of course).
Goalkeepers: Daniel Agyei (age 20, Liberty Professional, caps 2), Stephen Ahorlu (21, Heart of Lions, 0), Richard Kingson (31, Wigan Athletic, 75). Defenders: Lee Addy (24, Bechem Chelsea, 3), Rahim Ayew (22, Zamalek, 15), Samuel Inkoom (20, Basle, 15), John Mensah (27, Sunderland, 62), Jonathan Mensah (19, Udinese, 3), John Paintsil (28, Fulham, 58), Hans Sarpei (33, Bayer Leverkusen, 28), Isaac Vorsah (21, Hoffenheim, 6). Midfielders: Anthony Annan (23, Rosenborg, 38), Stephen Appiah (29, Bologna, 56), Kwadwo Asamoah (21, Udinese, 30), Dede Ayew (20, Arles Avignon, 19), Kevin-Prince Boateng (23, Portsmouth, 0), Sulley Muntari (25, Internazionale, 52), Quincy Owusu Abeyie (24, Al Sadd, 12). Forwards: Dominic Adiyiah (20, Milan, 4), Matthew Amoah (39, NAC Breda, 13), Derek Boateng (27, Getafe, 19), Asamoah Gyan (24, Rennes, 38), Prince Tagoe (23, Hoffenheim, 17).
SERBIA: FIFA RANKING 15, ODDS TO WIN 66-1
Serbia will be competing in their first World Cup as an independent nation but it does not follow that the side will suffer from any lack of experience. Captain Dejan Stankovic of Internazionale will be playing in his third World Cup, for a third different country, having previously represented Yugoslavia in 1998 and Serbia-Montenegro in 2006.
Like Yugoslavian teams of the past, Serbia have plenty of talented individuals in the likes of Stankovic, winger Milos Krasic, Birmingham's new recruit Nikola Zigic, Manchester United's Nemanja Vidic and Chelsea's versatile defender Branislav Ivanovic. This time they have also succeeded in blending those talents into a disciplined team framework, and for that they have to thank coach Raddy Antic.
In England Antic is still fondly remembered for scoring the late winning goal against Manchester City that kept Luton up and sent City down in 1983, prompting Luton manager David Pleat to embark on his now infamous jig of delight on the Maine Road pitch.
However to the rest of the footballing world he is an erudite and experienced coach, one of only two men to have managed both Barcelona and Real Madrid. Antic, 61, came out of retirement to take charge of his homeland in August 2008, replacing Miroslav Djukic just two weeks before Serbia's opening World Cup qualifier against the Faroe Islands.
Antic prefers to play with two strikers in Zigic and Ajax's Marko Pantelic, supported by two creative midfielders Krasic and Milan Jovanovic, who has agreed to join Liverpool this summer.
Antic's overhaul of the side was rewarded when Serbia beat France to automatic qualification. Last week's shock defeat to New Zealand in a friendly will have dispelled any overconfidence.
One of the key factors for Serbia will be if they are capable of maintaining unity for the duration of the tournament. In 2006 Serbia-Montenegro went to Germany with genuine hopes of making the quarter-finals. However it all fell apart amid stories of training ground rows, strange injuries and a bizarre change of tactics.
Antic has also made his players aware of the chance the World Cup represents for Serbia to project a very different image of itself to a global audience that still associates the country with its deposed leader Slobodan Milosevic, the Butcher of the Balkans.
Must hit the ground running against Ghana if they are to reach the last 16. A tall order but achievable.
Previous best n/a.
Killer fact New Birmingham signing Nikola Zigic is the tallest player at the World Cup, standing at 6ft 8in.
Goalkeepers: Vladimir Stojkovic (age 26, Sporting, caps 32), Bojan Isailovic (30, Zaglebie Lubin, 4), Andjelko Djuricic (29, Uniao Leiria, 1). Defenders: Branislav Ivanovic (26, Chelsea, 30), Antonio Rukavina (26, Munich 1860, 20), Nemanja Vidic (28, Manchester United, 45), Neven Subotic (21, Borussia Dortmund, 12), Aleksandar Lukovic (27, Udinese, 20), Ivan Obradovic (21, Zaragoza, 11), Aleksandar Kolarov (24, Lazio, 12). Midfielders: Dejan Stankovic (31, Internazionale, 87), Gojko Kacar (23, Hertha Berlin, 17), Nenad Milijas (27, Wolverhampton Wanderers, 16), Zdravko Kuzmanovic (22, VfB Stuttgart, 27), Radosav Petrovic (21, Partizan Belgrade, 8), Milos Krasic (25, CSKA Moscow, 30), Zoran Tosic (23, Manchester United, 21), Milos Ninkovic (25, Dynamo Kiev, 8), Milan Jovanovic (29, Standard Liege, 25). Forwards: Nikola Zigic (29, Birmingham City, 44), Marko Pantelic (31, Ajax Amsterdam, 31), Danko Lazovic (27, Zenit St. Petersburg, 36), Dragan Mrdja (26, Vojvodina Novi Sad, 5).