Michelle Kaufman: World Cup group winner predictions

Now that the world has had some time to digest the World Cup draw, the celebrating and whining are slowing down, and we can spend the next six months speculating about who will advance and who will go home early.

No question the United States has perhaps the toughest lot of all —three-time champion Germany, Portugal with megastar Cristiano Ronaldo, and nemesis Ghana, which has eliminated the U.S. from the past two World Cups.

A South American team has won each of the previous four times the World Cup was held on that continent, and the way things lined up, it could happen again. Argentina and Colombia got seemingly easy paths to the knockout rounds. Brazil looks like a lock, too.

The groups with Belgium and Switzerland as the top seeds appear the softest.

Here’s how I see it …

• Group A:

Brazil — The host nation is a heavy favorite to win it all, having made a major statement by winning the Confederations Cup final 3-0 over defending World Cup champion Spain. The Brazilians will come under intense pressure, but barring a shocker, they will advance as the top team from this group.

Croatia — Luka Modric is a bright light on a team that hasn’t won a World Cup match since 1998. The Croatians needed a playoff to qualify, and haven’t looked strong, but they may be stronger than Mexico or Cameroon.

Mexico — The one-time CONCACAF power took a nosedive over the past year, and was on the brink of elimination before squeaking in with a playoff win over New Zealand. Look for Mexico and Croatia to battle for the second spot.

Cameroon — Always a fun team to watch with very spirited fans, but the lowest-ranked of the African nations at No. 51, and probably not likely to advance.

Likeliest to Advance: Brazil and Croatia

• Group B:

Spain — The defending World Cup champions open against 2010 runner-up Netherlands in what should be a spicy rematch. Though the Spaniards are not quite as dominant as they were four years ago, their roster is a who’s-who of La Liga and they should go deep.

Netherlands – This was the unseeded European team nobody wanted to face. The Dutch and Spaniards are the favorites in this group. The Netherlands scored 34 goals while rolling through their qualifying campaign.

Chile – Struggled early in qualifying, but had five wins and a tie in its final six matches. The Chileans advanced to the knockout stage four years ago, are playing on their home continent, and have enough talent to pull an upset.

Australia – One of the weaker teams in the draw, rebuilding under new coach Ange Postecoglou. Hard to imagine the Aussies will finish any higher than fourth in this tough group.

Likeliest to Advance: Spain and Netherlands

• Group C:

Colombia — “Los Cafeteros’’ did not qualify for the past three World Cups, but they are red-hot and ranked No. 4 in the world entering this one. Leading the way is international star Radamel Falcao. Colombia finished second in South American qualifying behind Argentina, and is very capable of winning this weak group.

Greece — Beat Romania in a qualifying playoff, but unlikely to advance past the opening round.

Ivory Coast — Didier Drogba’s last hurrah could be enough to inspire the Elephants to make a mark.

Japan — Has steadily improved over the past 10 years, reached the final 16 in 2010, and has some good players in Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa.

Likeliest to Advance: Colombia and Japan

• Group D:

Uruguay — Reached the semis four years ago, and have attacking trio of Diego Forlan, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. But they had trouble during qualifying this time around.

Costa Rica — Plays great at home, but could have trouble on the world’s biggest stage.

England – As usual, English fans are hand-wringing over their team, saying they have low expectations, but will then be furious if the team doesn’t advance.

Italy — Won in 2006, played terribly in 2010, but they’re back and strong as ever. They beat England on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals of the 2012 European championships.

Likeliest to Advance: Uruguay and Italy. Uruguay, Italy and England have won seven World Cups between them. Other than the U.S. group, this one is the other Group of Death.

• Group E:

Switzerland — Considered the weakest seeded team, but qualified easily and is motivated to prove it is better than people think.

Ecuador — Finished fourth in South American qualifying, but didn’t win a single game on the road.

France — Who can forget the French meltdown at the 2010 World Cup? The team went on strike in South Africa and embarrassed itself. This time, France needed a playoff to get in, and won over Ukraine. There is enough talent on this team to go far.

Honduras — Has reached two previous World Cups, but still seeking its first win. The game against Ecuador will be huge.

Likeliest to Advance: Switzerland and France

• Group F:

Argentina — Lionel Messi wants to prove once and for all that he can win a title in his national team jersey. He leads an all-star team that won the South American qualifying round and surely will advance from this cupcake group. The Argentines are seeking a third title, and being so close to home should help.

Bosnia-Herzegovina — The only newcomer in the 32-strong field, scored 30 goals in qualifying.

Iran — Managed just one point from three games in 2006 and failed to qualify in 2010.

Nigeria — Always talented, always dangerous. Won the African region.

Likeliest to Advance: Argentina and Nigeria.

• Group G:

Germany — Finished third in 2006 and 2010, and one of the strongest most disciplined squads in the tournament. One of the favorites to win it all.

Ghana — Knocked out the U.S. in 2006 and 2010, and came oh-so-close to reaching the semis in South Africa.

United States — Very tough draw for the Americans, who have to travel 8,800 miles, more than any team in the tournament. Ghana is their nemesis. Germany is Germany, though playing them third better than first, and nobody knows the Germans better than U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who played for his native country and coached Germany in the 2006 World Cup. The Americans, accustomed to heat and humidity, might have an edge in the jungle against Portugal.

Portugal — Cristiano Ronaldo single-handedly won the playoff to get his team here, but he may not be enough.

Likeliest to Advance: Germany and Ghana

• Group H:

Belgium — A dark horse to go very deep, even before being gifted this seemingly easy draw. The Belgians’ “Golden Generation” of players is reminiscent of the Spanish team of four years ago. Loads of talent, much of it playing in the big leagues. But they’ve never won on the big stage.

Russia — Finished first in a tough qualifying group that included Portugal and Sweden, so not to be underestimated.

Algeria — One of the tournament’s weakest teams. Not much hope.

South Korea — Had trouble qualifying, but in this group, could get a few points.

Likeliest to Advance: Belgium and Russia.